Photographer’s Q&A – John Mahoney

This week’s Q&A is with John Mahoney, who will celebrate his 30th anniversary with the Montreal Gazette this June 18th.


My wife Jocelyne and my first-born child Darryl cry in the seconds following his birth on February 3, 1982. (PHOTO BY JOHN MAHONEY)


What were your first steps in the industry?

After quitting school in 1976, I put together a small portfolio of photos I had shot in my one year of CEGEP (Quebec’s version of junior college) and knocked on doors at the Montreal Star, United Press International (the legendary Gary Bartlett), and the Montreal Gazette.

While at the Gazette, I was told that there’d be more of a chance for a young photographer to get work at The Canadian Press (CP). So I went to CP the day after the closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. Chris Haney, the CP photo editor at the time, hadn’t been to bed from the day before but he took the time look at my work.

About a month later, Chris called to say there was an opening in the bureau for a copy boy. If I was interested, he thought he could get me the job and I could then hang around with photographers Chuck Stoody and Doug Ball to learn the news photography business. I got the job at the end of September.

In November of that year, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) won their first election. On election night, I was sent to pick up photographer Fred Chartrand’s film at PQ headquarters and while there, I shot a few frames as René Lévesque arrived onstage. Haney transmitted a couple of my shots from that moment and one of them won “CP Picture of the Month”. I was 18 at the time.

A year later, I was transferred to the Ottawa bureau to replace Mike Ridewood in the darkroom because Ridewood was replacing Andy Clark as a photographer after Andy left CP for the Hamilton Spectator. After a year in the darkroom, one of the CP photographers working on the Ottawa Journal contract lost his driver’s license on points and I was put on the road in his place while he took over the darkroom.

Five months later, Chris Haney, who was then working at the Gazette, hired me for a staff position. I started at the Gazette on June 18, 1979, and have been here ever since.


A nurse closes the eyes of a two-year-old child moments after it died in a refugee camp in Ethiopia in 1991. This photo was my first NNA nomination, in the Feature Photography category. I was in the Horn of Africa with a reporter doing stories on the Canadian military delivering food aid during a drought in Ethiopia. (JOHN MAHONEY/ MONTREAL GAZETTE)


When you were a student, what did you want to do after graduation? Are you where you thought you would be now?

When I was a student, I was taking general social sciences courses and came to realize the only thing that really interested me was taking pictures. At that time, Ryerson was the only school that offered a photojournalism program. But by the time I went through the application process, I was already working at CP and had caught the news bug.

Once I was at CP, I thought I’d work my way up from copy boy to darkroom tech to photographer, and that’s where I’d make my career. Unfortunately, once I was in Ottawa, half my salary was being paid by the contract CP had with the Ottawa Journal, and the contract was up for renewal during my time there.

The Journal decided to hire their own staff and build their own darkroom. It was made clear to me that I probably wouldn’t get hired. So taking the job at the Gazette became a no-brainer for a 21-year-old. Even after starting work at the Gaz, I thought that one day I’d be back at CP but life got in the way and I stayed at the Gaz.


What or who are your biggest inspirations?

When I was a young photographer, I was inspired by the work and personalities of Doug Ball, Chuck Stoody and Fred Chartrand. They all took me under their wings when I was still wet behind the ears and were incredibly generous with advice. Just getting to see their work on a daily basis and how they interacted with people was a better education than I could have possibly gotten in school.

In my last year at CP, Peter Bregg returned to CP from The AP and he was also instrumental in teaching me how to be a professional photographer. I also had the privilege of working with the likes of Dick Loek, Michel Gravel, Ted Grant and Tedd Church in the formative years of my career.


Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy lifts the Stanley Cup over his head following the Habs 1993 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. Roy was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP. (JOHN MAHONEY/ MONTREAL GAZETTE)


Do you have a mentor?

In addition to the names I mentioned above, I’d have to say that Chris Haney was my mentor early in my career. Every time I followed his advice, it had a positive result.

He was the one who told me to take whatever opportunity came my way to work in Ottawa. He told me that every newspaper in Canada looked at photos from Ottawa every day, and working there would be the best way to get noticed.

When he was at the Gazette, he angled for me to get the 1980 Winter Olympics assignment at Lake Placid.

The only advice I didn’t follow was when he wanted me to invest in his new board game Trivial Pursuit. To this day, I’m still kicking my ass over that one.


What was a pivotal point in your career?

In 1991, the Gazette sent me to Africa with a reporter to do a series of stories on the Canadian military flying food aid from Djibouti into refugee camps in Ethiopia. It was a life-changing experience and lead to my first NNA nomination. I came away from that trip with a deeper appreciation of how lucky I am to have the life I do.


How important is multimedia to you?

I’m going to sound like an old fogey here but while I recognize that multimedia is here to stay, it’s not what I got into this business to do. I have yet to feel anywhere near the motivation on a multimedia piece that I do for a photography assignment I shoot for the paper.

I understand that it’s imperative to have multimedia pieces on our web site. But in the financial climate we live in, I see that, for the most part, photographers are being handed video cameras and told to make web-ready video with very little training or support.

Students spend 3 or 4 years in university studying this stuff but in many Canadian newsrooms, photographers (and some reporters) have to learn it on the fly. Lucky are the papers that have a production staff to handle video editing and post production.

We’re down to seven photographers here at the Gazette and if one or two are on holiday or sick, multimedia puts a real strain on staffing. The result here tends to be that more and more handout photos are making it into the paper because we can’t staff as many assignments because multimedia is taking so much time. Having said all that, I sure appreciate the multimedia work being done by people at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.


This photo was my second NNA nomination in the Sports Photography category. Canadian goalie Rachel Riddel concentrates on the ball before making a save on Italy’s Manuela Zanchi during Canada’s 8-7 victory in the opening round of women’s water polo at the FINA World Championships in Montreal on July 17, 2005. (JOHN MAHONEY/ MONTREAL GAZETTE)


How do you ensure that you are progressing as a visual journalist?

I work in a city with Ryan Remiorz, Paul Chiasson, Shaun Best and Bernard Brault. When you shoot a job that they’re on, you really have to be on your game. We’ve got some photographers here at the Gazette that are as good as any in the country. Those guys push me to be as good as I can be. Even when I shoot the day-to-day newspaper jobs, I know that those guys will be looking at the paper everyday and judging my work.


What are some of the must-see websites you visit? Please include why you visit these sites (e.g. inspiration, guidance, information, education).

In no particular order:

NPAC, SportsShooter, Washington Post Camera Works, White House Press Photographers Association, MediaStorm, VII, Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.


What is your favorite way to unwind?

I run as much as I can. I also have a son who plays football for Concordia University. So from August to November, that’s a major activity around our house.


Jamaica’s Usain Bolt yells encouragement at teammate Asafa Powell as Powell takes the baton for the anchor leg of the men’s 4 X 100 metres relay at the National Stadium at the Olympic Games in Beijing on August 22, 2008. (JOHN MAHONEY/ CANWEST)


What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?

Peter Bregg once told me that 75% of assignments we do are jobs where people want us there for whatever reason (publicity, vanity, etc.). So there’s no reason to be too shy about getting the photo you want. Take advantage of the power you have in those situations to get the subject to do what you want or to have the organizers give you the type of access you need.

Also, Denis Brodeur told me a long time ago that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with pepper. It’s a philosophy for dealing with people that has stood me in good stead countless times.



Category: Photographer's Q&A

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