Documentary Photography        

A belief that photos can change the world

PhotoSensitive is built on the ideal that photography can make the world a better place. "Let's change the world" was one of the first things said at the inception of the collective, when Peter Robinson answered Andrew Stawicki's complaint about how journalistic photography had become too much "smash and grab."

Photographers involved with the collective had already seen how photos had affected culture. Growing up or working in the 1960's many had seen how photos had changed the outcome of the war in Viet Nam. Some strong examples include Nick Ut's photo of Kim Phuc and other children running from napalm in Trang Bang or Eddie Adams' iconic photo of a South Vietnamese police chief shooting a suspected Viet Cong at point blank. Documentary photos have that power: the ability to capture an instant of grief, of horror or of pain that radiates outward from the photograph and changes those who have seen it. Documentary photography is intent on capturing images that affect people and effect change in people. (Images right property of Nick Ut and, and courtesy of Vo Suu and Eddie Adams and

While no one had delusions of grandeur there were many of the ideals of great documentary photography present in PhotoSensitive from the start. There were numerous aspects to this: social justice was always at the fore in every photographer's mind; from the start, photographers were told to "take time to get to know your subjects," a fundamental deficit in newspaper photography at that time; projects were put together with subject's needs at the forefront ("We are never doing this for ourselves," said Andrew). Adding to the idealistic purity, photographic work was all done on a voluntary basis by acknowledged professionals.

Over the course of several projects, a number of cases emerged to show that PhotoSensitive's brand of documentary photography was effecting a change in audiences.

Capturing Instants For Viewers to Linger Over

The first project by PhotoSensitive was It's in Their Eyes. From the first exhibition, photographers recognized they were reaching people in a new way. Gerard Kennedy (involved with the project then as head of the Toronto Food Bank) recalls, "I saw people linger over the photos, because it made 'the other' a part of their own lives." The exhibit inspired one viewer to donate $100 thousand of his own money to his local food bank. This was the first of several times that the photos by PhotoSensitive inspired people to make significant donations to important charities working for a better world. It was a real sign that the photos affected people and were helping to make the world just a little better.

From It's in Their Eyes, Stan Behal's photo captures a single instant in the lives of the homeless. Behal writes, "I was just driving along ad spotted a group of homeless people lying on a grate, huddled together... I jumped out of the car and caught a fleeting moment, one homeless person cradling the head of another. I chose to shoot right then and there. A few seconds later and it was gone."

Photos That Changed the Subjects, Changed the Photographers and Changed Viewers

Documentary photography of the best kind goes places no one else dares go or perhaps even wants to go. The next project in the PhotoSensitive canon captured images of children suffering - some of them dying - in the care of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. The images are almost impossible to bear. As affecting as the images are, Precious Time helped open up the work of this world famous hospital to the world.

Dianne Lister, then director of Sick Kids Foundation later recalled, "The experience opened the door for other media, too. We eventually let cameras in, and that was all because of the success with PhotoSensitive."

A new theme emerged in this project as well, the effect on photographic subjects themselves. Lister says, "Families were almost grateful that these intense personal moments were captured. When you're living it you don't take pictures. These photos were a gift on so many levels."

The photographers were also strongly affected by work on this project. Peter Bregg ended up supporting one of the young patients after he returned home from the hospital. Andrew Stawicki, after seeing his subject recovered from heart surgery "laughing and hopping down the stairs," summed up: "That changes you. That changes you!"

And finally, once again, the project inspired action in the form of major donations. One Calgary businessman reacted to the photos by writing a cheque to the hospital for (once again) $100 thousand. Many others donated money after being inspired by the photos documenting the work of Sick Kids staff.

Innocent children suffering for no reason humanly fathomable

Images like those in "Precious Time" are difficult for anyone to look at, yet we need to know that this, too, is part of the world we live in. Of the many difficult images to look at in the exhibit, the most affecting is arguably Andy Clark's image of a child sitting on the edge of her bed, hooked up to an IV machine that prominently clutters the photo, the child crying softly to herself. Images like that are profoundly difficult to take in and they permanently change anyone who has ever had young children around.

Canadian poet Gordon Downie once said, in tribute to nurses at Sick Kids, "We may never know what heaven is but we all know what hell is... hell is a child in pain." Indeed.

Changed by what we see

Since those early days, cases where PhotoSensitive's images have effected profound actions or changes in people and in Canadian society have been too many to count.

Of Them=Us, Cheuk Kwan notes the project's profound effect on his own life, even as he was the project leader. Kwan says, "We created a small ripple. It generated more ripples and we're still feeling those waves of change. People are still being made to think and consider and grow."

In discussing his work on several projects for PhotoSensitive, Benjamin Rondel says, "I think [we, the photographers] benefit the most... We are changed because of what we see. What a gift that is!"

Cancer Connections won several awards including the 2009 Unisource Award and recognition from Society for News Design. The most popular PhotoSensitive exhibition ever was viewed by over 300,000 Canadians, called moving, unsettling and inspiring.

Those are all emotions that great photographs can inspire. But in the end, real social change is hard fought.

Society changes for the better only very slowly. That is perhaps no more certainly shown than in the story V. Tony Hauser's tells, one that arose during his participation on the project HIV Positive. Hauser tells how he wanted so strongly to do something for the children of Africa after returning home from shooting there. He set up a donation jar at his local coffee shop (a Second Cup) and patrons donated hundreds of toonies, loonies and bills. Just when they were ready to take it to the bank, the jar, containing an estimated $5000, was stolen. He emailed all his friends with the story and people soon covered the lost money with new cheques. Hauser says "It's such a simple story but it says it all. Without the photographs I don't think people would have been so generous. That's what PhotoSensitive is all about: we bring it home. I keep going on PhotoSensitive assignments in the hope that with all these images we take, small changes will occur – like the Second Cup money jar - and that bigger changes will eventually come. If we don't hold up pictures to say 'this is what is going on, right now,' how is anything going to change?"

Some other photographs from PhotoSensitive that have been singled out.

The photo of Erin applying eyeliner was singled out by many viewers. One reviewer called it a "particularly unsettling image, for [this young woman] is doing something rather ordinary, but in extraordinarily trying circumstances." Erin passed away in 2008 at the age of 26. Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim.

In one of our most recent exhibitions on Easter Seals camps, Nova Scotia Ambassador Kyla Young is almost always chosen as the "cover photo." Kyla instantly stands as a testament to bravery and achievement. About Easter Seals, Kyla says, "I'm going to go until I'm too old. And when I'm too old I'm probably still going to show up."

Images Inspire Charity

Hand of Hope and The Strength Within were two projects that helped celebrate the work of the United Way. Both projects helped raise awareness of and funds for this critical community agency by documenting its work in photos. The first project helped the agency set a record in annual fundraising, reaching $50 million in funds (1995). The second helped it reach its goal of $100 million raised in 2006. These successes provided just two more examples of the ability of images to affect people and to help facilitate change in the world.

Surf the PhotoSensitive galleries from the very beginning