Right Place, Right Time
Five-time Canon/AIPP Australian Science, Environment and Nature Photographer of the Year, Brisbane-based Darren Jew has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Six male humpbacks race beneath the photographer, their air bubbles streaming from blowholes as they pursue a female in heat. The gargantuan whales are so close, their exhalations spritz him as Darren Jew fires away against a backdrop of crystal-clear Tongan waters, capturing the ‘humpback heat run’, an event few others have been privileged to see.
The scene features in the Canon Australia’s Tales by Light, a television series about internationally-renowned photographers that first appeared on National Geographic Television and is now taking Netflix by storm. Besides swimming with humpbacks, Darren ascends a live volcano, then ‘paints with light’ a submerged wreck of a WWII fighter plane. Darren isn’t just living the dream; he’s creating it for others.
Born in Sydney, Darren spent his early childhood in Blaxland, in the Blue Mountains, “on a block that backed onto bushland” where he was free to explore nearby creeks. When he was 10, the family moved to Caboolture, Queensland, where “my growing up became more coastal than bushy”.
Fascinated by Kodachrome slides his father shot during a season as radio technician at Antarctica’s Mawson Station, Darren was 11 when he “bought a little Kodak Instamatic for $7.” A year later he was given a hand-me-down rangefinder camera, “an Agfa Silette Pronto, with apertures and shutter speeds”.
He joined a local camera club, then intra-club competitions, but didn’t do any photography at high school “because my art teacher wasn’t into it”. After finishing Grade 10, at just 15, Darren enrolled in a Certificate of Photography course at Queensland College of Art.
“When I finished, I was just 17, qualified and cheap to employ,” he says. Within a week he was working at Chromatech, a film processing lab in Brisbane. But after three months of processing film for country wedding and portrait photographers, he began having nightmares.
“I was really anxious about the responsibility of it,” he explains. So he rang one of his college instructors and said, “I’m still 17, qualified – and now have three months experience.” His instructor liked his initiative and put him in touch with Queensland archaeologist Graham Walsh, who specialised in Aboriginal rock art.
Over 12 months, working in darkrooms owned by Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service (QNPWS), Darren “printed about 60,000 black and white prints. It was a chance to work with landscapes and see new places in pictures.”
He followed this with a couple years as assistant at a commercial studio. Besides working on “big advertising campaigns”, Darren helped photograph high-profile people including prime ministers, Queensland’s governor and celebrities. “What I gained most out of that,” he says, “was the discipline of working to briefs”.
He proved this in the mid-80s, when a job came up at QNPWS. Of the 290 people who applied, Darren made the shortlist of ten. “They gave each of us a roll of 35 mm film and said, ‘go shoot the nature of Brisbane and bring it back unprocessed.’ ”
Darren got the job. He was 20 years old. He later learned that other more experienced applicants had chosen to go further afield, into southeast Queensland, looking for more gob-smacking images, like thundering waterfalls and pristine forest. “None of them had stuck to the brief,” Darren says wryly.
His first field trip for National Parks was an absolute dream. “I got my open water (SCUBA) qualifications when I was 14, and a Nikonos 3 when I started college, so underwater photography always interested me,” he says. “When National Parks said, ‘you need to go to Lady Elliot next week’, it was great.”
For eight years, he relished his job. “Our charter was to maintain the photographic record of the nature of Queensland,” he says. “That involved producing collateral for brochures about new parks, conservation and wildlife issues and fitting out display centres.”
Throughout his time at Parks, Darren spent holidays and weekends travelling with his wife and building up his own picture collection. In 1993 he decided to branch out from Queensland, so took three months off and went to Alaska and Africa. On his return he wanted to explore more of the world beyond Queensland’s borders.
Darren and his wife, Annette, decided to try selling his prints at the weekend markets in Brisbane. On day one of their first market, they sold everything, making more than their combined wages for the week. Annette immediately quit her job to make stock during the week, which Darren would sell on weekends. A year later he left Parks.
“I started running courses, workshops, stock sales and selling prints,” he explains. “I did a bit of publishing and got contracts to publish postcards for Sydney Aquarium and Taronga Zoo. At the height of that business I had a 6 x 15 metre shed that was our office, picture framing and printing workshop and small warehouse. We were a backyard operation, but a significant one.”
In 2001, Darren took his first group to Tonga to swim with humpback whales. “It was amazing, incredible,” he recalls. Possibly even life changing, as he’s been back every year since and now takes up to 80 people a season with him. His underwater photos from the trips have gone global.
Even after 15 seasons, Darren’s passion for swimming with the whales is undiminished. He delights in telling of his most memorable ‘drop’ into a heat run.
“We’d had a pretty quiet morning, but around lunchtime we saw many strong blows on the horizon. My skipper Ali dropped us on the perfect line and I swam everyone to the point I felt we’d see them pass. As they approached they turned toward us and we were amongst 12 whales in all, passing just either side of us and some right beneath us, so close we had to lift our fins.
“It was incredible!”
To view more of Darren’s incredible work, visit www.darrenjew.com