Posted by Dan Cole
An insight into the philosophies of one of Australia’s leading cinematographers.
Telling stories with pictures is older than two legged humans, and television is the narrative of our age. After more than 20 years behind the camera for the ABC, John ‘JB’ Bean has trained his lens on everything from Prime Ministers pressing the flesh, the settling dust of bomb blasts, to the reality of third world Papua New Guinea. The job is at times confronting, and others uplifting, but wholly rewarding as he seeks to tell the stories of people who have something positive to say.“I don’t see myself as a war correspondent,” JB says with assuredness. “I don’t see myself going into that traumatic life day after day after day, I’ve got friends that have done it from the journalist side, and from the camera side as well. Some change dramatically – into tough guys with exterior of granite, and they are usually drinking themselves to death somewhere. I’m not tough and unaffected; I don’t want to be like that.”
On a recent trip to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, John filmed a story about children with HIV. His experience has taught him that it’s a fine balance between being too removed, and conceding to the emotional intensity of the situation. “When you go into a place like that, you have to remember that it’s not your story, there is actually nothing much you can do about these people’s lives except tell their story.”
“I sometimes wonder if I am not affected enough when I go to see, for example, little kids with AIDS. While we were doing an interview, there was a little boy there and I was keeping his attention pulling faces and stuff like that. But at the end of that, I can’t go home and cry about it. There is nothing that I can really do; he is a poor little kid that is a victim of circumstance. All I can do is make him happy while I’m there.”
John has traveled extensively in PNG, a country in which he has learned to move among the people, unlike so many foreign visitors, without running for the nearest razor wire compound. “When I was last there we were being told that we needed security guards with guns. We had to have the window all wound up and reflective windows so nobody could see in – and we were driving around with our windows down and waving to people and saying hello. And that’s what people want! I’d be incredibly annoyed if someone drove past me here looking like they were fearful of me. I’d be like ‘I’m just cutting my lawn, what are you worried about?’”
It is this approach that has allowed John access to people and places that other cameramen have missed. On his latest trip he visited the infamous Kaugere Settlement, a supposed hot bed of criminal activity that local journalist and police avoid. Kaugere is a muddy hill crowded with shanties Wires carrying hijacked electricity crisscross the skyline and high-ranking gang members, given away by their attire reminiscent of 90s south central LA, line the road alongside mothers and t children collecting cans for money. John went into Kaugere Settlement with Pacific Pulse producer Tania Nugent for a story on education. “He has had the privilege of seeing some of the most extraordinary places and meeting extraordinary people,” says Tania of John, ”but he still gets excited by every person and every story.” It is this unwavering commitment to his craft that earned John an MEAA Media Award for cinematography and a spot among the Walkley finalists in 2003
During his time shooting for the ABC, John has gleaned skills that go beyond just technical proficiency. “One of the things you do when you’re in this job is you measure people – you get a vibe for the area, you feel for how people are feeling, you know when a situation doesn’t feel right anymore and it’s time to go. But you can also go ‘these people are happy to see us, it’s alright to be here’. You’ve got to be a bit of a chameleon and switch into their way of thinking.”
One privilege that John counts himself very lucky to have is to work with his wife Pip Courtney on ABC’s Landline. Pip is a producer and presenter, so it’s a marriage of skills as well as love. “To go away together every now and then is fantastic,” says JB with a smile. “The ABC loves it, they only have to pay for one hotel room. And I love it too. I love when she has story go to air and I can say ‘I shot that as well,’ its fantastic.”
Pip and John first met in Canberra in the early 90s. “I actually filmed her first story for Landline, it was her first long form story.”
Pip remembers John as a very forgiving, more experienced operator. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she grimaces. “He was very kindly, he asked more questions than he needed to, to get me to realise I needed to put more prep into what I was doing. I was quite taken. It was clear to me by the end of my first shift that I was way out of my depth and he could have let me sink.”
“He is just brilliant at what he does,” says Pip. “John is always totally focused on being the best cameraman that he can be, whether it’s for a news journo or the story before sport or the lead story going to air all around the country, he never waivers.”
When asked if he cops any flack because his wife is often the boss at work, he flashes a cheeky grin. “I always say, she makes more money than me, and that’s fine by me. She keeps me in the manner that I am accustomed to being kept, thankyou very much. I don’t have any problems.”
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