Jill Gralow on documenting Australia's bushfires
Since September, bushfires of unprecedented scale and duration have scorched more than 27 million acres of land across eastern Australia and destroyed habitats of more than 1,400 species. Reuters video journalist Jill Gralow has been on the ground, capturing the devastation in text, pictures and video. In this week’s Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Jill gives an inside look at how she’s been covering the story from all angles.
Q: How did you up end covering the Australian bushfires?
A: Australia is prone to bushfires, and the season is normally from November to February. However, this fire season started in September, exacerbated by a three-year drought. I knew it was going to be bad, I just didn’t realize how bad until I saw it firsthand. My first location was west of Sydney. I packed my camera kit, safety gear and hit the road. I didn’t have to look very hard – just follow the smoke. It was everywhere. From there I headed to the south coast of New South Wales almost to the border of Victoria. Driving from location to location was the only way: as people were evacuating towns, I was heading in.
Q: What was the experience like on the ground?
A: Eye opening. I have covered a lot of natural disasters, mostly in Southeast Asia, but never like this in Australia. Firstly, I would go to the local Rural Fire Station (RFS) and introduce myself to the Incident Controller to get an understanding of the situation on the ground. You have to show your RFS media accreditation and safety gear and try to get a “ride along” with a fire crew, which wasn’t easy as they were obviously concerned about safety and very often had a full truck. Depending on the situation, I would just drive to the fire front myself and see if I could get through. On one occasion, a fire crew found me on an isolated road and had a spare seat, so I jumped in and headed into the fire zone. I also have an app telling me where the fires are and what classification: ‘out of control’, ‘under control, ‘being contained’ or ‘unclassified.’ There were always roadblocks but sometimes the RFS would allow you through, only to be stopped by the police. Then the hunt for personal feature stories would begin and that had its own challenges. Many people were displaced and staying in evacuation centers. Media were not allowed in even just to talk to people. It was just a lot of leg work and driving, often stopping by the side of the road to talk to people as they were leaving or trying to get home. Many didn’t know if their homes were still standing and had no idea when they were allowed to return. On several occasions people asked me to check and see if their house had survived, which my RFS accreditation would give me access to.
Q: What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A: Power was out in many towns; I had to take my own food and use a power inverter in my car to charge equipment. There were always queues for gas — and sometimes no gas at all or the power needed to pump it. Preparation and planning were paramount. Communications were non-existent in some places, so I had to use a satellite phone. With video, you obviously need interviews on camera. This is one of the hardest parts of being a video journalist, getting people to open up on camera. There were a lot of “NO’s,” and you can’t push too hard. People are very raw. I would put the camera away and sit and talk for a while and just listen. Eventually, most people would agree to go on camera. Many had left their homes at the last minute, realizing staying to defend was futile. Some had only the clothes they stood in and nothing else. One woman said she felt relief after talking to me. I was happy to hear that.
Q: What makes you passionate about video journalism?
A: Filming for me is like being in a bubble, as you’re always in the present moment. You have so many things to consider: audio, color, exposure, framing, composition, being a producer, researcher, reporter and a very good listener. It’s also the people you meet – I don’t mean celebrities or famous people, but real, everyday people. They have the best stories to tell without a doubt. It’s an adventure. No two days are the same and Reuters really is the best outlet to tell those stores.
Q: What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a video journalist?
A: It’s all pretty rewarding, otherwise I couldn’t do it. In 2003, I was assigned to do a series of stories on the 50th anniversary of the ascent of Mount Everest and trekked to base camp. This was unique as I had no contact with anyone until I returned to Kathmandu. I received an award for Best Video of the Year.
Some of the most challenging/interesting:
Covering the 9/11 attacks in the U.S from Pakistan: We had gone to Pakistan before the U.S. had boots on the ground in Afghanistan and the Taliban still had an embassy in Islamabad.
Following this, I had two assignments in Afghanistan.
The mass shooting in Christchurch: Due to the nature of this attack, it was very difficult to get people to talk on camera. You have to build trust. Introduce yourself and then give them some space, and they would open up.
The Boxing Day tsunami: I reported from Thailand, spending most of my time at Khao Lac and Phi Phi island with the Thai navy recovering bodies.
The Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney: Waiting for the hostage situation to end, I provided live cover for over 15 hours without leaving my spot. Probably the longest I have ever stood in one place.
Q: Can you imagine being anything other than a video journalist? If so, what?
A: A marine biologist.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?
A: The team you have behind you is important to the success of any video journalist in the field. Without support from my small video team in Sydney and the Asia Video Desk in Singapore, none of this would be possible. They’re an awesome bunch of people.