Bringing the search for MH370 to the world

This article has photo gallery Published on CPOIS David Connolly (author), ABIS Nicolas Gonzalez (photographer), ABIS Julianne Cropley (photographer), LEUT Ryan Davis (photographer), LSIS Bradley Darvill (photographer), LSIS James Whittle (photographer), ABIS Chris Beerens (photographer)

Able Seaman Imagery Specialist Julianne Cropley is pictured on the port bridge wing of HMAS Success capturing images of the bow of the ship as it drives through a heavy swell. (photo: CPOIS David Connolly)
Able Seaman Imagery Specialist Julianne Cropley is pictured on the port bridge wing of HMAS Success capturing images of the bow of the ship as it drives through a heavy swell.

With the world watching and eagerly waiting for any information regarding missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, it was the Royal Australian Navy’s Imagery Specialists (IS) and Public Relations Officers who became the maritime storytellers.

For most operations, the tri-service First Joint Public Affairs Unit (1JPAU) provides the deploy at short notice capability, but with the breadth of the mission spanning both air and sea searches, the Royal Australian Navy stood up significant support for the maritime units.

With little more than 24 hours notice, two IS embarked HMAS Success, two embarked HMAS Toowoomba, one embarked in ADV Ocean Shield along with a Public Affairs Officer and a United States Navy photographer, and one embarked HMAS Perth in support of Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN (Op SIO). For some, this was their first exposure to operational tempo at sea.

Junior photographer, Able Seaman Imagery Specialist Julianne Cropley from the Navy Imagery Unit – Western Australia, was embarked in Success. She said the deployment was a huge learning experience and an opportunity to strive for greater personal growth.

“Knowing that the whole world was watching inspired me enormously when it came to turning the everyday, mundane and repetitive into something interesting and creative that would make people understand the operation, but also appreciate the images from a creative aspect,” she said.

“Professionally, this has been a great experience, and the crew, although tested to their limits, have had a lot of patience with me pointing a camera in their faces, day after day, at their highest and lowest moments.

“I’ve tried to use the photography as a morale booster for the crew and for the most part it has seemed to work, which has helped me integrate with them.  Hopefully the photos gave the public a sense of what was happening out here and displayed the crew's efforts effectively,” Able Seaman Cropley said.

One of two IS in Toowoomba, LSIS James Whittle, said that it was rewarding to provide support to an Operation with such an international focus and to strive for higher professional standards of product.

“I don't think there has been any other Operation that comes close due to the international focus and the overall experience of knowing that the world is watching what we are doing and how we are doing it,” Leading Seaman Whittle said.

“The most rewarding thing about being part of such an operation is seeing your imagery go world-wide, and being utilised in different formats and mediums of media. Getting imagery that you are happy to say 'that it was my image', and ones that I was personally proud to have taken. I think that the standard of imagery was higher than normal as we all wanted to see our images out there, getting used.

“It was definitely a morale booster for the ship’s company to see who ended up on international news. We would get comments from members of the ship’s company, sometimes on a daily basis, telling us where new images were appearing (in the media). This also played a big part for members of ship’s company to see the importance of what Imagery Specialist do and how we do it, and the role we play in the Royal Australian Navy.

“There was only a handful of us out at sea and I feel grateful that I was the one that had the opportunity to experience such an operation,” Leading Seaman Whittle said.

Able Seaman IS Nicolas Gonzalez, from Navy Imagery Unit – East, worked with HMAS Perth’s Ship’s Public Relations Officer to capture their contribution to the Operation, and said one of the biggest challenges was transmitting video product from the ship.

“My experience onboard Perth was positive.  The crew really enjoyed being photographed and somewhat enjoyed the attention they were getting, especially when sailors saw their faces in the paper and could tell their families about what they had been involved in,” Able Seaman Gonzalez said.

“This was my first sea deployment working solo, without a senior IS, and it has been a little bit challenging, but I was able to adapt to producing the product that was needed. The biggest problem I encountered was transmitting video at short notice. Sometimes it took a whole night to transmit the product.”

Operation Southern Indian Ocean presented unprecedented media interest for the ADF. RAAF Base Pearce was supported by Australian Defence Force Public Affairs personnel, who collected public affairs product and handled up to 100 members of the media, who were camped at the gates for days.  A media open day at HMAS Stirling on 30 March attracted 65 media personnel from both domestic and international media, who were keen to see ADV Ocean Shield and the specialist search equipment being embarked by the US Navy and Phoenix International.

In the month of April, more than 61,800 news items were registered online that related to the search. Over the course of the operation, more than 1100 images were captured and 29 video compiles were produced by the embarked Imagery Specialists and Public Affairs Officers.

Return to the Southern Indian Ocean

CPOIS David Connolly

Chief Petty Officer Imagery Specialist David Connolly captures vision from HMAS Success' Flag Deck of United States Navy Ship (USNS) Cesar Chavez just after day break as the two ships prepare for a Replenishment at Sea during Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN.

Chief Petty Officer Imagery Specialist David Connolly captures vision from HMAS Success' Flag Deck of United States Navy Ship (USNS) Cesar Chavez just after day break as the two ships prepare for a Replenishment at Sea during Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN.

I embarked on my first deployment as a Navy Photographer in September of 1997 in HMAS Anzac. Departing Fleet Base West, Anzac was given the unusual assignment of preventing the illegal fishing of Patagonian Toothfish in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Southern Indian Ocean, near Heard Island. Back then, I shot on film, processed in a darkroom and scanned it into what was then, a relatively fast desktop computer.

Fast forward 17 years, the cameras are digital and the processing is on laptops, but I find myself again on one of Her Majesty’s Australian Ships – HMAS Success – in the same cold and bleak ocean and a part of another unusual mission. This time, it is the search for a missing aircraft: Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Operation SOUTHERN INDIAN OCEAN has been a challenge for all onboard, but having Imagery Specialists hastily included on the manifest has given the outside world a unique and intimate glimpse of the crew engaged in a difficult assignment – a view that may otherwise have gone unrecorded and left to the public’s imagination. It is our ability to tell their story and give them a voice that has been the most rewarding aspect for me.

That said, it has had a significant impact on our home unit – Navy Imagery Unit-West. By the end of the second week of the operation, the entire unit had been deployed in three different ships and a sign placed on the front door: ‘CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.’ For me personally, leaving the unit unmanned and not knowing when we would return has been the greatest challenge.

There have been other challenges in our role of providing a steady stream of imagery to the media. The bandwidth available to transmit video and still images has been restrictive, but we received great support from the Communications and Information Systems department in making sure it got through and this was particularly evident on Anzac Day, when their efforts ensured video of the dawn service on Success made it in time for the evening news.

Sometimes the challenges you face reveal unexpected rewards and in this case, it has been working with people that have been welcoming and helpful, despite the uncertainties and trying conditions.

It is a deployment I won’t soon forget and it is a fitting bookend to that first journey into the unknown 17 years ago.