A brilliant career

By Tara Whitsed

Julie Mercer has helped to tell the stories of local people in their most tragic or best moments of their lives.

‘‘You can be out at a fire in the morning and then taking pics of shoes and bags in the afternoon,’’ Julie said.

During the past 30 years, the News photographer has captured the Greater Shepparton community and beyond from fatal emergencies to advertising shoots and fast-paced AFL matches.

Retiring from The News today, she leaves a legacy larger than most — having become the matriarch of the Shepparton News editorial department many years ago.

Eager for a job as a photographer, Julie took on work experience at The News in her early 30s after getting married, having children and studying her first year of fine arts in Shepparton.

‘‘I was doing my first year of a fine arts degree (majoring in photography) and that’s all that Shepparton offered,’’ she said.

Unable to travel further afield with a family in tow, Julie had soon impressed head of photography Ray Sizer after two stints of work experience at The News’ former offices in High St, Shepparton.

When Julie was offered 20 hours of work a week in the darkroom, she jumped at the opportunity.

‘‘In High St, it was a very, very small space,’’ she said.

‘‘The part where I had to do my filing was a bit like a cupboard. If I pulled my chair back no-one could get past me.’’

She joined a photography team of five and was the only female member of the crew with Ray at the helm, where she spent five years taking on time-consuming and intricate tasks, such as rolling film onto spools as well as archiving the negatives.

It was just a few months before The News shifted to its current home on Goulburn Valley Hwy, where Julie found herself working in one of the country’s most state-of-the-art darkrooms.

‘‘Coming at that time in The News’ life was really exciting,’’ she said.

After five years and three attempts at securing a photography position, Ray gave Julie the opportunity she was waiting for.

‘‘Ray decided to test me out by giving me the job of starting Around Town; so I was the very first Around Town photographer,’’ she said.

She said this often meant nervously approaching pubs and function rooms, unsure of how boisterous the photo subjects would be after one too many beverages.

Soon her 20 hours increased to a full-time position and Julie took on a cadetship, which she completed in record time.

‘‘When I started, all my friends and neighbours and everyone knew how much I wanted to be a photographer, so they were all very happy for me,’’ she said.

‘‘I was so excited.’’

Taking on one of the most challenging positions in the newsroom, Julie not only began her career as a photographer but jumped into a lifestyle she is unsure she’ll ever be able to shake.

‘‘Being a photographer, you’re never really off-duty; I always take my camera around with me in case something happens,’’ she said.

‘‘I don’t know if I’ll ever really get rid of that feeling — that I have to be prepared for any situation.

‘‘It’s a lifestyle; it’s a 24-hour thing.’’

There have been many moments throughout the thousands of images she has captured that took her by surprise or will stay with her forever.

Julie laughed as she recalled an incident where she ended up stuck on a train, headed for Cobram, before the days of mobile phones.

With no way to get in touch with the accompanying journalist left behind on the platform, Julie got on to them via radio and jumped off the train at Numurkah.

But it is moments like photographing a veterinarian operating on a Melbourne Cup contender that had been injured while the race rang out over the radio that continue to give her chills to this day.

She remembered photographing the likes of actor Tom Long and cartoonist and philosopher Leunig, but it was the moments with the general community that she holds dear to her heart.

‘‘We’ve been able to share people’s stories,’’ she said.

‘‘It’s a privilege to be able to sit and talk with someone and share either their excitement or their sadness.’’

With a career spanning as long as Julie’s, she has seen many changes in technology during the years, first starting on a FM2 manual camera progressing through to the digital cameras used today.

‘‘We got our new (digital) cameras and Ray sent us out; it was like Christmas,’’ she said.

‘‘He said, ‘take your film camera and shoot both until you get used to the digital’.

‘‘We went out that morning and we did one job ... and we never used the film again.’’

Ray commended Julie for her outstanding effort across the years and the incredible quality of her images and said she had made a huge contribution to the community.

‘‘She’s not only been photographing, but recording history; her work will be seen for a long time to come,’’ Ray said.

And in turn, Julie thanked Ray for his guidance.

‘‘He’s been a fantastic boss,’’ she said.

‘‘He’s the best photographer I could have worked under.’’

While recording the past three decades, there were times Julie could not be with her friends and family.

‘‘It’s been a great job,’’ she said. ‘‘But one of the hardest things has been having to be on-call a lot.

‘‘I’ve got a very understanding husband (Tony); he’s been a real support and I couldn’t have done it without him.’’

Julie also thanked McPherson Media Group and the McPherson family for not only giving her the job opportunity, but for also maintaining a locally-run newspaper and business.

‘‘I work with lots of wonderful people at The News... they’re a great bunch.’’

See tomorrow’s edition for a double-page picture spread of Julie’s favourite photos.