Newfoundland and Labrador
It’s so cold outside. Here is a photo from this summer’s buskers’ festival downtown St. John’s. It was a lovely hot day…
We just watched Everybody Street, a documentary about street photography in New York featuring some of the most prominent photographers working in that particular broad genre. The trailer is bellow. Best $5 I’ve spent lately.
I am transcribing some research interviews from Change Islands and Fogo Island. Here is a quote about whether or not a government should have a role in local development:
“They must. They must have roles to play in it all. They should be able to come up with something, but you never hears them talking about it. Just a project or something for a few weeks of work for the hours. That’s not a real job. That’s something to keep us quiet, eh. Just like a bandaid. A bandaid on the situation. Patch it up. Keep the people quiet so they don’t say too much. It shouldn’t be like that. There should be some permanent thing they could put there. They wastes money everywhere else, how come they can’t waste a bit on Change Islands, eh?”
On October 15, I had a chance to speak to provincial library technicians during their annual conference. There was a bit of dithering on my part about what was that I was going to say, but at the end, with the help of one of the organizers, I settled on Library as a Place, which worked reasonably well, I think. Here is the presentation with a script (or something close enough to one).
Good afternoon. My name is Bojan Fürst and I am a photographer and a geographer an I love libraries. Some of you may also know me as the manager of knowledge mobilization with the Harris Centre, which is what I do for a living, but that has nothing to do with what I want to talk about today.
Originally I was going to photograph library technicians and librarians as they work and then speak about that experience and how it relates to another project I am working on. For mostly unpleasant reasons, that did not quite happen. However, I was a bit dubious about that project from the beginning. I’ll tell you why. In 1999, I was flying back home to Croatia from Calgary. I was on a direct flight from Calgary to Frankfurt. Sitting next to me was a very pleasant old lady in her 80s. She was traveling to Venice where her grand-niece, I believe, was getting married. She asked me if I’d like to see a photograph of her niece. I was a polite young man and she was a very nice old lady so I said yes. She, and I am not exaggerating, pulled out some 300 family photos of people I never met and never will and she went through all of them with me. Twice. By the time we landed in Frankfurt, and it is a VERY long flight, I knew two things: 1. I knew a lot about her family; and 2. I knew I am never going to be the old man that makes a complete stranger look at 300 of my photos. Making you sit here and look at photos of some of your colleagues as they go about their work felt a little bit like I was about to break that rule.
One thing most people don’t know about photojournalism, is that there is a lot of waiting that happens between actually making photographs. And that, more than anything else, is the reason why photojournalists often seem to notice things that everybody else misses. It is also why we often muck around with weird ways of taking photographs. We are also like lemmings, always ready to follow the latest trend – even if it kills us at the end. So in 2001 or so, David Brunette, one of the living legends of photojournalism, got himself a cheap, plastic, Chinese made, holga camera. It is as rudimentary a photo tool as you can get. In the hands of David Brunett, however, it became a superb photographic tool. He used it to photograph Al Gore during his presidential campaign. Next thing you know, every photojournalist is rocking one of these plastic and pretty much useless things. As a good little lemming, I got one, too. Now, to my eternal credit, I did realized that as good as David Brunett is, photographing Al Gore with a plastic camera probably had more to do with the fact that the photo ended up on the front pages of some of the world’s largest newspapers than the camera itself. Since Al Gore was not available, I carried that camera around with me without actually making any photographs – until the day I had some time to kill between assignments in Fredericton. Those of you who know Fredericton, know that it is not the most exciting place on the planet. It was a summer day, it was hot, and I was pointlessly driving around.
And than I saw this sign in front of a little corner store. Before I got an ice-cream, I pulled out my plastic holga and I made this photograph. For me, this was a beginning of a fascination with place making. Let’s look at a few more corner stores, but only a few. And let’s play “spot it” while we at it.
What is fascinating to me about these photographs is the perfect blend of the familiar and the unique. Each of these stores advertises the familiar. Smart move because it lets us immediately feel safe. We know exactly what is that we are going to find inside. What is wonderful about them is that they are also very much unique places reflecting the personalities of their owners, but also the larger community they are situated in.
It was photographing corner stores that started to turn me into a geographer. Geographers think about space and place a lot. In fact, some would argue that the “most enduring legacy of humanistic geography is [its] theoretical engagements with notions of space and place.” And if you look at some of the definitions of place and space we came up with, you could be excused if you thought we think about it way too much. We talk about mobility, about time-space compression, about commodifcation of space and place. We talk about the destruction of the vernacular and the leisuring of rural landscapes. We talk about place as “a qualitative, total phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its parts or properties without losing its concrete character.” We, as geographers, try so hard to be impartial, objective, scientific, clever and complex, that the best advice I can give you is to stop talking to geographers about place and instead ask architects. I am kidding, but only just so… I envy architects. They are the only people I know of who comfortably straddle the world of art, science and spirituality and, the really good ones anyway, can talk about it in a rational and engaging way without sounding flaky. So for our purposes today, I think Christian Norberg-Schulz’s definition of place will do nicely. He says that “the spaces where life occurs are places… A place is a space which has a distinct character.” Just like those corner stores have distinct characters.
