The Strength Within was the second project PhotoSensitive did for United Way Greater Toronto. The first, Hand of Hope (1995) had helped the agency raise a record $50 million. In 2006, as they celebrated their 50th anniversary, they wanted to break the $100-million mark in the upcoming campaign, so they turned again to PhotoSensitive for help.
President and CEO Frances Lankin fondly remembers a team of twenty-four photographers visiting United Way agencies throughout the city. She wanted them to capture the profound impact the agencies have on the people they serve and she says the photographers went "above and beyond their mandate." They captured the faces of people confronting adversity with strength and embracing new opportunities with joy.
Frances loved the photo exhibit, and especially the book that accompanied it. It was moving, it was beautiful, and it helped spark a renewed sense of generosity when people saw the pictures. The United Way surpassed their fundraising goal of $100 million. And many of the photographers were changed by their experiences on location.
Frank Mazzuca visited the Adult Day Program at Community Care East York and within minutes of his arrival, had an unexpected encounter with an old friend, David Garnett.
"All of us in the industry knew David - he ran a shop down near Queen and River, renting photographic equipment, and he was just a great guy. I didn't know he'd been coping with MS but there he was, at the Adult Day Program, saying, 'Hey Frank, welcome! This is where I hang out every Tuesday and Thursday. Want to sign up?' And it hit me, 'This is a place for David to be David.'
"I could not get over the kindness of the staff and the support of all the participants. I took portrait after portrait, including David's," said Frank.
It didn't stop there for Frank. He and David kept in touch with visits and regular phone calls. He learned his friend had written a series of poems, haunting poetry of his illness. Being a graphic designer as well as a photographer, Frank told David, "Let me take that, I'll typeset it for you, bind it, and produce a beautiful book of your poetry." And he made six copies for David and his family.
Excitement and passion come through as Frank talks about his love of photography and the pull of PhotoSensitive.
"We are historians, documenting history with our cameras. Photography is a very powerful tool to 'lock it in' - lock in a moment that we can then go back to whenever we want and be reminded. We record a moment, a feeling, a strength within. That's what art is all about; that's what PhotoSensitive is about for me.
"I honestly believe something special happens when you are working with like-minded people; when you're not looking to be paid; when you're there to just give, and give your best. We all agree that our best work always seems to come when we are doing it for a PhotoSensitive project. We seem to send off some kind of positive energy and attract good luck. There's a certain alignment of the stars that seems to take place, and you just find yourself at the best place and the best time - and you get it," said Frank.
Frank also contributed some wonderful images - of his father - to another PhotoSensitive project, Cancer Connections (2008–2010). When his dad died, Frank says more than a few people were startled when he began his eulogy.
"I stood up in the church, with my camera. I held it high in the air and said, 'This little thing helped me out. This is what got me through my Dad's cancer. It helped me document what he was going through and it helped him, too. It is one powerful tool.'
"I took thousands of pictures of my dad and he loved them. One - I called it Help Me - was chosen for Cancer Connections. When my mom, my niece and I saw it at the exhibit outside Toronto City Hall, that's when it hit me, when I experienced whole other side of PhotoSensitive. It is healing, it is powerful, and it helped me on a profoundly personal level," said Frank.
Using new technologies for greater impact
Through two projects, PhotoSensitive has helped United Way Greater Toronto raise more than $150 million, and now Andrew Stawicki says, "They've called and asked, 'Can we do another one?' Of course, we will - this agency needs our help - and I think we can do it in some new and creative ways.
"A newer audience - the younger Canadians - needs to know about the United Way's good work, and maybe we can help fuel a new generation of kindness. By using tools geared to the young - websites, video, DVDs, instant information, Twitter, smartphones - we reach not only them, but other new audiences. We can put our photos out everywhere and reach 100 million people, not 'just' one million. Imagine. Someone can be in India, Africa or Winnipeg and see photos from a PhotoSensitive exhibit in Charlottetown, just by browsing the Web, at home or on their PDA.
"Twenty years ago, we started with an exhibit of photographs in Toronto seen by people who walked by. Now, we can share our work with the whole world! If you live in Sarnia and can't get to Brookfield Place for the next exhibit for United Way, maybe you can see images from it on your iPhone or Blackberry. Or people can go to our website, where we try to make the most of this new technology," said Andrew.
An electronic canvas of possibilities
Taking powerful photographs is step one. Making sure people see them is step two. In the early years, PhotoSensitive's large black-and-white images were unveiled at exhibits and some were reproduced in newspapers and magazines.
Then, along came the Internet and now there is a new 'public place' to showcase their work. Designer Warren St. Romain wandered through an early version of the PhotoSensitive website and immediately volunteered to make it as visually strong and technologically powerful as possible.
"My job is to be an invisible presence. The photos still hold the power; I just provide the canvas - an electronic canvas. And obviously, with this age of social media, I really want to help attract as many people as we can and to show the images in a beautiful way. When Cancer Connections started to expand, we basically built a site within a site and we've had an incredibly positive response. The PhotoSensitive site, and the Cancer Connections component within it, are both beautiful to look at and engaging for anyone who takes a stroll through the site," said Warren.
Erin Elder, a photo editor on several PhotoSensitive projects, is another expert in using digital media effectively. She predicts PhotoSensitive will grow bigger and stronger thanks to the new media platforms.
"Never before have we lived in such a visual age - with websites, cellphones, digital cameras, electronic readers. It means PhotoSensitive can expand their reach and elevate the debate, provoking an even broader and deeper conversation about social change and reaching a whole new generation," said Erin.
Photo educator and past PhotoSensitive project coordinator Lesley Sparks agrees.
"This new generation will take their sensitivity and desire to understand online and I'm excited by that. I think it will take us to all sorts of new places - journalistically, educationally and socially. And I believe black-and-white still photography will survive: there is a purity and a power and a simplicity that will continue to speak to people - in an exhibit or online or using social media. There may be different ways of displaying PhotoSensitive images, but the images will retain their power and reach a bigger and bigger audience," said Lesley.