Photographer’s Q&A – Michael Willems

This week’s Q&A is with Michael Willems, award-winning freelance photographer, private photography teacher, presenter and photo coach in Oakville, Ontario.


This recent picture of Elizabeth May is a fave because she is such a nice, likeable person, and because she is the only politico I have met who came up to me when she noticed me demonstratively not shooting her drinking, and said, “That is very very nice of you, I saw you did your best to avoid the wine – but don’t worry. Wine is legal and I have no problems being shot with a glass.” – Photo by Michael Willems.


What were your first steps in the industry?

I started shooting events around me several decades ago and had photos published in various magazines and newspapers in Europe. But my first real steps in the industry were here in Oakville. Armed with my emergency services scanner and always carrying a camera or two, which was easy because I shoot events and teach photography, I would shoot every accident and spot-news event that came my way. I would quickly submit these to the local newspaper – wanting to freelance but not expecting quick results. And indeed these were not forthcoming. That suited me fine, I had patience. I continued to practice and to learn what the papers published. I looked at every picture, every cutline. I honed my technical skills and my people skills.


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

When I was young, I wanted a career in journalism but it turned out that I had to wait a few decades. I came to this industry in different ways than most. I trained as an engineer and travelled the world in that capacity and later as a business executive.

In my younger years, I worked for long periods in very wild environments, including Nigeria, Libya and the Middle East, including Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. These environments and what I saw there further whetted my appetite for photojournalism. I am quite visual in nature and wanted to share. Pity that “digital” had not yet been invented. I initially learned photography during those years.


What or who are your biggest inspirations?

In photography, three greats come to mind: Nan Goldin, Robert Capa and Annie Leibowitz. Definitely. And probably even in that order. In life: travel. I have spent time in almost 40 countries and find that people are people – but the differences are what make them so interesting.


I love the colours here, and this was my first Oakville Beaver front page. It is also a fave because Jaymz, a fellow photog, told me about this spot – very kind of him, since he could have kept it to himself. Helping others is a cool thing. Photo by Michael Willems.


Do you have a mentor?

I have many. As said, Reg Vertolli at The Oakville Beaver gives me truly excellent advice, and there are several others: especially experienced photographers such as my friends Gregory Talas and Peter West, both ex-news photographers and very experienced in the film world. I was going to say “older” photographers, but that would sound wrong. I am older than most, too, and “old” is a good thing if it means “experienced”.


What was a pivotal point in your career?

The second half of 2007, when I shot a long-term shoot in a drug den in Toronto. This enormously unsettling long-term project brought me at once back to the danger of the Middle East wars, (Toronto drug dens seem more dangerous to me than Baghdad was during Iranian air raids), and to the sense of isolation, the sense of depression, and the sense of “these people are in a different world – my world must know about this”. I made an exhibit of this, which drew over 2,000 visitors during CONTACT last year and got me on CBS Radio’s “Metro Morning” and “Big City, Small World”. But it changed my life, too, reminding me of how some people live, and how isolated they are.


This picture is from my “IV – Intravenous” exhibit. The misery, the desolation, the mess, the focus on the cocaine, the heap of used needles, and yet, the nice electric toothbrush in the corner… Photo by Michael Willems.


What are you working on now?

I am working on black and white portraits. Back to the future, you might say. I am also going to do “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep”, free photos of dead or dying babies for the parents. I went to a seminar about this in London yesterday and thought, is that ever moving. I’ll do it, however painful it will be for me – my feelings are none compared to the parents’, I am sure.


How important to you is multimedia?

I am a stills person. But I have learned that I have to move with the times. Standing still is moving backward. So I bought a Canon 7D in order to be able to do some video, or rather, to hone my skills in that area. But the work and time involved in post is not something I really like.


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

By tackling new items of my own, by always carrying my camera, and by always, always seeing people as interesting. And also, by always delivering the best work I can. Whether I shoot a “grip and grin” event, a spot news event or a corporate headshot, I try to put everything into it. And finally, by learning new techniques. I look at what other photographers do.


This one, of a standoff in Oakville at Knar Jewellers, is a fave because I shot it in the dark with a non-IS lens and no support, and because i got it to The Sun with literally one minute to spare. It’s also a favourite because it got me a Halton Police Media Award for “Best Police News Photograph”. Photo by Michael Willems.


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

Um, NPAC? Seriously – but also Facebook, silly as it may sound – keeps me in touch with others who are not from my background. DPreview for gear stuff. for excellent advice from other pros. Strobist and David Honl (whose Round Table I am on) for small strobe tips (I teach flash after all).


What is your favorite way to unwind?

Playing with new gear in my studio. With a glass of wine. I am, of course, a gearhead: as a teacher of photography I need to be totally up to date with equipment. And driving – I drive all over North America. No undoing shoes and belt in your own car!


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

I could sound cliché and say; “Don’t”, or “keep your day job”. But in fact it is the opposite: “go for it” was much better advice. When I went full-time into photography, I went down in income by, oh, 85%. But I went up in life enjoyment by about 500%. And although I now work 7 days a week, (I shoot and then, on evenings and weekends, I teach both at Henry’s and at my own outfit,, where I train pros), at least I can sleep in every day – I get up at 8-8:30 am. When we say things like “don’t”, we need to keep all aspects of the decision in mind, not just money.


And finally, this one because it was another Oakville Beaver front page and also because I was in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time, (in spite of the fact that I was washing my car when I heard the call and hesitated before deciding to go). When I got there, I was the only press and Oakville police kindly let me shoot. And finally, it’s a favourite becasue it again shows a nice juxtaposition between a teen and a fully-armed tac team. Photo by Michael Willems.



Category: Photographer's Q&A

One comment

  • I like to think of myself as seasoned not old :)and it’s funny that I’ve spent my life as a pro and now want to be an amateur (for the love) while Michael has been a gifted amateur and is now becoming a gifted pro. Go figure!

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