How to photograph a bikie funeral, and live
October last year was the beginning of a bikie war and my introduction to the characters of Sydney’s underworld. My assignment: the funeral of Notorious crime gang member and former Nomad bikie Todd O’Connor at St Mary’s Cathedral.
Along with a small media pack, I took up a close-in position for the arrivals, soon finding out that we were not welcome with a family member performing a one-finger salute. As the service began I managed to get some shots from the back of the cathedral of the coffin in place with O’Connor’s mother to the side, sitting wheelchair-bound.
After capturing a few frames, we waited outside till the coffin was carried out, usually the time of highest emotion. For this funeral, emotions lead to threats of violence. The Notorious foot soldiers formed a protective ring around the mourning family, facing up to the photographers, and hitting one snapper in the back. I repositioned to the other side of the road enabling a few frames of Kings Cross identity John Ibrahim surrounded by his men…
I took the verbal threats seriously when a group of heavy-duty blokes demanded that I surrender my camera. “Give us your camera and we’ll go for a walk,” Pointing towards the bushes in Hyde park, “Come for a walk, come for a walk.” I declined the offer.
January 2009, the funeral of Rebel bikie Edin “Boz” Smajovic, a funeral procession to Auburn Gallipoli Mosque led by about 200 Harley Davison mounted Rebels. An intimidating display that ensured most media outlets stayed away.
Virtually alone holding my cameras, I took a careful approach, keeping a respectful distance until being approached by Rebels National President Alex Vella. Respected leader of his troops, Vella ensured my safety by his approach and welcome. Keeping mindful that many of the bikies prefer to protect their identity, I was given a free run to document the Muslim service, albeit from the street where most Rebels paid their respect.
Following the service, the hospitality extended to the burial where I was able to photograph the bikies and family members one by one burying their ‘brother’ by hand.
The most public display of the bikie war, the bashing death of Hells Angel associate Anthony Zervas at Sydney airport, lead to my third bikie funeral.
With Police fearing violence, the media had protective restrictions placed on them. Working with a team of photographers to cover the funeral, I was assigned to cover the burial at Rookwood cemetery. Arriving hours before the service, the Police ushered waiting media into a cordoned area about 200 metres from the plot. Expecting that the family would be shielded by the bikies, I decided to take a covert position in the bushes 50 metres from the burial. Camouflaged in the native bush, I was able to get a series of emotional images of the grieving family, without upsetting them or the revengeful bikies.
In the end, the Hells Angels along with a handful Banditos didn’t display any violence towards the media, but most agencies took unprecedented precautions by employing personal protection security officers to guard their camera crews and photographers.
Less than a week later another Rebel MC member, Richard “Rebel Rick” Roberts was shot dead in Canberra. Over 400 Rebels came from all over Australia to the pay respects.
With the previous Rebel funeral being surprisingly non-threatening, my approach this time was to get in close, until directed otherwise. After the roaring Harleys arrived, I took up a shoulder to shoulder position among the Rebel mourners. The bikies assumed I was a part of the official party and gave me close access without any restrictions. At the end of the service the charismatic Vella approached waiting reporters thanked them for attending and spoke of his lost comrade.
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