Photographer’s Q&A – Chris Bolin

This week’s Q&A is with Chris Bolin, a Calgary-based photojournalist who has spent more than a decade photographing assignments for a variety of national and international clients in more than 30 countries. Chris will be presenting a workshop at the 2011 NPAC conference in Winnipeg. To see more of his work, please visit him at:


Calgary, Alberta – A line of children their way to school in a heavy snowfall on Thursday, April 10, 2008. The spring storm dumped more than 15 centimeters of snow by 9 am. Photo by Chris Bolin for The Canadian Press.


What were your first steps in the industry?

I picked up my first camera in junior high and then kept at it all through high school. I had my own darkroom in the year-book office so it was the ultimate place to skip math class.

After graduation I met other “shooters” in the business – one of them being (now) AP senior photographer, Kevin Frayer. We were both in our late teens from Winnipeg and we would drive around town after our night shifts at our part-time jobs and listen to the police scanner. We were desperate to get published in the paper and one day I finally did.

There was an arrest of a picketing Canada Post employee being hauled away after he punched a replacement worked walking into his shift. I heard the call and pulled up just as the police had placed him in handcuffs. I shot it on a Canon F1, a Vivitar 283 flash and a 28mm lens. I drove down to the Winnipeg Free Press and photo editor Jon Thordarson put it on front page the next day. The first and best $50.00 I’ve ever earned with a camera.

Soon after, I was introduced to Shaun Best, Ken Gigliotti, Joe Bryksa, Fred Greenslade, Boris Minkevich and others in the business. Winnipeg has other talent than just Neil Young.


His Holiness the Dalai Lama greets supporters at his official arrival at the Calgary International Airport on September 30, 2009. The mayor of the city presented the Dalai Lama with a white cowboy hat, which has been a tradition to all dignitaries who come to the city.  Photo by Chris Bolin/The University of Calgary.


When you were just starting out in the industry, what did you want to do and are you where you thought you would be now?

After a few years in Winnipeg trying to get published, (it only happened a few times), I actually gave up on photography all together. I sold my one camera and my three lenses and was told by my father that if I wanted to live at home, I would have to get a “real” job.

“Chasing a fire truck down the street in a 1996 Hyundai Pony is not a profession”, he said.

So after a few months, I left town and headed west and ended up living near Canmore, Alberta, and working for the YMCA as a camp counselor at Camp Chief Hector. They hired a photographer on a four-month contract for the summer to document day-to-day life and the shooter that season was fired in his second week. I was asked to fill the job and I started shooting the next day. They had a Nikon kit that I could use and a full darkroom on site. I was back in the game.

It was when I was in Calgary, the next few years, that I heard about the program at SAIT and entered the Journalism Arts program in the fall of 1997. At the time, I freelanced for the Calgary Herald and in the spring of 1999 landed an internship at The National Post in Toronto. I always wanted to be a newspaper shooter and wanted to mix it up with some travel photography.

After almost five years in Toronto, I decided to head back out west and have been here since. Since then, I have had the opportunity to spend four months shooting for a fishing lodge in the Queen Charlotte Lodge. And in the fall of 2005, I finally got my dream assignment when I travelled around the world to 17 countries in 120 days for an assignment with Semester At Sea.


Do you have a mentor?

I met many people along the way that gave me a little push with my desire to be in the business and for that I am truly grateful.

I was introduced to Canadian documentary photographer George Webber while in school and he sat down with me and looked at some of my early work. It was solid, positive advice, about being a photographer and how wonderful the craft was. He admired my style and approach to subject and said I should keep at it. I am good friends with George to this day and owe him big thanks.

During my internship at the National Post, I was the young brat on staff who wanted to do it all. I had the pleasure to work with (then) fellow staff: Hans Deryk, John Lehmann, Carlo Allegri, Peter Redman, Denis Paquin, Andrew Tolson, Tim McKennna, Alain-Pierre Hovasse and Brian Kerrigan. They all opened the door big and wide and let me learn at my own pace. It was the “Dream Team” some had thought who launched the new daily and I got to ask them questions every day and get critiqued on my early work. Having Denis Paquin look at your film when you are three weeks out of school is a … well … a “character builder” let’s just say.


James Carville aka: “The Ragin’ Cajun” is photographed in Calgary, AB at a dinner that he was speaking at. Photo by Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail.


