PhotoSensitive
CONTRIBUTORS
Them = Us        

In 1997, PhotoSensitive let out the seams a bit, and invited in a dozen new photographers for the Them=Us project. Together, they turned their lenses on Canada and its unique mix of ethnicity and diversity. They partnered with Harmony Movement, a Toronto-based organization that was building bridges between different groups in Canada. Ironically, at a number of points along the way, there was disharmony, because some people felt the original PhotoSensitive crew was not diverse enough.

Tom Graff, curator for the exhibit, recalls working through sponsor concerns about who was behind the camera. "Everything a photographer does with his camera has a point of view - his or her own. The way you look at a subject will always have some of your biases mixed in. That's human nature, and it's true of all of us. In the case of PhotoSensitive, they were all from Toronto and mostly guys. I felt more women, more people of colour or from different ethnic backgrounds, more 'out there' people on the photo team would make the project better," said Tom.

One photographer who was invited into the fold was Paul Wong. He took photographs of Asian Canadians living in Vulcan, Alberta. "I knew these were the people who were willing to work seventeen-hour days in the cafes - jobs other Canadians really didn't want. For me, the project was quite touching - and quite touchy," said Paul.

Touchy indeed. Harmony Movement's Cheuk Kwan stepped up to manage the project. He remembers finding Andrew Stawicki's photographs of Chinatown "stereotypical," and telling him so, but Andrew felt his images "revealed a country within a country." For him, the Chinese community in Chinatown was living a separate life. That's what he found; that's what he shot. And he took that same position on behalf of his photographers, respectfully reminding Cheuk that choosing what to shoot and how to shoot it was an essential ingredient - and strength - of the PhotoSensitive philosophy. While maintaining that deep loyalty to the original team, Andrew welcomed other photographers into the circle. And when everyone came together, they created a stunning body of work.

Reuters photojournalist Andy Clark, a founding member of PhotoSensitive, travelled across Canada on a Via Rail train, hopped off in Winnipeg and ended up at a farm in Portage La Prairie. That's where he found Lorne Tully and his Japanese wife, Sally. She had been interned in Winnipeg during the Second World War and she and Lorne had fallen in love when she was sent to work at his dad's farm. A Japanese girl and a Canadian farm boy, in love, in 1945? It caused a real stir and yet the marriage was a happy one and it produced two "marvelous" Canadian boys. It was a story Lorne wanted to share.

When the exhibit was unveiled, it showcased a vibrant collection of  photos from the 'original' PhotoSensitive photographers and from the newcomers, striking a chord of diversity and harmony. Andrew Stawicki says it was a pivotal moment in the group's evolution.

"PhotoSensitive became more than PhotoSensitive, because we asked other photographers in … and it went national, across the country. The main message people got was: if we live together, then we won't fight together. We held the exhibits, we published a coffee table book, we sent DVDs into schools - it was big. It pushed people to think and it taught everyone the same thing: how to live together in peace," said Andrew.

The exhibit opened in October 1997, a dual opening in Vancouver and Charlottetown, and then it travelled - to shopping malls, bank buildings, museums, city halls, art galleries and libraries in seventy different communities from British Columbia to the Maritimes. Cheuk says it took on a life of its own.

"To understand the impact of the show, look what happened in Calgary. The Calgary School Board sent in their kids; a teacher called us afterwards and suggested we develop a resource guide for children. We did - and those resource guides are still being used in schools. They get into racism, ethnicity, class differences, sexual orientation, abilities and disabilities … The pictures provoke some great discussion. The photographers were courageous, that's for sure. And though we had our ups and downs, we made it through and, in the end, Andrew and I were both happy," said Cheuk.

June Callwood, revered Canadian writer and social activist, was an Honorary Patron of Harmony Movement. She wrote the introduction to Harmony/Harmonie, the book that came from the project. To augment the stories expressed in the pictures, she sprinkled in poetry and prose from other Canadian writers. An excerpt from The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy opened the book: "I never give up on real harmony. The folks I know don't sit in the dark; they get up and walk into the light." It seems to speak to the subject matter and to the people who worked, together, to get it right.

A digital mosaic: pushing the envelope

Bernard Weil describes himself as a technical guy and he was one of the first to really embrace digital.
"I'd been at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and I dove into digital there. It was so fast and it helped us beat the wires, so by the time we were into this project, I thought I'd try using digital in new and creative ways.
"I went to the Etobicoke School of the Arts and photographed every single student. I spent a few days taking shots of about 700 kids and ended up with 28,800 pictures. Each student is in the final image many times. It looks like three dance students, but if you move closer, you'll see the many thousands of smaller images. It took about a year to make this composite image.
"The technology was a lot slower back then and a 100MG file was unheard of! And then I had to print it. The printer was the LightJet 5000. It has the resolution we needed but it was a big deal back then. Tricky. But we did it. And this is still the photo I am proudest of.

"We have to find unique ways to tell people's stories. And we have to be prepared to take chances and do it differently. We can't change the world but we can bear witness and inform others. And sometimes, we can try to push the envelope and the digital revolution led me in that direction with this particular photo," said Bernard.

Building community: photo exhibits in public spaces

Harmony Movement's Cheuk Kwan says Them=Us had a profound effect on him and everyone else who saw it.

"The surprising thing, a beautiful part of this experience, was that people were so accepting. I was welcomed with open arms in Red Deer, Alberta, and I do not immediately 'look' Canadian to someone in small-town Alberta. I think these images disarmed prejudice and fostered respect for differences and we got so much more than we had hoped for. Much more!

"I think what really made it work was that an exhibition, by definition, is democratic. You walk through the plaza or the bank lobby or the local library, and you see the photos. And it might pique your interest - and you will think, 'Oh, I learned something about gay adoption today.' And that helps build community - especially if you see it in a public place, where others are seeing it, too. You're not sitting alone, peering at an image on your computer. You're looking at it in a public place and you might chat to the person beside you.

"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. That's what PhotoSensitive did for us," said Cheuk.