THE Riverine Herald’s Luke Hemer has won numerous awards for sports photography in a long and illustrious career. Fraser Walker-Pearce talked to him about growing up in South Australia, how the backing of a high school teacher pushed him to pursue his passion, and the best atmosphere he has experienced in sport
Hi Luke, you’ve been in the photography game for a while, how has camera technology changed in the more than 20 years you’ve been taking photos?
My first camera was a little red Kodak film camera, it would take one exposure and couldn’t zoom, and you’d have to wind it each time. That was at about age 10. It was worth about $25 or maybe $50. That was in 1991. The best camera in my arsenal now is a Canon 1DX, the camera can do 12 frames a second, it’s digital and I can put a lens on it where I can see the whole way across a footy ground. I can put a 400mm lens on it, in technical terms. The camera would be worth around about $6500-$7000 brand new I think.
Where did you grow up and how did you get into photography?
I grew up in Strathalbyn in South Australia, born and raised. I went to high school there and that’s where my love for photography kicked off. It’s the one subject I understood and enjoyed at school. And that was from the get-go too. From that I knew I wanted to keep going with it, and pursue that as a career.
And were you a sportsman yourself as a kid?
I grew up playing soccer, tennis, and indoor cricket, and pretty much everything at lunchtime, as most boys do. And I had a lot of mates that did as well, we were kind of the sporty group at school. Dad was a keen cricket fan, and my parents saw I enjoyed sport at a young age and rushed me off to Little Aths and stuff like that.
When did you get your first camera?
I sort of played around with little cameras at age 10, so I was around them before high school even. But it’s when you start studying it and understand it a bit more that you begin to form a love for it.
Was there anyone in particular who developed your love for photography?
There was a bloke called David Couche who was my high school photography teacher. One of the first projects he got us to do was called a pinhole camera, which is basically a box with a hole in it and a piece of paper where you create the photo it shows. And the teacher told me I had the exposure and focus and things like that spot on he reckoned, which didn’t happen often, a spot on attempt first time. That was in the days of the dark room and wet colouring and things. It’s a bit of a niche artform these days the dark room.
When did you start to take photography more seriously?
I took it from year eight onwards and started to take it more seriously in year 11. It was my best subject and it was the subject I got the best grades for. From there I did a two-year TAFE course, getting an advanced diploma in commercial photography in Adelaide.
From there I guess you wanted to get into the workforce?
I looked for work to do with my degree and found a bit of work at the Sunday Mail in Adelaide doing night shifts with general news. Most of the time it’d be a shift starting at 11pm on Friday going through until 6am on Saturday. It was only if something happened that you’d go out, and I got to hang out with the TV cameramen as well.
What did you take away from the Sunday Mail job?
I learned how the media works more than anything else. It made me want to stay in media and in newspapers in particular. I remember one particular afternoon job, not a night job this time, which made me want to keep going. I was at a junior sports match where a teammate had died in a car crash. I photographed their game the week after his death. The boys, who were only 17 or 18 years-old, were on the sidelines, clapping at the end of the game all in tears. I snapped that and it ran big on one of the more prominent news pages in the Mail and it was sort of a thrill to have that photo in the paper with my name on it. That still sticks in my mind because it was the first time one of my photos had gone up big. And having the picture editor on the drive home ring up and say ‘hey it’s running big, well done we’ll talk to you soon’. As a casual worker getting a day here and there at the time, that was big.
So that was your first big success. Where to after Adelaide?
From there I moved on to the Sunraysia Daily in Mildura to do full time work and drill down on my photography work. That was both general and sports. I’d been doing a little bit of sports photos for friends and for the rugby club and things like that so I was kind of used to sport by then. I was with Sunraysia for three years, from 2003 until 2006.
And do you have good memories from that job?
Yes, in 2004 the World Balloon Championships was held there. Hundreds of hot air balloons were there, mostly from Europe and some from Australia too. The national media were there, so you’re rubbing shoulders with famous photography names like Tim Clayton and Kelly Barnes. You see them in the Oz or the Sydney Morning Herald, and then you’re there taking photos right next to them, it was pretty crazy. The first morning it was super foggy and we went up in aerochutes (buggies with parachutes) about 100m in the air, and all these balloons were just appearing out of the fog, it was spectacular. And having the ‘hey, good work’ from those big names was a big kick on. That’s one of my favourite shoots I think.
