Looking at life through a lens

Photographer Martin Jacka looking out for wildlife from his front verandah.
Photographer Martin Jacka looking out for wildlife from his front verandah.

Arriving at Martin Jacka’s house in Dunoon, I see he has a box of photographs, newspapers and other memorabilia out on the table. He has been wading through it prior to our conversation about his life as a photographer.

“See that one there,” he says pointing to a picture of a woman holding some kind of marsupial in the palm of her hand, “whenever we needed a good photo story I’d call my contact at the zoo and set something up.”

After nearly 40 years as a professional photographer, primarily for newspapers, there are a lot of stories in that box.

These days Martin can usually be found climbing over farm fences in the early hours of the morning as he tries to capture the local wildlife in the best light.

“It’s taken about two years but everybody in the community knows me now and accepts me. ‘Oh he’s the one with the blue car taking wildlife pictures’. It’s nice,” he says.

Martin spent the last 17 years of his career at The Adelaide Advertiser where he won a stack of awards including the coveted Walkley Award in 1995 for best feature photograph for a shot he called “Off and Running”.

It’s the shot of a jockey who has just fallen off his horse after a jump, but landed in such a way that it looks like he kept on running to try and win the race anyway.

“The whip is in the right place, his knee is in the right place and of course three or four seconds afterwards he fell flat on his face, but the picture at that moment was exactly right and everybody laughs when they see it.”

Martin wasn’t actually working at the time he took the shot, but would often spend his day off taking pictures because that’s what he enjoyed doing.

“I used to have Wednesdays off and knew that Wednesdays in Gawler (a town outside Adelaide) were jump race days and I believed that if you positioned yourself where the main chance (of a fall) was often enough, you’re going to get the picture. So I always went to the last jump where the horses were tired.”

Martin’s interest in photography can be traced back to his first job as a police cadet.

“On one of the desks in the CID office was a photograph of two corks holding up a carving knife (that had been used as a murder weapon). And all the fingerprints and scratch marks and all the blood could be seen and I went ‘Ah – this is photography, I’m going to do that’.”

He applied to go to a photography college in London, where he studied for two years before getting his first professional job on board a P&O cruise ship.

“I went around the world, 20 different countries, but after four months I had about 15 pounds in my pocket. I’d spent all the rest on booze and a good time,” he said with a laugh.

He and his family emigrated to Australia around 1970 and Martin found himself doing spot welding at the Holden factory to make ends meet. He thought he would try his luck getting a job selling photographic equipment and went to see a major department store in Adelaide called John Martins. He asked for directions to the employment office, but fate intervened and he ended up in the wrong place. It ended up being a fortuitous mistake because he’d walked right into the place where they did all of the store’s advertising.

“They said ‘what do you want?’ and I said ‘I’ve come for a job’ and he said ‘we need some help on Saturday, come back then’ and I ended up working there for nearly two years.”

Then followed many years working for suburban newspapers around Adelaide and in Rockhampton, before taking up a job with the Advertiser that had recently been taken over by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited. Within two years Martin was made picture editor and had a staff of about 20 photographers working for him.

“The photographic section were rough as rats and we hated everybody, but it was a very supportive team and we were all good friends,” he said.

He paints a picture of their dark room and office space with rolls of film hanging everywhere, prints sprawled across every surface and where outsiders were definitely not welcome.

“It was a real shit tip, but it was our shit tip,” he said.

Martin said he didn’t get along with the editor, Piers Akerman, and, after a bit of head butting, he went back to taking pictures.

One day he heard a story from another photographer about a racehorse that was swimming with a dolphin at Port Adelaide and went to check it out. He met an old man called Sandy Sanford who lived in a campervan by the river and used to take

racehorses for a swim behind his boat when they needed a workout.

“Sandy said ‘no, no, no the river’s polluted, the dolphin’s left’. But he was just spinning me a yarn so I’d bugger off… But I kept going back and hanging out in his caravan and we got quite friendly and the dolphin came back and I started to take photographs.”

Martin’s photos of an old man and a dog in a tinnie, with a horse and a dolphin swimming beside them, went all over the world and made Billy the dolphin an Adelaide celebrity.

Martin kept going down to the river most mornings before work to take photographs and was approached to do a book. He produced the book Billy the Dolphin as a kid’s story seen through the eyes of a little boy and says he is still getting revenue from it 15 years later.

Billy was an orphan but was soon joined by other dolphins and years later the Rann government declared the Port Adelaide River a dolphin sanctuary.

“What’s happened now is there are giant tourist boats carrying hundreds of people out to see the dolphins every day. It’s a million dollar industry that has started because I didn’t think my photographer mate was telling the truth,” Martin said with a laugh.

About three years ago there was a purging of staff at the Advertiser and Martin was made redundant. Although he was going to have to retire soon to look after his wife Jill, who had cancer, he says they locked him out of the building and it has obviously left a bad taste in his mouth.

