The first project for PhotoSensitve was easily chosen. It's In Their Eyes was a photo essay of Toronto's hungry, homeless and under-housed. Peter Robertson says all the photographers were frustrated with the lack of funding for poor families in the city, and they felt the homeless deserved their attention.
"The principle behind PhotoSensitive was to inspire some talented photographers who together would help everyone to see what was going on around them. Because let's face it: most of us are blind! Think back to 1990 - we'd all read headlines like, '200,000 Use Food Banks Each Month in Canada.' What the hell does that mean? You show me someone who's using a food bank and now it's different. It's a person. Andrew went to Gerard Kennedy, the executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, and said, "We have to get to know these people!" We insisted on using their names. These are not strangers. They are people with names and stories."
Andrew Stawicki says having time to get to know the homeless and hungry was key to the exhibit's success. "I didn't have time to get to know the guy on the bench when I was shooting for the newspaper. I'd try - of course I'd try. But I often didn't know his name, whether he was sick or drunk. We never got enough time. But Gerard Kennedy got us close to so many of these people, and they invited us into their living rooms, which could be underneath a bridge or in an alley. And we showed their faces; we gave them their dignity. Tony took the same care with their portraits as he would have with a CEO of a bank. We took pictures not because they were homeless. We took pictures because they were human." It was the first of many projects with images of the homeless and impoverished, a theme that later reached another peak with Child Poverty.
Dick Loek was part of the first PhotoSensitive crew. "To work with other like-minded photographers, all of us doing it for free - that was key. I gained all sorts of experience from this PhotoSensitive assignment and every single one that followed it. I got to work with guys I normally wouldn't work with. And I'd look at a photo Yuri or Tony or so many of the others would take, and say to myself, I gotta beat this guy, I gotta turn up the volume and really do something special. And what happens? We mount a great show and people are talking about the food bank and making donations. That was what it was all about."
Gerard Kennedy, now an MP in Ottawa, was running the Daily Bread Food Bank in 1990 and he knew right away that the PhotoSensitive group was something extraordinary.
"I was just so impressed with Andrew, I couldn't say no. These photographers took days, weeks, months out of their own frenetic lives to get to know these people. They saw them as people first, and food bank recipients second. Dignity was a huge part of this story and the photographs together told big stories. They weren't isolated shots: they were revealing stories of people's inner lives.
"One man saw the exhibit and gave us a hundred grand out of his bank account. Volunteers started doing extra hours. The exhibit brought the message home and it also took it out into the wider community. A nobility that was always there for those of us who worked with these people was revealed in an elegant and open way and people did react. I saw people linger over the photos, because it made 'the other' a part of their own lives.
"There is something about those black-and-white photographs that allowed the photographers to really take charge of their craft and offer us very intimate views of something we all needed to understand. We were on the cusp of a recession back then. The sad reality is: poverty is still a huge problem. The food banks are busier than ever. The faces are changing - to include more and more elderly people - but these photos are timeless really. They are still making people sit up and take notice. PhotoSensitive is an unexploited resource! Twenty years later and there is still something so very powerful about the pictures and the work those guys kicked off in 1990. There's so much more to be done, and I am so impressed they are still hard at it," said Gerard.
Finding a sponsor
Once the troops were assembled and a focus for their first project was chosen, it was time to find a sponsor. In 1990, the photographers were still shooting film and, for that, they needed processing, paper, printing and film (lots of it). Peter Robertson decided the best place to start was Kodak, so he made an appointment with Michel Lacaille at Kodak Canada. "We walked in and...
"Michel said: 'What can we do for you gentlemen?'
"We said: 'We need help putting together a project on the homeless.'
"He responded politely: 'Well, we get so many requests…'
"Then we pulled out our list of photographers.
"He looked at the list, smiled, and said: 'What do you want?'
"We got film, we got chemistry, we got paper - all of it from Kodak, from the start. It was a marriage made in heaven for us."
Finding a printer
The next thing was figuring out who would print the exhibit photos. Years before, Peter had hired Henry to work at the Toronto Star.
"Like the rest of us, Henry wanted time and space to do a really excellent job, so he had left to open his own business. We told him we'd bring him the film, the chemistry and the paper.
"For the first ten years, that was the team: Kodak was the support, the photographers we had assembled put it together, and Henry Yee did the printing. And the joy he brought to it all! He was a magician. He did all that printing at three in the morning, down in his dark room, listening to Mozart. He said Mozart used to transport him to the places the photographers were revealing. A master printer, he was the heart and soul of the end product.
"The photographers always like to think they have the talent to make photographs. But someone has to take that rough diamond and cut and polish it and make it say 'WOW!' That was Henry. He would work and work and work on something until it was perfect," said Peter.