Damien Parer is Australia’s most respected war photographer. His ‘‘moment’’ was World War II, when he filmed the experiences of the ordinary soldier close to or in contact with the enemy in North Africa, New Guinea, and the South-West Pacific. He won Australia’s first Academy Award for his Kokoda Front Line, documenting the grim jungle war against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea. Parer grew up during the Great Depression in the milieu of Australian Irish Catholic antiBritish feeling and the ideological struggles in 1930s Europe, becoming a committed Catholic, political liberal, and social egalitarian. Both by temperament and as a keen member of the Catholic Campion Society, Parer was staunchly anticommunist, anti-Nazi, and anti-Fascist, intensely patriotic, and, until he visited what was then Palestine in World War II , anti-Semitic (McDonald, 1994: 42). He was self-taught as a stills photographer, mov-
ing into cinematography as camera operator on the feature films of Australian director Charles Chauvel. Parer not only taught himself professional camera skills such as lighting, aperture setting, and selecting and framing the shot, but-unusual for an Australian professional photographerhe also evolved informed ideas about European
film theory. Parer was a serious intellectual in his approach to film, and he studied foreign films such as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October. Parer also engaged critically with film theory debates of this period. For example, he disagreed with Pudovkin that the single shot and the single word are equivalent, and his main theoretic influence was Vladimir Nilsen’s The Cinema as Graphic Art, which arose from the montage controversies in 1920s revolutionary Russia (McDonald, 1994: 13-14). Parer agreed with Nilsen that technique without purpose was vacuous, and he shared Ruskin’s conviction that ‘‘art is the definition of an idea through a form,’’ a dictum where form and idea coalesce (Brennan, 1994: 47). Parer read avant-garde film journals addressing European and Russian film theory, and he was influenced by John Grierson, whose definition of documentary, ‘‘the creative treatment of actuality,’’ was displayed in Parer’s workroom (McDonald, 1994: 14). He became convinced of the central importance of narrative structuring in film, even in newsreels and stills news photographs. Appointed as an official stills and movie war
photographer in January 1940, Parer had already identified his mission: to apply his skills and theories to recording truths of the Australian soldier at
war and to explain the war and its contexts to the Australian public and the world. At his best when applying the style of the pictorial and still photographers to film (p. 32), he moved resolutely from one theater of war to another, always looking for opportunities to express truth as he saw it with artistry, freshness, and vitality. His training and commitment gave him a sense of compositional discipline and artistic orientation, even during the frequent unnerving moments when he was with troops under fire. He invariably sought a profound honesty and penetration below mere appearances, eschewing wherever possible simulations and reenactments and seeking pictures expressive of an Australian identity and self-definition that would enhance the national culture and self-reliance of what was then a minor British colony. Although there was clearly powerful war propaganda potential in his striking frontline material, Parer scorned what he regarded as the mere surface realities of propaganda footage, insisting on the transcendent value of the truthful pictorial statement. He was adept at filming soldiers-unnoticed by them-at their most intense moments of perception or reaction but would not press them if they were reluctant to be filmed. Filming the soldier’s spontaneous personal responses to his war experiences became an ideal that often drove Parer to position himself out in front of advancing soldiers to capture faces, eyes, and gestures. This insistence on a rear-facing camera position in ‘‘no man’s land’’ led directly to his death in 1944. Although he was a noncombatant, Parer’s sta-
mina, professionalism, and empathy earned him the respect of fighting soldiers wherever he worked. He carried his cumbersome camera gear across the debilitating Kokoda Track in New Guinea, a gruelling system of high ridges, braving knee-deep mud, rain, cold, malaria, tropical ulcer, dysentery, and a host of diseases that drastically reduced in numbers whole fighting battalions. The gloomy jungle was useless for filming, and action shots were restricted to the jungle clearings. With film stock always in short supply, Parer carefully filmed the fighting and suffering around him, editing in camera and selecting his shots sparingly. He was technically proficient enough to maintain his cameras and to improvise when they broke down. Parer’s Papua NewGuinea films were also driven
by his deep concern that, although the Japanese Army was on Australia’s doorstep, the Australian people seemed to lack a sense of urgency about the war and were ignorant about the hardship their soldiers were undergoing in Papua New Guinea.