By 2005, PhotoSensitive was clearly established as a powerful agent for social change. From early images of the homeless in Toronto to nationwide reflections on water, the photographers were making a difference. They were changing the world with their photographs, in big and small ways, and their impact was felt across the country and around the world. They were no longer a small band of photographers based in Toronto. They had the power and the charisma to attract people and projects that had a global reach and a global impact.
Euclid Herie is a warm and engaging conversationalist, a man who is visually impaired but who sees life as full of wonder and opportunity. He founded the World Braille Foundation and is a past president of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). He remembers meeting Andrew Stawicki when he was taking photographs of a travelling eye doctor up in Sioux Lookout:
"Andrew was driving the truck for the doctor and taking pictures and asking questions, and was totally engrossed in the work. It is something very special, the way he connects with the subject," said Euclid.
As with other Stawicki friendships, this one led to a photographic exhibit. The photo that everyone talked about-showing two hands reading Braille-was taken by PhotoSensitive's Bernard Weil, but it was just one of many images pulled together for a big show on Parliament Hill. Andrew says by 2000, PhotoSensitive had established itself as a going concern and NGOs and non-profit groups, like the CNIB, realized the power of one photograph.
Powerful impact beyond the exhibit
"As we grew, and held one, two, three, four exhibits, word started to spread. In the past, an organization like the CNIB might get the doctor or, if they were out in a truck, the driver, to take a picture of people getting their eyes examined and put it in their annual report. Now, they realized that if you have a professional photographer, you not only get some special pictures, you will probably attract better donations.
"We had a new challenge with this project: blind people couldn't see the pictures. So for the exhibit, we had special text they could touch. And we would try to explain the pictures-we would say to the Members of Parliament and the blind people: 'Close your eyes. Imagine light coming from the top corner of a photograph. Imagine this, imagine that…' Some had partial vision. Others had full vision. But everyone was affected by the photos. This was a unique project and we took it right to Ottawa," said Andrew. This was an important moment in the collective's growing collection of diversity images.
Herb Gray was the deputy prime minister, and the exhibit on Parliament Hill coincided with his declaration of a National Braille Day. The CNIB took the show across Canada. Euclid Herie says many people have seen it more than once, and not just in Canada. "The photos are still being shown with great pride. Why replicate something that is so excellent? The exhibit has stood the test of time. It went to the World Congress in January 2010. Anywhere people are discussing Braille literacy is a place for these photos. We took it to Melbourne in 2000. It's been shipped from Whitehorse to cities in the United States. Last year, to celebrate Louis Braille's birth, we made 4,000 posters.
"This whole experience has had a very powerful impact, because people remember images. They talk about them; it prompts discussion about the blind and Braille. One hundred and thirty nations are involved now in Braille literacy. And Braille is not going away-even with digital technology and all the new inventions, the six dots that changed the world are here to stay. No system has been invented that can replace those dots, the six dots so elegantly and simply captured by Bernard Weil's photo. That and the other photos were-or should I say, are-incredible," said Euclid.
A gift freely given: with purpose and generosity
A founding principle of PhotoSensitive is that each project is done for someone.
"We are never doing this for ourselves," says Andrew Stawicki. "We are doing it for the homeless, for sick children, for the blind… We don't have to prove if we're good or not. We know we have the experience. We give it as a gift: the art, the pictures, our time, our talent. Everything is for free. "We do insist that we have editorial control. PhotoSensitive chooses the images-that's a freedom we guarantee our photographers and partly why they love working on the projects. "And once the exhibits are taken down, the images have a long life. They turn up in annual reports and posters, books, company brochures-it's up to the organization. Sick Kids Hospital won a big award for the best annual report, using our photos. That's because our pictures capture feeling. You have to be there at midnight with mommy sleeping beside her child to capture the feeling-that's what we do. You don't get that when you hire a photographer to shoot some pictures of the board members. We get the feeling, the faces-and that's something that lasts.
"We want the images we take to help the people represented in the pictures. It is never for commercial use. We only ask that they not crop the photo or, if they want to change it somehow, that they get our permission first. "In twenty years, no one has stolen any of our images. If it were a pretty landscape, someone might steal it for a postcard. But the subjects are very powerful. These images-they are very personal, created for serious reasons. Who will steal one? Besides, people know all they have to do is call and ask permission. Usually we say yes."