And if you are interested in things like place and space and distinct characters, than islands are among the best places to explore all those things. Being a Croatian, my encounter with islands started in childhood. We have over a thousand of them and sooner or later you will end up visiting one of them. But my true involvement with the islands started in a resettled community of Wood Island just off the coast of Grand Manan in New Brunswick. I was working on a story for CBC radio about the reunion that takes place on the island every year. It was August of 2008. It was windy and overcast with light rain. But there was not enough wind or enough rain to prevent the islanders from making their customary annual visit to their ancestral home.
It takes about 10 minutes on a small boat to cross from Seal Cove on Grand Manan Island to Wood Island. There is not much left there: a church gleaming white among the island greenery, an old schoolhouse, a cemetery, and three houses scattered around the island that serve as summer residences. What there is left is a strong sense of attachment and identity among those who moved away from their homes in 1950s as the provincial government refused to provide any services to the island community. Hence, every year, the former islanders and their descendants board a small boat and get together for a church service and a reunion. It is a story only too familiar to most Newfoundlanders. It was towards the end of my stay on Wood Island that I managed to talk to one of the last teachers who had taught at the island school. She tried to explain to me just what the island meant to her. This is what she said. “In the winter, I might feel down and my husband knows – he’ll drive me to Seal Cove just to look over and get a fix. It’s awesome.”
Islands are funny places. Geographers can’t really figure out how to define them and so we don’t really know how many islands are there in the world. You think it would be easy. Tim Robinson, writing about his time on Aran islands off the coast of Ireland recounts the anecdote from his first day on the island: “On the day of our arrival we met an old man who explained the basic geography: “The ocean,” he told us, “goes all around the island.”” What Edmond and Smith call “obstinate separateness” of islands has been drawing people to those specks of land in the sea for centuries. Islands are mysterious, romantic, sites of paradises and prisons. They are difficult to get to and appear stubbornly unique in a world that has “institutionalize placelessness.” The islanders manage to hang on to the authenticity of their island communities and we all want to figure out how they do it. How do they hold on to a life as Ann Buttimer writes “which is attuned to the rhythms of nature, … anchored in human history and directed toward a future?” How do they “build a home which is the everyday symbol of a dialogue with one’s ecological and social milieu.”
It’s not easy and it requires generations. There is an art to living on an island and it is a complicated one to master. Talk to islanders and they will tell you that the best thing about an island is that you know everybody. They will also tell you that, after a lousy ferry service, the worst thing about living on an island is that you know everybody. But knowing everybody is exactly one of those things that makes islands such unique places. It takes human interaction – unplanned, unavoidable and sustained random human interaction – for a space to become a place. Another architect, Canadian Avi Friedman, said that sense of place is an outcome of the physical features that surround us, the space between them and the interactions that happen among those for whom the places are built for. It so happens that small islands seem to naturally encourage those meaningful interactions in ways that it is becoming difficult for most of us living in urban and especially suburban environments to experience.
And when I say difficult, I mean difficult. In urban environments we all live in, and I swear I will be talking about the libraries soon, we have worked really hard to remove even a chance of a random meeting in a public space. Among my photographic interests is street photography. It is a branch of photographic expression with a long history that has created some of the best loved photographs we all know. Cynics would say that street photography appeals to me because I am an introvert who needs a reason to leave his house and an opportunity to hide behind the camera, but that is not true. I love street photography because it is unpretentious, honest, and it requires engagement and involvement with the world outside of our doorstep in precisely the ways that are conducive to place making. Except, it is really, really difficult to do street photography in St. John’s.
There are no natural public spaces here. Our streets, even in the heart of downtown are mostly empty. I call this photograph “The Optimist.” What else could he be playing to the empty streets? And while we can build our urban environments to encourage place making and development of a shared identity, the fact remains that we don’t. However, I do believe that a quest for a sense of place and a sense of identity is so strong in us that we will find ways to engage in its creation no matter what.
Let me tell you one more kind of a funny photojournalism story. In 2006, I went to cover a story in Bosnia for a Canadian magazine about Canadian efforts to rebuild Bosnian health care system. It was a very successful program carried out by Queen’s University department of family medicine and funded by CIDA. In the old socialist system in former Yugoslavia, we did not have family doctors in a Canadian sense. You had a GP that was attached to your place of work or to your school. So my mom had her doctor, my dad had his doctor, my brother had a paediatrician as did all other elementary school kids and I had a doctor that took care of my high school classmates. It was a bit of a mess. If you need to see your doctor you would take your health card and you would go in early in the morning to your doctor’s office and you would wait as long as it took to be called in. The Canadians came in, introduce the concept of a family doctor, and, crucially, the idea that you can make an appointment to see your doctor at a prearranged time therefore eliminating hours of waiting time. It worked like a charm and everybody loved it, except the retired people who just would not accept the new system. Canadians and Bosnians got frustrated and decided to conduct a thorough survey and figure out why did these old-timers insist on showing up before the office even opened and then waited until the doctor could see them. It turned out that for the elderly patients, a doctor’s waiting room was a social place. They talked with their peers there, they played chess and backgammon, knitted sweaters and hats for their grandkids. In most cases, they did not even really need to see a doctor at all. So now, some community health centres simply have a community room, where anybody can come and have a cup of tea or coffee and do all those things they did while waiting for a doctor and sometimes there is even a nurse or a student measuring their blood pressure and providing advice about their medication or nutrition. Family doctors’ waiting rooms were places and yet nobody understood that.There are other such places that we create for very specific purposes, but that perform a dual role. For example, architect Avi Friedman lists farmers’ markets as one of those places. He says that markets “not only provide basic amenities and contribute to economic vitality, but they act as social magnets. They are scenes of trade, as well as places for communal interaction and gathering spots where one can watch the theatre of life.” I would argue that libraries are also such places. And we are enormously attached to them. We have all heard about the cellist of Sarajevo and Sarajevo market where people died in mortar and sniper fire, but one story that we don’t hear very often is the story of National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a repository of knowledge and identity and in 1992 it was mercilessly shelled by Serbian forces in a campaign designed to erase any evidence of just how complex the identity of Sarajevans and Bosnians really was. I wish I had a better photograph of it. During the shelling, majority of the books and manuscripts did not survive the fire, but nonetheless, citizens and librarians worked under fire to save as many of the books as possible. At least one person died. True places, like libraries and markets, and public squares, matter immensely to us - enough that we are willing to protest against their destruction, fight to save them, and, as in Bosnian example, even die for them.
