Photographer’s Q&A – Peter Power
This week’s Q&A is with Peter Power, staff photographer at The Globe and Mail in Toronto.
What were your first steps in the industry?
I stepped into this industry almost by accident. After five years of electrical engineering, and leaving following a failed course, I headed to Belleville to live with a relative for awhile.
I was visiting Loyalist College to enroll in a French night school course to keep up my level of bilingualism, when I spotted a large poster on the front door bragging about “Photojournalism. Only at Loyalist College.”
The poster was a group project by the first-ever class of students in the brand new Photojournalism program, and it certainly grabbed my attention. I spoke briefly with John Peterson who gave me the news that the program was full. But as luck would have it, a student dropped out of the program at the last moment and I got the vacant spot.
What were your fears as a student?
Confidence was an issue for me as a student and I see the lack of it in many of the students I speak with. I was VERY green to photojournalism. There were several first and second-year students who had been freelancing for newspapers and they really looked the part.
It was pretty intimidating at first, especially when it came to my equipment, or lack of it. Frank O’Connor and Bill Whitelaw, both staffers at The Intelligencer newspaper in Belleville at the time, were very encouraging. They were instrumental in helping me work my way through those early doubts. I owe them a ton! I honestly felt that I was out of my league but I was determined to succeed, and that has served me well now for years.
When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation and are you where you thought you would be now?
I think my initial goals were pretty realistic while I was at Loyalist. Of course, I wanted to make images that would change the world – doesn’t everybody? – but I also knew I wanted to make some money and pay for my Mustang. That meant the best job at a newspaper I could find, and that is how I started fishing for work.
What are your biggest inspirations?
There are so many photographers whose work I have admired over the years, who have inspired me, and who have helped shape my photography.
One of my favorites is William Allard, especially his high-contrast color work on cowboys. I think I had one of my first photographic “ah-ha!” moments while looking at his images. That is when the light went on and I learned about exposing light and dark, and using them to my advantage to emphasize what is important in an image.
The other photographer who has always been a huge inspiration is Sebastio Salgado, perhaps as much for his dedication to a subject and story-telling as for his amazing sense of texture in a photograph.
Did you have a mentor? How important are mentors?
I guess my early mentors were Frank O’Connor and Bill Whitelaw. They were always critical but always encouraging.
I think photography is similar to every school experience in that we always hear about the one teacher or one person who made a difference in a person’s life. In that sense, mentors are invaluable if the student takes what small bits of wisdom or encouragement that are provided and use them to get to the next level.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
The most significant moment in my career was the day Brad Henderson called to offer me a summer job at the Toronto Star. I was given a great opportunity – one that I honestly didn’t think I had a chance of getting – and I worked hard to make it a successful summer. I was a sponge that summer and took in as much information, advice, and criticism as I possibly could.
Do you find you are always changing to adapt to the industry?
Things are always changing but it seems they change faster every year. Technology is not the only thing changing. Readers’ habits and expectations are changing. Photographers are changing. Events are changing. The world is changing. Everyday photographers have to adapt to new problems and issues. None of us can afford to be complacent or get too comfortable with the status quo. Change is a simple reality to every job if one wishes to move forward and continue to be successful.
How important is multimedia to you?
I think that what should always be important to journalists, and photojournalists, are the habits of our readers. The reason for our being is to effectively communicate stories, ideas and emotions to our readers. If multimedia can enhance this then it is very important to me, and should be to us all. I hope to be able to learn new skills and techniques, and apply my own methods to them, to produce stories that will make people pause. As always, what is most important is the story and that it continues to be presented in a strong visual manner.
What inspired you to be a photojournalist?
My life, my career, has been full of happy accidents. Being placed on a waiting list as a “mature” student by Ryerson and then bumping into the Photojournalism Program at Loyalist College was one such happy accident. I don’t think I had plans to be a photojournalist but I knew I loved photography and I slowly gravitated toward the journalistic side of things. Almost by chance, I would say, that I discovered what truly makes me happy doing.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
My favorite way to unwind? I’m not sure I do that very well anymore. One of my biggest flaws is that my mind is always working, either on something I’ve done and could have done better, on something I’m currently working on, or something I want to work on.
The healthiest times for me are those spent during the summer months with my family. When activities are light, the weather is pleasant and we can all just relax and enjoy each other’s company. This job can get hectic and being a parent is hectic most days. So I really value those “lazy” days.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
“This business (newspapers) is full of highs and lows. The trick to surviving the emotional roller-coaster is to never get too high and never get too low. Try to stay in the middle.” – Jim Wilkes. Photographer/reporter at the Toronto Star. Summer 1988.
I certainly haven’t always been the best at following my dear friend’s advice but I can’t think of any better words to live by, as a photographer or otherwise.
As far as pure photography is concerned, I’d say it would have to be Brad Henderson who told me this after hiring me as a staff photographer at the Star in 1990:
“Don’t become a ‘Star photographer’. Do your own thing. Shoot your pictures your way and let me worry about getting them into the paper.”
Brad not only gave me my first big break but he also gave me “permission” to be creative and to develop my “eye” naturally. He had an opportunity to shape, develop and influence a young, green photographer, but he chose to let things unfold naturally. I hope he understands the gift he gave me that day.
(Travel forward in time to read Peter’s repeat appearance in this Q&A when he answers the same questions but with more pictures).