After that spectacular shot you went back to the homeland?
Following that I went back to Adelaide, working for the Messenger Community News from 2007 until 2013. So I was sort of established by that stage, and got some good gigs with them as well. Doing (Adelaide) Crows games was a highlight. The Tour Down Under, where Lance Armstrong was competing, that was before his infamous doping incident. It was always speculated, but then it all blew up later.
You’ve snapped some high-profile names. Many more on that list?
Topping that I was lucky enough to photograph huge names in soccer like (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Francesco) Totti, and Asian Champions League games as well, that’s where I saw people like (former England manager) Sven-Göran Eriksson. I also covered the Asian Cup opener, where Australia won in 2015. And that was one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever experienced.
You mention atmosphere – was the Asian Cup top of that list?
Beating that would be Melbourne Victory’s A-League win over Sydney in Melbourne, and beating that would be Adelaide United winning the A League in Adelaide, just from a personal perspective. There was just a sea of red in the stands. I reckon that’s the best atmosphere I’ve experienced, that night at Adelaide Oval.
And when did you make the journey north to Echuca?
I came to the Riv in November 2016 after about 18 months at Sportal (sports news website). For me it was a chance to get back to my roots and possibly have one proper last crack at being a news and sports photographer again. And it was a bit of a lifestyle change, living in the country. The fact I get to work on some cool magazines, and get a lot of creative licence as well is a huge plus. I can sort of stretch my ideas a little bit where I have a great editor and a good team around me. In a huge paper you might not get as much of that creative licence.
At the start of the year you worked a bit for Tennis Australia at the Open. What was that like?
Tennis is something I look forward to every year. It’s a pinch yourself moment when you’re about 5m away from Roger Federer on match point. You pick up on their personalities too after a while. It’s a repetitious sport and you start to know when they’ll put effort into their shot or when a photo will look good. You also get to know when a (Gaël) Monfils will do something outrageous or when (Nick) Kyrgios will go berserk.
So what’s the attraction to local sport then, if you get to do all this other stuff?
What I really like about local level sport is the access you have to it. Now that I’ve been in the community for a while, people come up and shake your hand or you bump into people down the street who comment on your work, which I quite like. The other thing is that there are no boundaries and you get to go into the change rooms at the end of games and get photos of sides singing the club song and things like that. I’ve had random run-ins at the Yank where you tend to get a lot of people’s feedback. In a small town like this, it’s quite nice to have some admiration and it lets me know that I’m going in the right direction too.
And with that local admiration, you’ve also won a number of awards. The two most recent ones were from Cricket Victoria and the Quills. Have you won others?
Starting back when I was in Mildura I won an award for basketball, and also one for SANFL in Adelaide, and I have also won some general news ones. And these two new ones as well were great. To be recognised for the hard work is nice, and to know you’re being judged by the industry or by peers is nice too.
Players on the field get an adrenaline rush when they kick a goal. Do you get a rush with the camera?
You do get a bit of a rush when you know you’ve nailed a shot. There’s a bit of excitement there, and just getting it off the camera and emailing it to the boss and saying ‘hey this should be our back page’ that’s quite exciting I think. It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush.
Is it sometimes hard not to get caught up in a team’s success?
Even when your team is doing well, like for example when Leitchville-Gunbower won their premiership, the adrenaline they had on the field you couldn’t help but feel on the sidelines too. You get excited that they’re doing well, because you’ve been following them all season really.
Players have on-field pressure, is there pressure for you too?
There is a lot of pressure on game day, yes. Take last weekend for example, where I had to get a back page lead, a photo that is worthy of the front cover of the Game On lift-out, a shot from each game that will be a great feature shot, as well as you might be working in the rain or then the opposite – in really harsh lighting conditions, and the travel in between games. Sometimes timing might not work out, and you start to feel the pressure because you might have to move on to the next game but you haven’t got that killer shot yet. I feel that if it’s got my name next to the photo then I like to think I’ve established a standard that the readers kind of expect each week.
As well as technical knowledge, do you also have to be a bit of a sports guru?
You’ve got to have an eye for the game, and a bit of knowledge about how the game is played and on the general news of the club. Players returning from injury, debutants, or top goal kickers, things like that you have to be aware of. It’s not just going out there and snapping away.