Photographer’s Q&A – Jonathan Taggart

This week’s Q&A is with Vancouver-based photographer Jonathan Taggart. His web site is


Shawn Gabriel and his cousin Lawrence of British Columbia’s British Columbia’s Stó:lo¯ Nation back their aluminum skiff into the Fraser River just east of Mission in preparation for a day of drift net salmon fishing. In recent years salmon returns in the Fraser have declined significantly; last year’s fishery was all but limited to holders of Aboriginal licenses. (Photo by Jonathan Taggart)


What were your first steps in the industry?

My first serious steps in documentary photography came at end of my third year at Ryerson University when I was encouraged to start thinking about my undergraduate thesis as soon as possible.

Earlier that year, I was fortunate enough to have stumbled across something I was very interested in – a commune an hour north of Toronto – and I spent much of May building a relationship with the community.

In the following 18 months, I learned a lot about the value of concentrated time and energy. That body of work, called Salt & Earth, has found publication in a number of places and landed my first solo exhibition which was featured during last month’s CONTACT Photo Festival in Toronto.


Alex Peters, a member of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation, sits in his father’s home on the Skookumchuck Indian Reserve. Like many of Canada’s indigenous communities, Skookumchuck exists in extreme isolation, accessible only by the 50 km of flood-prone logging road that follows the Lillooet River. The Peters family are among the few surviving speakers of Ucwalmícwts, the language of the In-SHUCK-ch people. From the book ‘This Day of Change’, published by Kodansha Ltd. (Photo by Jonathan Taggart)


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

I graduated from Ryerson fairly recently but this time last year, I knew I wanted to be working on a number of personal projects, trying to get some personal work published, and doing little pieces of commercial work and assignments on the side.

That’s exactly where I am right now, and I actually think I’m working a little ahead of my own predictions: in January, I was fortunate enough to be part of ‘This Day of Change’, a book project commemorating the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama; my first solo exhibition received some great press; and I’ve been granted incredible access to a number of personal stories that have been in the back of my mind for years.

Right now, I’m working on a story about First Nations life before, during, and after, the removal of the Indian Act through new treaty processes, as well as a piece on the state of the British Columbia salmon fishery, both commercial and aboriginal – and life is good.


The cemetery serving the community of Skatin on the Skookumchuck Indian Reserve. Extreme poverty has lead 80 percent of the In-SHUCK-ch to seek a livelihood in distant urban centres; many return home only to be committed to the earth, buried in community cemeteries the Nation can claim no ownership of. From the book, This Day of Change, published by Kodansha Ltd. (Photo by Jonathan Taggart)


What or who are your biggest inspirations?

I find recently I’ve been inspired most by the people around me – photographers my own age who are constantly pushing their own styles and see things in surprising and beautiful ways.

In Vancouver, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by an incredibly talented group of young artists working in a variety of media. These include photographers, musicians, illustrators, actors and graffiti artists. Aside from their sheer talent, the biggest inspiration for me, at my age, is seeing how each one is making the business side of their craft work for them.


Do you have a mentor?

One of the best things about being in school is that you are subject to the critique of countless professors and professionals, whether you want their opinion or not. I had a few mentors during my time at Ryerson who definitely helped shape me into the photographer I am today.

I was also lucky enough to have been able to study photography in high school. While everyone else was worrying about math and science, the teacher I had at that time was the one who let me believe that a career in visual arts was a legitimate thing. That piece of mentoring changed my life without a doubt.

I think the closest thing I have to a mentor right now is my father, who is the editor of an architectural magazine and teaches the history of architecture here in Vancouver. Our discussions aren’t specifically about image-making, but he has intimate and extensive knowledge of everything that I am interested in right now, be it fisheries, forestry or First Nations issues. He has been a source of prolific and profound insight over the past year. I think that kind of cross-medium, cross-generational sharing of ideas is an incredibly important part of keeping your eyes and your mind open.


Tourists congregate outside a late-night burrito restaurant in Sayulita, Mexico. Recent crackdowns on drug trafficking in the state of Nayurit have made for a decline in nightlife in popular destinations like Sayulita. January 2009. (Photo by Jonathan Taggart)


What was a pivotal point in your career?

I feel like my career is pivoting all the time right now. It seems like every other week there is a new opportunity, idea or piece of press that has the potential to take my career to that next step, however small that step might be. Showing ‘Salt & Earth’ at the Ryerson Gallery last month, during CONTACT, was a huge step in the development of my career as an artist. Being included in the ‘This Day of Change’ book project was a major accomplishment at this early stage of my journalistic career.


How important is multimedia to you?

It’s only very recently that I’ve begun to dabble in multimedia, with some fairly successful early results. I love the strength of narration, the depth of storytelling that is possible with a well-realized multimedia piece. I am trying to incorporate more video and audio into my production workflow in the near future.

I did a year of film school at Ryerson, and produced several video pieces while I was in high school. So the multimedia thought process comes naturally. It’s just the juggling of equipment that I struggle with sometimes.


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

It’s all too easy to get lazy sometimes, to impress yourself with an image once and then sit back on a style. But being a constant consumer of visual information is the only way of ensuring that you are constantly getting better as a photographer and visual storyteller.

I read magazines, newspapers, visit web sites, pick up ads and flyers that appeal to me. The compulsion to dissect an image for light and composition is quite irritating at times, actually.

Right now, personal projects comprise 90% of my work; they’re not 90% of my income. But I find being able to pursue new ideas, sights and sounds is the best way to develop my personal vision as a photographer.


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

The CBC and BBC news sites are my daily morning routine, because for me, journalism is about ideas first and images second. I also check out PDN ( and A Photo A Day ( As well as the web sites for Noor (, Oeil Public ( and Magnum (

Another favourite is Ying Ang’s blog,, for my daily dose of inspiration/jealousy.


Zack, a seasonal volunteer at Whole Village, an ecovillage and contemporary commune an hour north of Toronto, tests the ice on the pond while McKenna the farm dog jumps for flying ice chips. From the series ‘Salt & Earth’, exhibited at the Ryerson Gallery during last month’s CONTACT Photo Festival. (Photo by Jonathan Taggart)


What is your favorite way to unwind?

My housemate’s father has a Fraser River gillnetter from the 1930’s – a beautiful wooden fishing boat that he has done up with Cessna tires to resemble one of the tugboats in his small commercial boat fleet. At the beginning of every summer, we go through the ritual of cleaning and painting this boat, The Jaguar. When the weather is nice and we have nothing to do, we grab a six-pack from the brewery on Granville Island and go floating around in the bay.


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

I was awarded a scholarship to a Magnum Workshop in Toronto in May of 2008. While I was there, I was fortunate enough to work with Canadian photographer Larry Towell. I’ve always admired his work but what I found most insightful was hearing him speak about his experiences in the field and about his working methodology.

The best piece of advice he gave his students was that we should expect to spend half our time shooting and the other half editing. It is through the editing process that the depth of narrative is created.

Although I might revise that to say, “expect to spend a third of your time gaining access, a third shooting, and a third editing.”



Category: Photographer's Q&A

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