Top of the paps


Top of the paps, by Rob Bates - 11th February 2009
(Credit: Wentworth Courier)


It was October 1983, just hours before the US-led invasion of Grenada, and while all the other war correspondents were waiting patiently at the Barbados press centre, Bondi photographer Peter Carrette was sneaking into the incursion zone under the cover of darkness.

"I chartered a boat from a drug smuggler called Wadee for five grand, and went in overnight," Carrette said. "They were about to bomb the shit out of it but I was too stupid to be scared, plus I was stoned out of my tree."

When the bombardment subsided and marines poured out of the landing craft, the first thing they saw on the beach was Carrette and his camera. "It still makes me laugh, remembering the looks on their faces," he said.

To say that Peter Carrette has led a life less ordinary is something of an understatement.

Covering everything from runway shows in Paris to the war in Nicaragua, and working with everyone from The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to Bette Davis and the Dalai Lama, Carrette said his early life in London had yielded no hints of the adventures to come.

"I was a working-class slum kid; I wasn't from the right family and I wasn't really going anywhere," he said. "I'd been taking pictures since I was 12 but I couldn't believe that people actually got paid for that, and certainly not people like me."

Starting out as a copy boy for Sir Frank Packer, Carrette soon earned the old man's affection and was offered a job taking pictures for a rock'n'roll magazine in Australia. From there he realised there was more money in shooting rock stars such as Normie Rowe and Johnny O'Keefe, and there was no looking back.

"I had long hair, so I fitted in nicely with all the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, I did indeed," Carrette said.

After a two-year stint in Paris shooting Vogue covers, Carrette moved to Manhattan where he spent six years chasing stories around the world.

"One week they'd say, 'Right, Prince Andrew's off with a porno star in the Caribbean. Can you go there for a week?' and I'd say, 'Yeah, I reckon I can," Carrette said, laughing. "Then the next week I'd be getting shot at in Nicaragua or El Salvador."

On one such assignment, Carrette was to accompany his good friend and UN goodwill ambassador, Jack Thompson, to repatriate 40 Cambodian orphans from a refugee camp in Thailand to a new orphanage in Cambodia. Little did he know the weeklong trip by bus and train would change his life forever.

"The kids just adopted us; you'd wake up on the train and this innocent little thing would be cuddled up to you," he said.

"They didn't understand possessions and had nothing of their own. You'd give them a balloon, they'd play with it for a bit and at the next railway station they'd give it away."

From that point on, Carrette decided he would help the kids as much as he could, and has returned three or four times every year since.

To this day, whenever Carrette is booked for an exclusive shoot, he asks for payment to go directly to the orphanage.

Pictures of Noelene Hogan's wedding earned the orphanage $25,000 from New Idea, while Michael Caton's wedding earned $30,000.

After 17 years and hundreds of thousands in donations from Carrette and his celebrity friends, what began as one orphanage housing 40 children has grown into 75 separate facilities helping 3000 kids, with four of the original children helping to run the organisation.

When he's not visiting his adopted family or shooting for other humanitarian organisations, Carrette, now 71, manages his celebrity photographic agency, Icon Images, from an apartment overlooking Bondi beach.

He said he resented other paparazzi who "deliberately upset people" for better pictures, calling them "bandits with cameras".

However, he admitted to one "unfortunate incident" in 2006. Responding to what he said was repeated "bad manners" and "abuse" directed at a number of his staff, Carrette and another photographer sprayed Heath Ledger with water pistols at the Sydney premiere of Brokeback Mountain.

"He had spat at two of my photographers, kicked a car door and chased another down the road, so we decided to teach him a lesson," he said.

"I didn't think it would cause as much fuss as it did but it was just unacceptable behaviour and I wanted to make a statement."

Carrette said he treated celebrities with respect. "We don't want nasty pictures, we don't want to upset anyone, and the ones that know me know that. I've grown up with a lot of these people and some have even made donations to the orphanage."

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