From darkroom to digital
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Dangling from a rope attached to a moving helicopter was an unusual, and hair-raising, way to get to a job, but once he was hooked up there was no going back.
It was 1990 and police forensic photographer Graham Morrell was tasked with photographing the scene of a Cessna plane crash, deep in the Kaweka Ranges, in which two people had died.
The sole survivor had already been taken out, but when it came to getting Graham there, the winch on the helicopter was not working. The only option was to fly him in on a longline attached to a five-point harness on his body. He carried his camera gear in an old canvas pack with a wooden frame.
“It must have been comedic to look at, but I was shit-scared,” he recalls. “They told me that if I started spinning, to do a starfish shape, which I did. I felt like Superman without the cape.”
After what seemed a long time of flying through the air, “but was probably no more than five to 10 minutes”, he was dropped off at the site where he took photos of the smashed aircraft and the two bodies inside.
He then had to tramp out of the area, accompanied by the air crash investigator, Ron Chippendale. It took over an hour and their progress was hampered by a serious landslide, requiring another helicopter trip out (inside the cabin this time).
When it was over, the search and rescue team told Graham that if there had been any problems with the chopper during the flight in, the first thing to have been ditched would have been the longline, and when the chopper hovered by the rockslide, the SAR team had been forced to take cover in case the blades touched any stones.
It certainly wasn’t a normal day’s work and Graham received a Certificate of Appreciation from the district commander for taking part in hazardous aerial recovery work.
However, he says, being a police photographer is like a lot of police work, veering from the mundane to the tragic in the course of a day – from photographing the handle of a shovel to someone being cut out of a car after a high-speed crash.
Graham joined Police in 1975, training at Trentham and spending his first five years as a constable on the beat, first in Wellington and then in Masterton.
He had already developed an interest in taking photos, helping a local wedding photographer and learning the ropes in the darkroom, when it started to occur to him that frontline policing was “not what I really enjoyed”.
Because he was looking for a change, he trained to be a relieving police photographer in Masterton. Soon after, in 1980, a police photography job came up in Wellington. “I still wasn’t convinced, as I thought it would be bad for my hobby,” he says.
But, by 1985, when he transferred to Hawke’s Bay with his wife, Carol, and two children, there was no doubt that he would continue as a forensic photographer.
By the time he did his high-rope trick in the Kawekas, he was a sergeant and he loved the work, despite the challenges.
He well remembers the day in 1999 when he photographed the body of four-year-old James Whakaruru, beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend after years of horrific brutality.
“As a police photographer we have to do homicides, but it’s most taxing emotionally when it’s children who are the victims, especially when they are the same age as your children. It affects you.”
In those days, counselling was offered to photographers, but it was not consistent. “Making it mandatory, as it is now, was a good idea,” he says.
His coping mechanism in such cases was to bring a professional approach to the job and treat the body as an exhibit.
He’s gone from the darkroom and black and white photography to colour film and now instant digital files. His first Police camera was a medium-format Bronica with 6x4.5cm negatives. He also used a Linhof bellows camera, for which you had to put your head under a blanket-like cover to take photos, usually close-up images of fingerprints or other technical things such as bulb filaments (which can be used to determine if a brake light or headlight was working at the time of a crash).
When digital first arrived, Graham was sceptical, he says. “Was it going to be as good as film and did the images really exist on that little card in the camera?”
Now, he acknowledges, it was a game-changer on many levels. “You can show
the shot to the OC at a scene to make sure he or she is happy with what you’ve captured.”
Now there is UV and infrared photography and drones and 360-photo formats and videos, although, Graham wonders, who really has time to get all that ready for court cases when you’re working in a small section of one or two photographers.
After 38 years and nine months in the role, Graham, now 64, who officially retired last month, believes he was the longest-serving forensic photographer in Police.
He had been aiming for 40 years, which would have been December next year, but fate intervened in 2018 when Carol became unwell with cancer and Graham took time off work to care for her.
She died earlier this year and Graham said he just didn’t have the heart to go back to the job. “Without her, reaching 40 years means nothing.”
He got close, though, and he’s proud of all his work, “and I know I made a difference as a forensic photographer”.
– ELLEN BROOK