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.

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