“I dislike the way News Limited deals with people. There is no respect or dignity.”

Being forced out of work left Martin in a situation where he didn’t know what to do with himself.

“I’ve got friends who experienced the same thing – they don’t want to play bowls or do any of the normal things you do in retirement… The normal newspaper stuff like fires and floods and sieges, what you get from that kind of work is an adrenalin rush, responding to a police scanner or being surrounded by fire and knowing you could be dead in a minute or two. The adrenalin rush is addictive, so when they make you redundant after 40 years and that sort of excitement is suddenly stopped, it’s life changing,” he said.

About 18 months later Martin’s wife died and there was nothing to keep him in Adelaide so he made the move to Dunoon, where his daughter and her family had recently settled. Since then he has developed a routine where he looks out of his window at first light every morning and, if the sun is shining, he sets off to where to find places where he can see wildlife.

He pulls out some of his recent work. There are images of an old dying koala on the road, magpies fighting with galahs on a pile of macadamia husks, a rainbow lorikeet sitting on a thistle; they are not classically beautiful images, but they represent the rural/suburban landscape where he is taking his shots.

“I saw a rabbit on the way to Rocky Creek Dam the other day and a white hawk up in tree. It tried to drag the rabbit off the road, but the rabbit was too big. That’s good, because that’s a picture nobody else has got. That’s a good day for me.”

As we are talking he is watching the birds flying around his deck and telling me what would make a good shot. He spends hours waiting for certain elements to all come together where the light and the angles are just right.

“Instead of waiting for the gunman to come out of the bank with his gun, you wait for the magpie to attack,” he said.

Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

Brave boy uncovers man's cow sex, child sexual abuse

A beast in the main arena at the 2012 Ekka.

Police praise boy for testimony of man's abuse and sex with a cow

DPI puts Dolphin Marine Magic 'all but out of business'

A battle over seal enclosures at Dolphin Marine Magic threatens the facility's ability to stay open, Coffs Harbour MP Andrew Fraser warns.

DPI crackdown a threat to Dolphin Marine Magic, warns MP

Young hands ensure a strong future for Lismore

PARKING MAD: The new parking restrictions around the Lismore Base Hospital had not been popular.

A promise is a promise and Mayor happy to have followed through.

Local Partners

Brave boy uncovers man's cow sex, child sexual abuse

POLICE have praised a boy whose testimony led to a Coffs Coast man being found guilty of bestiality and multiple child sex offences.

Barry Gibb is coming to Bluesfest 2017

FANS: Barry Gibb talks to a fan next to a cardboard cutout of his young self.

Aged 70, Gibb has re-launched his solo music career with a new album

Declan Kelly and the Rising Sun to shine bright at festival

Declan Kelly & The Rising Sun is one of the headlining acts at this year's festival.

Main stage set to pump with radiant reggae and dub vibes

Paul Capsis brings the nightlife to Tropical Fruits

LUMINOUS: Paul Capsis created a bespoke performance for NORPA's Generator fundraiser back in 2007.

As part of the Tropical Fruits Festival 2016.

Miranda Kerr to wed next year

Supermodel Miranda Kerr

Supermodel and Snapchat founder to wed

What's on the small screen this week

Georgia Love pictured in a scene from The Bachelorette finale.

TWO big reality shows wrap up this week while

Brad Pitt won't file legal response to divorce petition

Brad reportedly refused to send off the paperwork

Azealia Banks won't take legal action against Russell Crowe

Rapper Azealia Banks

Rapper drops legal action against Russell Crowe

Brad Pitt meets with his kids amid divorce proceedings

Actor Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt has met up with his oldest son Maddox

Pictures of Taylor Swift allegedly being groped are sealed

They could "complicate jury selection".

Hit songwriter's Noosa mansion on market

SPECIAL PLACE: The Cintamani estate is going to tender, marketed by Tom Offermann Real Estate.

Is this Queensland's best property?

Kiwi siblings snap up Dotcom mansion for $32.5m

The new toy company owners of the Coatesville mansion want replace any controversy with positivity and fun. Photo / Barfoot and Thompson

The trio paid $32.5 million for the property in June

New $200 million development will create 580 jobs

Cassie And Josh with baby Alfie and daughter Andee. They have bought at new Lennox Head development Epiq.

Majority of new positions will be given to Northern Rivers locals

Cherrabah's mega resort plans axed

PLANS for a massive development at Cherrabah have been scrapped.

Dusit Thani finance crisis 'just a small hiccup'

ON TRACK: Springfield Land Chairman, Maha Sinnathamby, Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale, Developer Richard Turner and Springfield Land Deputy Chairman, Bob Sharpless, at the recent resort sod turning ceremony.

Property developer says project remains firmly on track

Heavyweight enters real estate market

Des Besanko principal and director of Raine and Horne Springfield.

Major rebranding which has seen two big name brands merge