I believe that libraries are vital when it comes to place and place making. American feminist and social activist bell hooks once said that “One of the most subversive institutions in the United States is the public library.” Some 18 years ago, in my first year of college I discovered that I am a photographer in Calgary Public Library. Also there, I attended a lecture, and I can’t even remember who it was that was speaking, but that person was introduced by the director of the Calgary Public Library who said that every single one of us in the audience should be able to find at least one book in his library that would offend us. And if we couldn’t find such a book, than he failed as a librarian. I never forgot that.
Good libraries are much more than repositories for books and periodicals. They are not about buildings, or comfortable chairs. The good ones are true places. That means that they bring together people who would otherwise have no need to meet or interact with each other. They are truly subversive in a sense that, while making us perfectly comfortable, they also make us expand our worlds, confront our ignorance and make us better people whether we want it or not. Every good library is at the heart of its community. That is certainly the case of the Memorial University Library System and places like the Resource Library at the Faculty of Education.
You as library technicians, archivists, and librarians have enormous responsibility. Avi Friedman, at the end of his book “A Place in Mind” writes that today “The number of meeting places and their quality has diminished. Neighbourhoods, built for seclusion, have fewer people, fewer or no sidewalks, walking or bike paths, benches or civic squares. We have fewer public markets or corner stores.” But we still have libraries and you are the custodians of those places. Neil Gaiman said that the “Rule number one is: Don’t fuck with librarians.” And he couldn’t be more right. We need libraries that are at the heart of their community, the way our library is here at the university. We need libraries that are easy to access and libraries that challenge us to be better when we leave them than we were when we came in; libraries that are true places where communal life is lived to its fullest. I did not photograph library technicians at work, because I am not sure I know how to photograph people whose work is not to catalogue books, answer questions and mend broken spines, but to create places that make the heart of who we are. So instead of giving you photographs, I just want to say thank you.
We really wanted to go for a walk this weekend and we asked Little Miss F. to pick a destination. She picked, to our surprise and delight, MUN Botanical Garden. The colours were spectacular. I suspect we missed the full glory of the autumn in the garden, but it was still pretty special.
Feeding the ducks was, of course, the highlight of the walk, although the pumpkin patch was close with its appropriately freaky Halloween display.
If you haven’t been there in a while it’s really worth a visit. Seriously folks. I think we may have run into maybe six other people. This is one of those St. John’s hidden gems. We try to go at least once in every season and every time we have such great time walking the trails that we always promise ourselves to do it again soon and then it’s spring, or winter or whatever and we are back to once-a-season schedule.
There is still time left to enjoy the autumn colours in the garden even if all the time you have is a half hour lunchtime walk.
Thank you. Thank you for all the comments and tweets and Facebook updates and emails on the previous immigration post. I am trying to catch up with all of it and I am pretty sure there are on-line conversations that were going on that I am not aware of at all. I will try to respond and follow all of you who decided to say something about it. Maybe that is what is needed the most – one big conversation to figure out how do we all deal with each other’s differences, expectations and needs. It won’t be easy, but let’s keep talking.
And a special thank you to a couple of you who commented on the photographs on this blog. When all is said and done, I am first and foremost a photographer so keep coming back. There may not be great discussions about hot button issues here every time you click, but there are always going to be photographs.
I am about to write something I promised myself I will never write.
A friend in Saint John, New Brunswick, who runs an interesting little media company called WickedIdeas, posted on her Facebook account a story about the provincial government urging everybody who has something to say about what New Brunswick can do to attract and retain immigrants to do so. I had this post in me for a long time, but I always thought that maybe I am holding too much of a grudge and that the time is not right to air all of it. But, since they asked, I’ll oblige.
We lived in New Brunswick for eight years. We moved there as starry-eyed newlyweds after driving across the country in a 1973 volkswagen SuperBeetle. It was older than either of us, rusty and packed to the roof with everything we owned including a bicycle. We drove for over 4,000 kilometres from Calgary all the way to Bathurst and we did not even have a shoe string budget. Probably the craziest thing we ever did.
Bathurst was an eyeopener in many ways and not good ones. I worked for an insane editor who did not dare to bully me, but he did bully everybody else. That is not what made us move. What made us move was the fact that my wife had rocks thrown at her as she walked down a path because she was an “English bitch” as one of the charming young men called after her. We moved because after we went to Youghall Beach on a Sunday with a pressman and his fiancé, I was summoned into my darkroom by his foreman who warned me not to socialize with those people because their class status is below mine. We moved because people called daily to ask my editor why he hired a foreigner and not a local person.
