Memories of my brother Damien

by Stan A Parer, 7 July 1952

Damien Peter Parer was born on the 1st August, 1912, at Malvern, Victoria, being the 8th child of Mr and Mrs John Arthur Parer. His father was born at Barcelona, Spain and migrated with his parents and other members of the family to Australia at the age of 16. His mother Teresa Carolin was the daughter of John Paul Carolin, over 26 years a councillor at Bendigo and four times Mayor of Bendigo. There were 8 boys and 1 girl of the marriage and Damien was the 7th son.

He spent his childhood years on King Island in Bass Strait and at an early age was sent with his elder brother Adrian (now Father Ferdinand OFM of New Guinea) to the Loretto Nuns, St Aloysius College, Portland, Victoria from 1918-1922. The family then moved to Albury, New South Wales, when Adrian and Damien were sent as boarders to St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, NSW.

Mary Anne Gang St Stanislaus College Bathurst 1926 - group - Adrian Parer (front left with hand on his head) - photo by Damien Parer.jpg
An early photograph of Damien’s using the Kodak box camera. Mary Anne Gang, St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, 1926. Damien’s brother Adrian Parer is front left with hand on his head. Michael S Parer collection.

It was at Bathurst in 1926 that the old family nursemaid presented him with a small Kodak box camera and it was at college that he began his first simple experiments in the art which was to make his name. Later the family returned to Melbourne and Damien finished his education at CBC East St Kilda and St Kevin’s College, Toorak.

He left school at 17 years of age and had made up his mind to make photography his career. Being deeply religious, he did not hesitate to serve God the best way he knew.

He spent six months early training at the studio of Spencer Shier and then apprenticed for four years to Dickinson-Monteath of Melbourne of 1929-1933.

About this time he was reading widely and deeply in cinematography and was fired with the ambition to ultimately break into movies.

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Damien Parer’s Argus winning photograph. Michael S Parer collection.

His first success as an amateur was the winning of an “Argus” photographic competition. With the prize money he purchased a secondhand Graphlex camera and settled down to study in earnest.

His next acquisition was a secondhand 16mm movie camera and his aviator cousin, Mr Ray Parer, gave him an old Bell & Howell projector.

Hiking was then just becoming a vogue and was being greatly stimulated by Victorian Railways publicity. He made an excellent short film on hiking and tried to sell it to the railways, but without success.

At the time an Australian film was being produced by Mr Thring at St Kilda and during his spare time he was allowed to go to the studio for experience.

In 1934 he got his first job in the movies with Charles Chauvel and then from the National Studios in Sydney and at long last his career as a cinematographer had begun. He helped film many Australian pictures including: “Heritage”,  “Uncivilised”,  “Rangle River” and Flying Doctor”. He also worked on the preliminary scenes for “Forty Thousand Horsemen”.

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Night photo of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by Damien Parer. Michael S Parer collection.

When National Studios met with financial difficulties he went back to still work and was associated for a short period with Max Dupain, a leading Sydney photographer.

He then secured a position in the Commonwealth Department in Melbourne making educational and documentary films.

When the first AIF contingent was about to leave for the Middle East in January 1940, he was appointed official War Photographer attached to the Commonwealth Department of Information and went abroad early in January, 1940.

From Greece he sent back a vivid record of the bombing of Ellason, vividly portraying the helplessness of ground forces without adequate air protection.

He was with the troops in Palestine, Syria and then to Tobruk on the gunboat “Ladybird” and photographed the famous Australian 9th Division and their immortal siege of Tobruk. He returned with the AIF to Australia in February 1942 and then proceeded to New Guinea. He photographed the bombing of Port Moresby and the sinking of the “Macdhui” in Port Moresby. His main objective was to film frontline action so that he could tell the world through his camera just how the frontline soldier feels and thinks and to portray the horror and misery of war and the nobility of the ordinary man fighting it.

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A downed Japanese fighter in New Guinea, probably near Port Moresby. Photo by Damien Parer.  Michael S Parer collection.

He hiked over 500 miles in New Guinea with his camera and sent back the world-famous Kokoda Frontline which won the Academy Award in 1943 for documentary films. “For its effectiveness in portraying, simply and yet forcibly, the scene of War in New Guinea and for its moving presentation of the bravery and fortitude of our Australian comrades in arms.”

Men of Timor. Photo by Damien Parer. Michael S Parer collection.

He then went to Timor and brought back the story in his camera of the Lost Battalion there who were eventually rescued.

Back to New Guinea to produce the “Assault on Salamaua” which he himself always considered better than the “Kokoda Trail”.

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Damien’s footage shot over the pilots head while standing up in the Beaufighter. Print from film footage. Michael S Parer collection.

In an RAAF Beaufighter his camera gave us the story of the “Bismark Sea Battle” in which 22 Japanese ships were sunk.

In September 1943, he resigned from the Department of Information and accepted a position with Paramount News, New York and was appointed an official War Photographer with the American troops in the Pacific.

He photographed landings of the American troops at Arawe, Saidor, Cape Gloucester and Los Nagros in New Britain, New Georgia and the Admiralty Islands.

His newsreel was the return of the American troops to their former Naval Base at the Island of Guam in the Pacific. From then on the Americans never looked back until Japan surrendered.

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Damien Parer on Guam in US uniform. Michael S Parer collection.

The next Island they landed at was Peleliu in the Palau group of islands. Damien, whilst walking behind a tank endeavouring to photograph the soldiers’ reactions going into the frontline, was caught in Japanese machine gun cross-fire and was buried in the Wargrave Cemetery at Makasser in the Celebes Islands.

Damien was married on 23rd March, 1944, in Sydney, to Elizabeth Mary Cotter and five months after his death, his son Damien Robert was born on the 15th February, 1945.

He was mentioned in dispatches to the King and received a Commendation from the United States Navy Department for outstanding performance and service.

The camera art of Damien revealed a striking originality and simplicity combined with an intangible note of mysticism.

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First Australians for This Place Australia. Photo by Damien Parer. Michael S Parer collection.

His lens penetrated to the eeriness of a scene and he was at his best when interpreting the great wealth of photogenic material of Australian landscapes, as the gums, the cloud banks, the wide plains, the rugged Australian coastline with its wild unpredictable scenes. He interpreted them as only an artist with an intensive love and appreciation of Australia could do.

His essentially poetic inspiration was manifested in his most artistic work in a ten minute short entitled “This Place Australia” in which he interpreted that high filmic imagination, the famous Henry Lawson poem on Australia.

The pictures of the Australian troops also were characterised in his intense love for truth and that his camera was a medium of an artist’s expression. Undoubtedly, the most impressive trait of Damien’s original and attractive personality was his crusading faith. He was deeply spiritual in his outlook both on life and art. He was not merely a Catholic and a photographer but a Catholic photographer filled with the ambition of using his art in the cause of the Apostolate.

Many are the stories told of his forthright censoring of his confrere’s conduct when on location making films, as outlined in Osmar White’s book “Green Armour”. Osmar White and Damien hiked across New Guinea from Mort Moresby to Salamaua together.

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Damien Parer’s first Communion on the 28th June 1920, Loreto Convent.

Damien was a keen Catholic Actionist and was a member of the Campion Society, Sydney and a founder of an Art Discussion Group. He was closely associated with the film group of the Grail and made a movie of their work in Australia for the Women of Nazareth. In 1939 he filmed the production of “Credo” at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. His greatest devotion was to Our Lady and her Rosary.

On the day of his death he had been to Mass and Holy Communion.

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