A Perth photographer who works for free to photograph the sick and disadvantaged is among those nominated for an Australian of the Year award.
Robbie Merritt, whose career has had him photograph Queen Elizabeth, dine with Angelina Jolie and chat with George Clooney, estimates he has helped raise $20 million for charity over the course of his almost four-decade career.
Back home, the East Perth resident works with Telethon and Cancer Support WA - a cause which hits particularly close to home.
"I’ve had blood cancer in the past and kicked it and fought it, when I was seven," the 52-year-old said.
"My father passed away in his early 70s with blood cancer and my mother too – it wasn’t until they passed away I realised cancer charities struggle selling raffle tickets and my whole ethos changed.
"Now about 90 per cent of my life is doing my humanitarian work."
Mr Merritt has travelled worldwide with the World Fashion Organisation and focuses on highlighting political and social issues in the countries he visits.
"I can use the power of my photography change a lot," he said.
"We use it to change the entire infrastructure of countries.
"In 2002 I took photographs of children dying in Middle East and these photos were presented to the UN and there was a ceasefire."
In Southern Africa he helped stem the killing of elephants, which were targeted not for their ivory, but just for their meat.
"You’ve got a fashion show in Lusaka but they’re killing elephants there just for the meat to feed families," he said.
"I said 'Why don’t we gather sewing machines, renovate them and teach them how to sew and manufacture an industry that can help sustain an income?'.
"They don’t have electricity but they can swap clothing for food."
Mr Merritt and his wife, an upcoming fashion designer, are currently in Bali to photograph and raise money for orphaned children.
"We try to work with countries where the Australian dollar is more powerful,” he said.
"This week we’re taking $5,000 and that builds four extensions to an orphanage in Ubud.
"A good wage there is $150 per month.
"When we go over we do what we can for the kids."
But for a photographer whose remaining source of income is high-end portraiture work, it all comes at a cost.
"I don’t earn enough income to get finance anymore and my wife’s credit card is maxed-out trying to get her business up," he said.
"Last year I sold a car to get camera and this year I’m selling my other car to buy cameras to use in Bali.
"I was sitting back last week and my partner Julie was saying to me, 'Where are we going with all this free stuff that you do all over the world?', I said 'Does it matter?', and she said 'No, let’s find an orphanage in Bali'."
Mr Merritt’s photographs of cancer patients and survivors recently exhibited in the Perth Town Hall.
Cancer Support WA hoped he would raise $2,000 – the photographs raised $250,000.
"To meet these cancer survivors has change my life and made me realise I can do so much more with my ability to take photographs," he said.
"It’s not 'part-proceeds' - some photographers make a lot of money from charity work so they say to me 'You’re devaluing photography as an art, you shouldn’t be working in the industry’.
“But then I see a three-year-old kid with cancer in Bali and I think ‘I do want to take that picture, maybe it will make people think twice about lighting up with kids in the car’.”
Mr Merritt said he considered it an accolade just to be nominated for the award.
“When they rang me up I burst into tears,” he said.
“I thought ‘My god I’m 53 this year, at times I’ve had nothing but negativity, why do I work for nothing?’
“But I’ve had lunch and dinner with Angelina Jolie and sat down and had a cigarette with George Clooney, I’ve photographed the Queen - I’ve had a lifetime of enjoying the things that many people only dream of.
“I do it because I can and I’m really fortunate enough to have a supportive, loving partner who respects I want to do this.”
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