We lasted six months and than we moved to Saint John. It was better. We both had jobs and we made some friends – come-from-aways like us mostly, but not all. Those of our New Brusnwick friends, and you know who you are, you have no idea what your friendship meant to us because it was such an exception.
Our first daughter was born two years after we moved to Saint John. I came to work a couple of days later and the person working in the office next to mine walked in. She did not offer her congratulations. She did not ask about my wife and the baby. What she said was: “You know it takes three generations to become a Maritimer?”
Every once in a while I would get a call at work from somebody ranting against immigrants. My favourite was a lady from St. Martins who called me at the charity I worked for because she thought we helped a little boy from Afghanistan get a heart surgery in Canada that saved his life. Unfortunately, that good deed had nothing to do with us, but it did not stop her from telling me that all those dirty immigrants are just coming to take local jobs, if not outright steal from honest New Brunswickers.
My wife was an investigative reporter at a daily who had her work belittled and stolen by those who hired her. When she broke a major story implicating local businessmen and politicians in an immigration scam, she was told that she does not understand local business culture, being from away and all that. She was told not to write anything longer than 500 words without a special permission.
Our second daughter was born. Then the government canceled Early French Immersion program effectively denying educational opportunities to our children. That was in many ways the last straw.
On top of that, my wife’s workplace became downright abusive. At that point, I freelanced full time. I could get work for Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK as well as on national and regional CBC programs, but not locally.
Our friends were experiencing the same brick walls of nepotism and cliquishness we faced. They started moving away. And so did we.
Let me tell you about our very first day in Newfoundland. We’ve never been to St. John’s or to Newfoundland and we did not know a soul here. That first day we went for a walk downtown to find the French immersion school our daughter was going to attend. We found it and liked it. We walked down King’s Road towards Duckworth Street when this grizzled old man ran out of his house and yelled: “Wait, wait, wait…” We were rooted to the spot not quite sure what the heck is going on – our five-year old standing beside us and the one-year old in a stroller. The old man came back carrying a giant polar teddy bear and he said: “I won this in a raffle once. I’ve been waiting for a little girl to pass by so I could give it to her. So, here you go.” My older daughter, hugging this teddy bear almost as big as she was, was speechless and so were we. I would stop and chat with this man sometimes after we moved into that neighbourhood – he did not remember I was the dad of the girl he gave that polar bear to a year ago. I am not sure he even remembered the incident. It was just something he did. I know his name. I know he would have preferred if Newfoundland became a US state rather than a Canadian province. I even made a photograph of him once.
There were many such incidents.
My wife wrote a story for Toronto Star on storytelling tradition in Newfoundland and for that story she interviewed actor Andy Jones – the same way she interviewed hundreds of people in New Brunswick. A month or two later, it was a Sunday and we were walking to Sobeys to pick something up around 2 p.m. when Andy came out of his house and said: “Come in, come in. I have a new puppy. The girls would love to see him.” We left close to midnight that evening after a dinner and an afternoon and evening filled with stories and laughter.
Of course, there have been terrible moments here. We had professional disappointments. We had a nasty landlord. We had a leaky roof and a wasp nest under the clapboards. We had a drug dealer on our street, but we worked with our neighbours and we made the neighbourhood safe again. Childcare has been hard to organize, and housing and food are expensive and there are days in March when you wish to be anywhere else but on this rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. And then a friend comes over and you have a cup of tea or mulled wine and you forget that the wind is blowing at 130km/h and the uncanny mix of rain, snow and ice is falling sideways as usual.
We’ve been here five years. People ask me every day where I am from. They don’t ask because they are angry I have a job, but because they want to fit me into the master narrative of this place or, if I am on Change Islands or Fogo Island, they simply want to know what is that my people fish. That’s what they are like, these Newfoundlanders. They somehow learned how to take what they like and share what they have with those who come from just about anywhere. They will teach you how to make fishcakes in exchange for a Mediterranean fish soup recipe or simply for a good story. They are comfortable with who they are, so they let you be who you are.
If New Brunswick wants to attract immigrants, New Brunswickers will have to make peace with who they are. They have to stop being paranoid about everybody and everything. The world is not out to get you, although there are some very rich folks among you you should keep a better eye on.
Immigrants are not some exotic species of a bird that you can attract by planting the right kind of a tree. You have to accept that we are no different than you. We are not less human than you or more entrepreneurial or smarter or dumber or better or worse educated. We want the same things you do: good neighbours, safe streets, jobs, decent housing, good schools that give our children an opportunity to be the best they can be. We may not speak perfect English or prefect French, but we might speak Croatian, or Urdu, or Farsi, or German, or Dutch, or Mandarin or any other of the hundreds of languages out there in the world. Make us feel like there is a place for us and we will share everything we have with you and be just as passionate about your province and your communities as you are even if we are not third generation Maritimers and even if our family did not come to New Brunswick shores on the first Loyalist ship or during the terrible tragedy that was the expulsion of Acadians. We will volunteer and contribute to our new communities if you give us a chance to build some stability in our lives without feeling like permanent outsiders because we have accents, darker skin, or sometimes wear funny clothes. Don’t expect all of us to be entrepreneurs – most of you are not. Some of us will be entrepreneurs, others will be teachers, and potters, and photographers, and chefs, and some of us will sell delicious samosas at the City Market.
