My first introduction to Mark Calleja’s work was back in 2011. He let me tag along on a follow up story featuring the down to earth Ashton family who’s son Coen was a Pride of Australia winner that same year. As a rookie photographer the thing that struck me the most was the rapport that he had with his subjects, and how at ease they seemed in front of the camera. The Pride of Australia pieces are prime examples of Mark’s standard of work. In these pieces you can see that Mark’s connection with his subject and dedication to telling a meaningful story results in images that are not only emotive, they give you an insight into what it must be like to be that person at that point in their lives. He describes these pieces as a photo essay of the time he spent with his subjects. The view we have into the lives of others through his camera is a privileged one. We feel lucky to be looking into lives which have been authentically shared.
Calleja started working in newspapers when the smell of darkroom chemicals were still thick in the air. In the beginning, he was in charge of processing other photographers’ rolls of film and printing their work. This allowed Calleja to learn on the job by analysing the images as he was printing them. Inspired by legendary artists David Moore and Max Dupain, Calleja’s work is more than your run of the mill news shots. A man dedicated to getting the best out of each shoot, Calleja is happiest when time permits him to get to know the person behind the subject, something he states as being an important part in telling an emotive and accurate story.
Calleja states that a big key to success is being open to opportunities when they arise. He has certainly embraced this motto, travelling throughout Australia as well as overseas to in order to hone his skills and further his career. Hailing from Adelaide, he starting at the Messenger Press. He speaks of his early career: “I set out to be in newspapers from about the age of 18, and it was basically blinkers on from then.“ This opportunity allowed that all-important foot in the door. He put’s a lot of his success down to hard work, whether it be pestering the editor to let him go out on jobs with other photographers or to work other cities or countries. After moving to Melbourne around 1995 for a cadetship, which unfortunately fell through, Calleja worked instead for the Herald Sun as well as freelancing for various suburban newspapers. Working in suburban papers allowed him to hone his skills, which he says were pretty raw. A turning point in his career was a move to Albury to work on a paper there. Here he was able to learn many valuable lessons about photojournalism from the picture editor who took Mark under his wing. Further adventures include working in London for two years; a highly competitive environment that taught him to think on his feet. While he’s been stationed in Brisbane for the last eight years, his time working in papers there has allowed him further travel opportunities including a recent trip to Afghanistan.
Travelling to Afghanistan to work is a trip that is difficult to do without the financial and security support provided by an organisation such as a newspaper or similar organisation. Although in some ways impossible to prepare for, Mark spoke to other photographers who had already made the journey. While the physical reality of being required body armour as a part of your daily work serves as a constant reminder of the situation you’re in, there are also limitations of where you’re allowed to go. “Other people are responsible for you, so you can’t be walking off doing your own thing too much. It’s a bit of a tricky situation. Even though it’s a beautiful place you’re always conscious of where you’re working.” Some of the experiences he had included documenting the transfer of operations to local forces and the rebuilding of the local school. He sights it as a valuable experience, something that he’d definitely like to do again.
While working within the constraints of the job can often mean a very limited window of opportunity, Calleja say’s that he tries to document not only the brief he’s been given but also what is happening on the edges. He describes this process as a photo essay in a hurry. He speaks of the newspaper as an exciting place to work, a place that not only allows him to pay his bills but also gives him access to a wide range of subjects and interesting opportunities. “Putting forward ideas is something that is definitely encouraged”, says Mark, a process that allows a photographer scope for investigation not only breaking stories but those issues that might be a little closer to the heart.
Speaking to Mark about his career and the work he’s done, I get the sense of a photographer who is very aware of the impact that a photograph can have. I’m interested to hear his thoughts on the issues that the media has been having in regards to self-regulation and I get the impression that this is something he feels strongly about. Both in the sense of telling an unbiased story and in the sense of keeping the image accurate in terms of post production, Mark is very black and white about what is ok and what’s not.
Mark Calleja is truly a newspaper man, a photographer who set out to work in papers and still loves working for them today. I ask him if he would ever consider moving into documentary, since his work and love of people would seem to lead in that direction. He answers simply that he’s happy working at the paper. “Not one day is the same in papers, there is so much variety, and most of the time it’s exciting. The people and places you get to meet and see. People that have really overcome.” Listening to Calleja speak about the power of the image, of capturing a single moment and it’s clear he sees himself as being one of the privileged ones, able to record history and document society. To him, every story is important, and deserves just as much thought and effort “whether it’s a story for page one or page fifty one”. A point he reiterates as I ask him if he has a project that he is most proud of. “You hope to always get it…iconic images such as the vulture and the child (Pulitzer prize winning image by African photographer Kevin Cater) are pretty rare. But there is value in all stories, a 15 year old with Cerebral Palsy is no less important than the iconic images. Tell every story like it’s a page one.”