The best photojournalism captures a fleeting moment – just a second in time – that expresses something much bigger.
Just after 10am on November 15, we learned that a majority of Australians voted yes to same sex marriage in the national survey. Despite the harmful debate that preceded the announcement, it was a result that warranted celebration, paving the way for the historic legalisation of same sex marriage on December 7.
We had hoped for a yes, but it was not a foregone conclusion.
That November morning, people gathered at official announcement parties around the country. In Sydney, people massed at Prince Alfred Park; in Adelaide, in the rain, at Hindmarsh Square; in Brisbane, Queen's Park; in Perth, where the announcement was at 7am local time, Northbridge Piazza.
Broadsheet dispatched photographers to all locations. In Melbourne, Michael Woods was at the State Library of Victoria. He took a number of photos that day, but one – exuberant, colourful and literally explosive – went rapidly viral.
“Just before Broadsheet closed up shop the night before [the announcement] they asked me to cover the event,” Woods says.
“I was really worried going into it because I wasn’t sure what side of history I’d be shooting. From a photography perspective, you usually know what you’re going in to shoot. But I didn’t know if it was going to be something momentous and happy, or something else entirely.”
Woods has plenty of experience capturing large – often rapturous – crowds, including festivals such as Splendour in the Grass, Groovin The Moo and Melbourne Music Week, and one-day gatherings such as the 2017 Ginger Pride Rally and Melbourne’s Most Wuthering Heights Day Ever.
For Broadsheet Melbourne’s editor, there was no one better for the job.
“When you’re shooting an event, you can often feel a little bit detached,” Woods says. “You’re trying to be a fly on the wall.” But as Woods arrived at the State Library he couldn’t help but feel personally and emotionally invested.
“I felt like my heart was in my mouth before the announcement.”
Woods staked out the ideal vantage point, wriggling his way into the production area at the base of the library steps. Before he knew it, he was standing among the event organisers and, to his surprise, directly beside Labor leader Bill Shorten.
“I took that position because I knew they had confetti cannons and powder cannons and all that kind of stuff. The idea was that they wanted a rainbow in the sky. I thought that was one of the more important things to shoot. All the other photographers went forward to close in on people’s reactions.” Suddenly, despite the patchy audio stream, the result was in: Yes carried the day.
“It was a pretty mental moment,” Woods says. “I went from shooting an intense gallery, to basically shooting a music festival … in five seconds. It was the most overwhelming feeling, to be a part of that moment. Everyone felt welcome. It genuinely nearly brought me to tears.”
That was when Woods snapped the photo. A glittering Melbourne sky and thousands of arms raised below. It’s an image that speaks to the resilience and pride of a marginalised community, in a rare moment of sheer revelry.
Woods stuck around for a bit longer, snapped a few more photos, then made a beeline for home to send the series in. Afterwards, he went to visit a friend, who’d just got out of surgery.
“He’d gotten his appendix out,” Woods says. “I sort of walked in there a bit rudely, with my eyes glued to my phone. I had to explain to my mate that the photo had been shared 100 times, just since I’d gotten out of the car.” That was just the beginning.
“The photo started blowing up. A couple of huge Instagrammers had reposted it … People were starting to message me, asking if they could share the photo.”
He sent a text to Broadsheet Melbourne’s editor: “My phone is going crazy. I’ve never had a response like this to a photograph.”
In the weeks that followed people continued to contact Woods to tell him how important the photo was to them. It happened so many times he wondered about making it available as a print.
“It wasn’t right to make money off that photo,” he says. Woods partnered with Broadsheet to make the print available at our print shop, with 100 per cent of the profits from the sale of It’s A Yes going to MindOUT, the National LGBTI Health Alliance project that develops and delivers mental-health and suicide-prevention initiatives.
“One of the main things [about the photo] was that all the LGBTIQA people who weren’t able to make it [said] that my photo brought tears to their eyes,” Wood says. “I think that’s the goal of any photo, to provoke some kind of feeling.”