What you do need to understand, though, is that treating us like outsiders even when we spend years trying to make New Brunswick home will make us leave and we will never come back.
My family, we miss our New Brunswick friends. We miss the City Market and the skywalk and the library and the museum and the Buskers’ Festival and every June our older daughter talks about the fair and the rides at the Harbour Station. We miss Canada Day and New Year’s fireworks over the harbour – they don’t do fireworks quite as well here. We miss our landlady terribly. She was like a grandmother to our kids. She was an immigrant, too and her kids are only first generation Maritimers so not yet a real deal, I guess. What we don’t miss are petty snubs, blatant nepotism and constant reminder that we are not part of the place we chose to call home.
If you want immigrants from abroad and from other parts of Canada, you will first and foremost need to be kind. It will make an enormous difference.
Spent the morning in Middle Cove for a work related project.
And this glorious summer is over. The nights and mornings are cold. We turned on the heater in our living room yesterday for a couple of hours in the morning. The photographs here are from a few days ago. We were flying kites on Signal Hill with some friends and eating apple strudel. It was a lovely way to spend the last of this summer.
I have a terrible case of cabin fever. I can hear my mom muttering as she reads this: “Samo da mu guzica vidi puta.” If only his ass could get on the road. She is right, of course. A trip would be a cure. Istanbul or Paris would be nice. Sarajevo or Venice. Havana. Montreal would do. Anywhere, really, where I could be a flâneur- an admirer of street life. A week of walking unfamiliar streets would be a bliss. Susan Sontag, who got so much wrong about photography, never understood that it is not about the hunt in “urban inferno,” but about feeling the energy of human interactions and ideas playing themselves out in a swirl of street life. A flâneur (or a boulevardier) is, to borrow Baudelaire’s phrase, “a gentleman stroller of city streets. An observer and a dispassionate chronicle of street life.” It doesn’t have to be a city –I’d love a long hike in the countryside, through a small village or a town just as much.
There is a certain amount of masochism involved in trying to be a street photographer in St. John’s. Tapping into the energy of empty streets is a terribly depressing thing – or maybe it is a sign of optimism. Look at the guy in the photo above. Every time I see him playing his accordion to empty streets, I feel he’s the most optimistic person I ever met.
This is not a unique St. John’s problem or even a Newfoundland problem, although it is certainly striking in a place like Corner Brook on the West Coast where the city centre feels like a ghost town.
It’s actually unsettling to walk those streets. A walk on an empty street has that same claustrophobic feeling of one of the most brilliant movie scenes ever shot – the waiting scene from “High Noon.” (In fact, every photographer should watch that film over and over again – Floyd Crosby is the brilliant director of photography.)
Listening to the recent discussion on the radio about parking downtown, I am convinced that this lack of street life is in large part, if not exclusively, direct product of the bizarre car culture we live in here. Every decision we make is based around cars. Where are you going to locate your business? Wherever you can get parking. What is the guiding priority for a location of a new university facility? Parking. Farmers’ Market location? Well, wherever we can get parking. It’s a completely bonkers way to organize urban life, but there you go. And than a breath of fresh air comes from the president of the Board of Trade of all people. On a CBC morning show he talks about the need for a public transit strategy and how regional transportation should be one of the issues in the coming municipal election. He says a lot of other things and he gets all of it right. I feel like cheering him on.
After the interview, the CBC morning host asks the listeners something along the lines “So and so from the Board of Trade says parking should be an election issue. Do you agree?” And I scream at the radio: “No! No! No! That’s not what he said!” But there you have it, parking trumps everything.
Off I go to photograph empty streets… or maybe mix a Boulevardier.
These are the photographs from this year’s Memorial Day ceremony. While most Canadians spend the the morning of July 1 preparing for a day of celebration of all things Canadian, Newfoundlanders spend some time remembering hundreds of their compatriots who lost their lives at the battlefields of Europe during the World War I. Today, the remembrance is extended to other veterans as well. This year’s crowd seemed smaller than usual, but I might be confusing this with the Remembrance Day crowds which always number in thousands.
Ah… a neglected blog. No particular reason why it’s neglected. I have been photographing a lot, experimenting with different films and developers and have several projects on the go.
The photograph above was made a week or so ago at The Rooms, provincial art gallery and archives. There are two large new museum exhibits about Newfoundland and Labrador that I would highly recommend. There is also a huge retrospective of the work of Mary Pratt, a realist painter originally from New Brunswick, but making most of her work in Newfoundland. Little Miss F loves the Pratt exhibit. I posted the above photograph on my flickr account and a lot of people seem to like it so I thought I’d share it here too.
The film is Efke KB50 in Rodinal… Not impressed.
Apologies in advance for analog photographer geek post. I am in love with HP5+ exposed at 1600 ISO and developed in Rodinal at 1:50 concentration at 20ºC for 24 minutes. I love everything about it, which is really funny because I dislike HP5+. I really tried to like it at its stated 400 speed, but it just did not work for me. This – this is a whole other story. Over the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with Blazinal developer, a Canadian version of famous Rodinal, one of the oldest photographic chemicals still in use. It was originally patented in 1891. It’s the stuff of legends. I tried so far Rodinal with HP5+, Pan F, Efke KB50, Delta 100, HP5+ at 100 ISO. I tried 1:25 dilution and 1:50 dilution and until I saw HP5+ at 1600 I was really not all that impressed to be honest. But this – wow.
