1912 - 1944 | VIC | Cameraman, photographer
When Damien Parer was born in 1912, his father ran the King Island Hotel and young Damien spent his early childhood playing in the windswept tussocks of the isolated Bass Strait island with his five older brothers and his sister.
Parer’s father had left Spanish Catalonia at age 15, emigrating to Melbourne to join relatives who had come before him. He quickly became involved in the family hotel businesses. His mother Teresa’s family was of Irish stock and came from Central Victoria where her father was a photographer, and later a businessman.
At 14, Damien was boarding at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst when he found a copy of the Australian Photographic Review. It was full of technical talk and exotic cameras and lenses and it opened up a whole new world for him. Damien decided to become a photographer.
A vest pocket folding Kodak camera followed and soon after, an Agfa 16mm movie camera and a Bell and Howell film projector from his famous aviation cousin, Ray. After many attempts to get a job in the photographic industry, Damien was indentured to Dickinson Monteath and his photographic training began.
In the mid 1930s a chance meeting between his father and the pioneering Australian film-makers Charles and Elsa Chauvel led to a job with the crew of the feature film Heritage and later he was to work as a cameraman with them on their famous feature, Forty Thousand Horsemen.
The legendary film producer Ken Hall was at Cinesound at the time and Damien showed him a short film he’d made illustrating one of Henry Lawson’s poems. Hall was impressed by the camerawork . Soon, during the war years, their professional lives and friendship would deepen.
In 1939 Damien joined the Photographic Section of the Commerce Department and was appointed to the St Kilda Army Barracks to work on Army training films. Soon after, war broke out and within weeks Damien was sailing for Egypt with the troops. Journalist John Hetherington travelled with him and recalls going into Damien’s cabin and finding every inch of space covered in “a maze of fragile stuff underfoot and Parer polishing a lens, passing the tissue over and over its gleaming surface with loving care. You could not spend ten minutes with Damien and not know that the camera was his life.”
In the Western Desert he learned how to shoot film that would “cut” well and how to write clear dope sheets for the benefit of editors and the commentary writer. And he always came straight to Cinesound when he got off a plane from the battle zones to review his footage and to see how it was being put together. Ken Hall saw his talent for telling a story and helped him develop the idea that every newsreel should have a beginning, middle and an end with a climax.
After Pearl Harbour, Damien was recalled from the Middle East to cover New Guinea. In 1942, against Department of Information orders, he went to the Kokoda Track with the first units of the Australian Infantry Forces. It was a bitter campaign fought under the harshest of conditions where the enemy melted into the jungle. Damien returned to Sydney with 800ft of film and hand delivered the precious images to Ken Hall. Kokoda Front Line! brought the real nature of jungle warfare to the audiences back home and earned Damien and Cinesound Australia’s first Academy Award.
Damien returned to New Guinea to shoot what he regarded as his finest film, Assault on Salamaua. As he recorded in his diary, he set out to portray the horror of war in the jungle through the gestures, faces, the eyes and the everyday incidents of self-sacrifice of the diggers under combat conditions.
But working under the restrictive rules imposed by the Department of Information was getting increasingly frustrating for Damien and, reluctantly, he accepted the offer from Paramount News to join the American forces to cover the campaigns in the northern Pacific. On 17 September 1944, he was gunned down by a sniper while covering a tank advance on the island of Peleliu in the Palau group. He was 32 and his wife of six months, Maree Cotter, was pregnant with their child.
Ken Hall said that Damien was “a good cameraman – but there were lots of good cameramen on both sides of WWII. Damien’s great gift was knowing what to shoot and to look for the human interest angle. His other great natural gift was an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. A cameraman cannot write the story after the event, as war correspondents could and invariably did. The cameraman has to be there when it happens”.
Damien inspired a generation of war cameramen and evolved filming techniques of recording the action from the front line, and sometimes in front of the advancing troops – techniques that were further developed in the Vietnam War a generation later.
As a nephew of Damien’s and a cameraman myself I have always been fascinated by his ability to knit together an emotional and dramatic story. Damien was a great student of the art of film-making and realised the importance of composition, the impact of the close-up, the effective use of camera movement, and power of using simple and uncluttered images to construct a story.
His angles were often low and against the light to convey drama and he used hand held shots to great effect in his New Guinea films long before “filming off the shoulder” was fashionable.
He worked in the jungle under the most terrible physical conditions where the light was poor, the rain was constant and the possibility of death an everyday companion. But what made him different to other cameraman was this ability to bring all his technical and story-telling abilities together to capture these everyday hardships in a dramatic and new way.
David Parer is a nephew of Damien Parer and a noted wildlife cameramn who worked for 35 years with the ABC History Unit and also for the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery. He now works for other independent film makers.
Portrait by Olive Cotton, 1938. Courtesy National Library of Australia.
Damien Parer’s powerful picture, above, of a wounded Australian soldier being comforted with a cigarette during the Kakoda campaign in 1942.
Arab tribesmen galloping along the desert at Selemiye to greet Prince Ali Khanto. Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.
Courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.
Kokoda Front Line! (film), Damien Parer and Ken Hall, Australian News & Information Bureau and Cinesound Productions Limited, 1942.
Assault on Salamaua (film), Damien Parer and Ken Hall, Cinesound Productions, 1943.
Xmas Down South, Damien Parer and Michael Parer, Alella Books, 1939 and 1982.
War Cameraman – The Story of Damien Parer, Neil McDonald, Lothian, 2000.