'Humble, indispensible cameraman honoured....'

Transcript from the ABC's AM programme, July 10, 2010:

Elizabeth Jackson ELIZABETH JACKSON:

Willie Phua worked as an ABC cameraman across Asia for decades and captured some of the 20th century's most compelling images.

He was also a guide and a mentor for many of the ABC's foreign correspondents, who sometimes worked in very difficult conditions.

Now one of those correspondents has written a biography of the humble but indispensable cameraman who was so instrumental in bringing Asia to Australian television.

It was launched in Sydney last night.

Timothy McDonald was there...

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: In June 1989 all hell broke loose in Beijing.

(Excerpt from news report from 1989)

REPORTER: These tanks have just provided an escort for about 30 troop trucks.

WEEPING MAN: We think that we should… we should be peaceful. We don't want army, we don't want gunshot (inaudible).

REPORTER: Roads are littered with fragments of barriers destroyed by advancing troops. There are signs of resistance elsewhere with new barriers going up - mostly buses.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Amid all the bloodshed there was one image from the Tiananmen Square Massacre that burned itself into the collective memory - one image that said it all: A man standing in front of a column of tanks in a bold but ultimately futile show of defiance.

REPORTER: Only one brave protester dared resist the tanks - incredibly, clambering aboard and remonstrating with the crew of the lead tank.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: It was the ABC's Willie Phua who got it all on camera.

WILLIE PHUA: Yes, I was thinking 'What is this boy doing? He must be very brave young man'.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Bob Wurth worked with him for many years and has now written a biography.

BOB WURTH: Willie was one of only two cameramen to capture those moving pictures in the world. And yeah, I think the pictures told the whole story about the student protest.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Willie Phua is no stranger to conflict. He covered the Vietnam War, and it almost cost him his life.

(Excerpt from Vietnam War footage)

WILLIE PHUA: We were travelling very happily, Mekong River, and all of a sudden 'Bang bang bang bang bang bang!'. It was just like Chinese New Year! Chinese crackers! So I hit the deck.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: Being a cameraman can be dangerous work, especially in war zones.

Willie Phua was always cool under pressure and his resourcefulness got him through.

Gandhi assassination

He needed it when he was in India with Bob Wurth following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

BOB WURTH: The two Sikh body guards shot the Prime Minister Indira Ghandi dead and then the population turned on the Sikhs. And there was wholesale slaughter in the streets - it was just amazing. And Willie actually filmed a lot of that. We saw all sorts of things, didn't we, Willie?

WILLIE PHUA: There were dragging out Sikhs from temples and bashed them.

BOB WURTH: We were to one of the morgues where the bodies were just stacked so high.

WILLIE PHUA: Yeah, the bodies come in these rubbish trucks.

TIMOTHY MCDONALD: But beyond the war stories is a sort of tutor - an indispensable guide for ambitious young journalists trying to make their mark in a continent they sometimes knew little about.


He's visiting Sydney for the launch of his biography, but also to see the many correspondents he worked with over the years - people he regards almost as family.

His images have done a great deal to inform Australians about their northern neighbours and he's even been rewarded with an Order of Australia.

But he's never been one to brag.

BOB WURTH: I said to him - when I later went back, I said, 'Listen, I want to write your story - in a book' and Willie said 'Yeah, that's fine', you know.

But I gave him a list of questions and five years later an email arrived and said 'Here's the answers to your questions'. So it was a long process because he's very shy.

WILLIE PHUA: It was ten years, to be exact.

BOB WURTH: Ten years from the start - that's right!

WILLIE PHUA: No, no, no I'm nobody! Why me?

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Not so good at deadlines. Former ABC cameraman Willie Phua ending that report from Timothy MacDonald.

Students gathering to protest in Tiananmen Square, 1989.

Willie Phua's famous shot of the 'tank man', taken from his TV footage.

Willie Phua filming Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in India.