On top are The Rooms. Bellow is Duckworth Street, Carter’s Hill, and lonely public phones at the University Centre.
I am a bit surprised, in a good way, about the attention my presentation to to the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association has been getting. There are even some interesting projects that might come out of it. Somehow, CBC has learned about my talk and I had a chance to speak with On The Go host Ted Blades (also a photographer and a former rangefinder user.) Here is a link to that conversation.
The photo was made on Fogo Island.
On Monday, I delivered the following presentation to the Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association at their annual conference. This is a rough script – not 100% accurate.
I am going to make one of those terrible presenter mistakes and start my talk with a disclaimer. In your programs, it says that I am manager of knowledge mobilization with The Harris Centre and that is true. Except, what I am going to say today has nothing to do with my work work and I am most certainly not speaking on behalf of the Harris Centre… Phew… What I am going to do is share quite a few photographs and a lot of personal opinion.
With that out of the way, let me thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today. It is actually quite rare for photographers to have a chance to speak to non-photographers… or anyone for that matter. To have a chance to speak to an audience of librarians, archivists and curators is indeed a special treat and I am grateful to Amanda for approaching me in the first place.
I have only about 20 minutes, so there are going to be a lot of generalizations in the things I say today. I am sorry about that, but feel free to ask questions, email me or simply ask me to go out for a cup of coffee or a beer and I’ll be happy to talk your ear off with nuances of everything I am about to say.
I want to talk about three things that are, or at least should be, interlinked. I’d like to talk about photography as a research tool; photography as a communications tool; and the importance of photography collections and why I think that archivists, curators and librarians who understand photographs are incredibly important to us photographers, but also to researchers and society at large.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself. My original degree is in journalism. My photojournalism education left a lot to be desired. It was focused on news photography and sports and I would have never become a photographer if not for one assignment in my first year that, as clichéd as that sounds, changed my life. We were asked to write an essay about a photographer whose work we liked. I did not have a favourite photographer at that time so I did the only sensible thing – I went to a library. Calgary Public Library had, and for all I know still has, a decent collection of photography books on its ground floor.
There, I discovered a book of photographs by Swiss photographer Werner Bischof. Those photographs were a revelation. Nobody ever told me that as a photographer you can build a substantial, even exhaustive, body of work that goes well beyond a single news photograph. I did not think about it in those terms then, but what appealed to me was the fact that Werner Bischof was a photographer who was doing research – systematically investigating matters of interest.
Journalism and photojournalism as industries are in trouble these days although, I think, they suffer largely from self-inflicted wounds. Like many, I left the industry and had other jobs, but slowly started developing my own photo-research projects. I photographed my neighbourhood in Saint John, New Brunswick.
I photographed a crew of a tug boat, city’s chefs, and city streets. I had this idea about working on a project about small islands. Eventually, I decided to give photojournalism another try so I worked full time as a freelancer for about a year.
This is my most published photograph from that year. This woman, whose maiden name was Weed, was not allowed to use her maiden name on the license plate of her new Mustang because New Brunswick government thought that it could be seen as promoting marijuana or something like that. The photograph was made for CanWest News and it was published in newspapers right across the country. For a year afterwards, when you googled my name, you would get a page of variations on this photo. I hated this photograph. To me, it was everything that was wrong with photojournalism – shallow, pointless and with no impact. But I still loved photography. And I still wanted to photograph small islands.
It so happened that five years ago, I had a chance to move to Newfoundland. Which was, obviously, great if you wanted to photograph islands. I turned portion of that idea about small islands into an MA project. My ethics approval did not allow for photographs of people so I reinvented myself as a landscape photographer.
As I was doing my research, photography was just a tiny part of it. Given the nature of my investigation, that was fine. However, as I built a collection of photographs from Croatia and Newfoundland, I started asking questions. Why do Newfoundlanders build with wood and Croatians with stone?
Why do houses in a Croatian fishing village stubbornly stick together, while houses in a Newfoundland fishing village spread themselves along the shore? Is it really just matter of climate or can we see here political, economic and social layers that create island identities?
Over the past 30 years, a rift seems to have opened between the academic research and those like me actually making photographs. On the academic side, we developed some pretty impressive ways to analyse photographs.
Dr. Gillian Rose has an excellent overview in a book called “Visual Methodologies.” She identified eight different kinds of analysis. They are: compositional interpretation, content analysis, semiology, discourse analysis I, discourse analysis II, audience studies, anthropological approach to photographs…
Each of these is useful in its own way as an analytical tool. If you wanted to analyse portraits of St. John’s residents in 1902, some of these would be very useful indeed. What they are not terribly useful for is actually creating a photographic body of work as a part of a research process. In fact, outside of how-to-books these days more concerned with digital editing techniques than actual photography, you will find very little about photography as a research practice. For that, you have to step across the divide and talk to photojournalists and documentary photographers. They, unfortunately, may not have time to talk.
They are caught between a horrendous mismanagement of the outlets they work for and unprecedented technological changes in their craft. They are trying to demonstrate the relevance of deliberate and thoughtful photography in today’s image saturated world and develop new forms of storytelling that will keep the viewers, and the advertisers, glued to real and virtual pages.
One thing both groups, the academics and the practitioners, have in common is their concern with ethics in photography. But even here we have a rift. Academic rules of institutional ethics are largely driven by universities’ desire to protect themselves from liability, while photographers’ concerns are much more nuanced they get completely lost in the current fight between the photographers and their employers over who actually owns photographers’ work.
The result of focus on liability among academic administrators is a virtual ban on creation of new photographic work within academic context. In fact, the “ethics creep” is now spilling over even into more mundane methods of academic research such as interview. Here at Memorial, you are advised by the ethics board not to ask questions that might upset the person you are having a conversation with. I am afraid that road leads directly to boring research that nobody cares about enough to even get upset by it. But I digress.
To summarize so far: We live surrounded by photographic material, more so than ever before. Yet, we have a situation where academic researchers are almost solely preoccupied with analysing other peoples’ work. There is no concern with the actual creation of new photographic documentary material and we do not teach the actual craft of photography at all as part of our methodology classes – not even in visual methodologies. In fact, in this country, through the ethics process, we made it nearly impossible to engage in photographic practice as a valid research method.
Depriving ourselves of a research tool is only a part of the problem. We are also denying ourselves an excellent communications tool and, to use a phrase tossed so lightly these days, an engagement tool. Let me explain what I mean with a historical reference and a personal story.
The most extensive, deliberately created collection of documentary photographs anywhere in the world is about 80 years old. To this day, the work of Farm Security Administration photographers such as Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, under the directorship of Roy Stryker remains unchallenged. Their work still inspires debate about the Great Depression and still serves as a bar many a documentary photographer aims for. We are incredibly lucky here in Newfoundland and Labrador to have, in the Fogo Process films, another example of a deliberate creation of a visual record of a particular place and point in time. We also have great work from Candace Cochrane, Greg Lock, Jamie Lewis and Sheilagh O’Leary made in subsequent years. It is fragmented, but it is there.
In both cases, the intent was not to just record and witness, but to open channels of communications and influence public opinion and public policy. I am perfectly willing to admit that both of those collections are, for all intents and purposes, propaganda as much as they are a documentary material. In the case of FSA, the administration explicitly set as the goal of the photographic program “to introduce America to Americans” and influence public policy. In the case of Fogo Island, with huge support from the university and the National Film Board, the Fogo Process aimed to start dialogue between Fogo islanders and the government, again with the explicit goal of influencing public policy. Above all, those photographic and film collections were a superb communications tools that still, decades after the creation of that material, engage citizens in a dialogue about the way we live our everyday lives.
Most of the time, that ability of photographs to create dialogue is something researchers and art galleries, and sometimes photographers forget. When we as researchers, and I am very much guilty of it myself, use photographs, we merely treat them as illustrations and a sort of a marker that says “I, Bojan Fürst, have been conducting research on Change Islands and this photograph is a proof of it.” We could use photographs to do so much more than that.
Let me tell you a quick story. About two years ago, my supervisor invited me to visit Fair Island in Indian Bay. Fair Island is a resettled community that used to be a home to her husband and now is a cottage island for the families that used to live there. While there, I took some photographs because that’s what I do.
I thought this was the most important photograph I took that day. What you see here are two men making fish. There is nothing remarkable about this photograph except that neither of these two men is a fisherman. One is a pipe fitter and the other one is a marketing executive with a video gaming company. They are engaged in an activity they both see as an important part of their identity, but an activity that is economically meaningless. All of that in a community that officially does not even exist. The geographer in me thought this may be in many ways a quintessential photograph of 21st century rural Newfoundland. I made other photographs that day and I posted one of them on my blog. That’s how Dr. Beverly Diamond and Dr. Katie Szego found it and asked me if they can use it in a film they were making as a part of a class project about Stan Pickett, an accordion player originally from Fair Island. I was invited to attend a screening and had a chance to meet Mr. Pickett.
I was introduced to Stan and we got chatting. I pulled out my laptop and showed him a couple of other photos from Fair Island. His eyes glanced over the fish-making photo, but the little pond, the pillars of the old church and the photo of stages and stores at the end of a wharf caught his attention. It turns out that the little pond known as ‘the rink’ sitting in ‘the meesh’ or marsh was not just a place to play a game of hockey, but also a major social space. There were bonfires on the neighbouring hills and games and midnight runs with torches between the hills. Stan could just spin one story after another and I kept wishing I had a recorder rolling.
This photo brought the memories of what he called “old-year-out-new-year-in-day” and downhill races in an old wooden punt that would end at the bottom of the gulch and, sometimes, in the ocean. And the church pillars? Well it was his dad who started the church and… It was magical. It was as if those photographs opened a dam holding back years of memories.
Photographs can do that because, as Dr. Rob Finley once told me, our photo albums are really oral histories. So we as researchers and photographers have to start using our photographs to start some of those conversations. For some time now photojournalists and documentary photographers have been trying to do that. Larry Towell’s exhibits are sometimes accompanied by sounds and artifacts he collects in the field while photographing. Jim Goldberg takes his photographs back to those who appear in them and asks them to write their responses on the actual prints creating unique pieces of collaborative art.
There are always going to be issues of who has the right to photograph whom. We are never going to be rid of those questions. I think we have to be aware of those issue, but at the same time we cannot let fear prevent us from exploring and using photography in our research and as a communications and a collaboration tool. In academia, we don’t teach the actual practice of photography and we limit its use through an onerous ethics process designed to minimize liability rather than actually address ethical concerns – especially in social research. Photographers and photojournalists are consummate craftspeople, but given the current state of the media they have little support and even less recognition for the work they do. They have even less time and no support to take on long term documentary projects. Right there is an opportunity for collaboration.
But researchers and photographers and those like me who do combine both skills cannot do it alone. We need support and that’s where you as curators, archivists and librarians come in. We don’t need money from you, although feel free to send some our way. We need the second pair of eyes, we need guidance and passion. We need you to build collections, we need you to guide us as we build our own collections, we need you to help us find innovative ways to show and display photographs and allow others to engage with them. In some ideal world, you would have power to commission photographers to fill in the gaps in existing collections and create brand new ones. Wouldn’t be great if the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Provincial Archives, the provincial art bank, the Department of Geography and CNA’s photojournalism students from Stephenville found a way to work together to answer some questions that we need answered. What does it mean to live in rural Newfoundland today? What is working in off shore industry like? Are we going to have systematic visual record of the construction of the Lower Churchill hydro project – the largest infrastructure projects in the province’s history?
It is ironic that in the age when photography is so readily available we are going to have perfect record of our cappuccino foam designs, but may not know what an iron mine in western Labrador looks like. I know that these are not terribly progressive times. We as cultural workers, if you will, are going through hard times in an age of unprecedented prosperity. We have provincial and federal governments perfectly willing to reduce public libraries and archives into mere warehouses.
But governments and government policies are not forever. Because these are the hard times – this is also the time to dream. Remember, Dorothea Lang and the FSA worked in the hardest of times to make iconic photographs. My dream is that all of us together will soon start working on introducing Newfoundland and Labrador to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.
Change Islands, The Great Fogo Island Punt Race to There and Back…
Today, I am giving a presentation on the links between research, photography and librarians/curators/archivists at the annual Newfoundland and Labrador Library Association conference.
This post is sort of a resource post to back up some of the things I say in that talk. So if you are a regular reader, I hope you find it useful. If you are coming here for the first time as a result of the talk, welcome…
Haggerty, Kevin. “Ethics Creep: Governing Social Science Research in the Name of Ethics.” in Qualitative Sociology.
Farm Security Administration collection at the Library of Congress (Really??? In 2013 you have a website that looks like that???)
The Fogo Process webpage at the University of Guelph that is now a home for the Snowden Collection
Greg Lock’s Journey into a Lost Nation
Jamie Lewis’s They Let Down Baskets
We are not having a good week. Miss F and M have strep throat. Miss F is on antibiotics, but the doctor told M he prefers not to treat strep throat in adults since it goes away on its own and the chance of complications is small. So she just suffers. Little Miss F has a wicked ear infection and is not terribly graceful about it. Today, she spend most of the afternoon crying and trying to make up her mind about one thing or another, but she is just too tired, too sick and too upset for anything else but crying.
Sometimes it is easier for me than for M to calm down Little Miss F. We have this way with each other that somehow works. I came home today from work to find her in the middle of the hallway crying because she couldn’t decide whether to put on socks, sandals, shoes or flip-flops to go out with her sister for a few minutes of sunshine. She was just desolate. She sat in my lap in the kitchen and sobbed into my chest. I said: “Hey, you are not having a good afternoon.” She, her head still buried in my chest, said: “Remember that afternoon when we went to Coffee Matters* and we all ordered something and then nobody liked it. That’s how bad is my afternoon.” And then she sobbed again.
*a local coffee and cake shop
Waiting on a face painter at a birthday party…
Once in a while you come across a really great book. And I am especially glad that Moon over Manifest is not just a really great book, but a really great book for youth as well. It has a compelling story, a great set of characters, male and female, who grow, change and deal with real, difficult and meaningful issues. If there is a downside to the book, it is more a downside of our education system than anything else. This is a historical novel that deals with two difficult periods in Western and North American history: The First World War and the Great Depression. If your kids are not self-taught history buffs, than, as a parent, you may want to create a bit of a context around the narrative. So, with that, here is the updated list of “books to read out loud with girls….” And, as always, the only criteria for the list (and, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien obviously does not meet it, but that does not mean you should not read it to girls) is that the books should feature well-rounded female characters. Feel free to add to the list in the comments
I, Coriander by Sally Gardner
The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
Airborne by Kenneth Opal
Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel
Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Ronia the Robbers Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel
Sunwing by Kenneth Oppel
Firewing by Kenneth Oppel
Darkwing by Kenneth Oppel
Polly and the Pirates by Ted Naifeh
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsale
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsale
Igraine the Brave by Cornelia Funke
Matilda by Roald Dahl
BFG by Roald Dahl
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
The Five Lost Aunts of Harriet Bean by Alexander McCall Smith and Laura Rankin
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
After Hamelin by Bill Richardson
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
It’s snowing and blizzarding and I am feeling like a zombie so here is the last year’s zombie walk. I am also researching B&Bs in Old Havana and recipes involving use of Chambord. Chambord Lemonade sounds good.
It’s cloudy, cold and about to snow. I am all crotchety so you get a crotchety post.
This is a St. John’s bus during a rush hour. Mostly empty. And over and over and over again we hear about horrible public transportation and over and over and over again we keep building parking lots, garages, and, in fact, make virtually all of the development decisions in this city around cars. We are dumb and we deserve the city without public spaces completely and utterly build and managed for cars and not for people.