What or who are your biggest inspirations?

Like any good photographer I would read the newspaper from the bottom up and The National Geographic from back to front. I would flip to the back page first to see the “On Assignment” page of who shot the latest story that month. I was in awe of what those photogs could do with light and subject.

Nowadays, I admire any shooter who does this day in and day out for a career. It’s a tough grind and when you are self-employed, it’s more business than pictures. Once, maybe twice, a year, I hit the road and meet the people that make up this country of ours and get to tell their story my way. I cherish those images and moments when I can shoot my own stuff. I bust out the film cameras for those special trips.


What was a pivotal point in your career?

It was February of 1999 and there was an amateur snowmobile race at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alberta. I thought it might make a nice feature photo that I could freelance to the Calgary Herald.

I was at the event maybe three minutes, loading a fresh roll of film into my camera and then, while looking through my 70-200 telephoto, all I saw was two tangled snowmobiles and their drivers in a mid-air collision.

I shot 37 frames of something: 37 frames of a spectacular accident that happened right in front of me. I called the desk and when the photo editor at the time, Don Denton, picked up the phone, I said, “I was a SAIT student and I might have a picture he could use.”

Frame One. I still have the sheet of negs in my safe. It moved to The Canadian Press (CP) within an hour and then around the country. The next morning, my photo decorated almost every sports front page possible. I won CP Sports Photo of the Year for 1999 while still a student.


Two snowmobilers go airborne in the women’s amateur classic as they cross the finish line during the 1999 SnowCross event held at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary, Alberta. Both walked away from the incident with no injuries. Photo by Chris Bolin/The Calgary Herald (CP Sports of the year 1999)


What are you working on now?

Being a father to my eight-month-old, a husband, and a successful business first, and a photographer second.

I have been on my own for seven years now with my company and manage over 75 clients year to year for photography assignments. I get very little time now to “make pretty pictures” and instead, I need to make my clients happy on a daily basis.

I find I am spending more and more time writing contracts, service agreements and adjusting quotes. The button pushing is getting to be a smaller part of what I do. I just did however finished re-branding my blog, web page and wedding work with a new look and feel. I am trying to get more space in “space” and have better SEO on the Internet.

At this time of the year, it is generally slow so it gives me lots of time in the office to set up my summer and try to land some bigger assignments. There are always oil & gas shows that come to the province, the Royal tour will come through town, corporate events, and weddings. It will also be my 12th summer of shooting the Calgary Stampede, one of my favourite assignments of the year.


How important to you is multimedia?

In five years, since everyone jumped on the video train, I have done three jobs: one sucked, the second really sucked, and the third, I freelanced out and called myself the “Art Director” to the client while a friend shot it for me. They never called me again.

It’s the editing that I need help with and I find my editorial clients have their own idea of what video is. It’s not really my strength. I did however do an audio slideshow for the NY Times last year and they were very happy with the result. I don’t turn down the wor, but I don’t advertise it either. I do however have great video clips of my daughter laughing in the bath.


“Joe”, a retired peanut farmer is photographer at his town’s national peanut festival in Sylvester, Georgia in 2000. Part of a series called American Beauty that ran in the National Post. Photo by Chris Bolin/The National Post.


How do you ensure you are progressing as a photojournalist?

I read a lot online and follow a number of blogs. I try to have new-ish equipment and software so I am not being smoked out by a bunch of students when it comes down to getting the next gig.

I also try to come up with a few “unique” photo stories a year that I can work away on and pitch to clients. I still love to go out with a film camera and a fixed 35mm and 85mm and just make nice images – those prints hang in my office and don’t go to clients.

I am not a huge trend follower and definitely not a trendsetter. But I know my style now and would like to think I am constant and reliable to my clients. This is a marathon this photography thing we are in, not a sprint. Slow and steady I say.


What is your favorite way to unwind?

After a crazy long two week assignment like covering the Calgary Stampede, my wife and I, and now also my daughter, will pack up our lives and head out of town for two or three weeks. We love to travel and there is nothing better than to get out of the office and go really, really far away.

In the past, we did SE Asia for a month, Central America for three weeks, and one summer, we drove down to northern California. Now of course, I still haul my gear but shoot the stuff I want to shoot. And as crazy as it seems, I love being on the road for work too – the smaller the town, the better the images.

I love working out of the house and have gotten better at managing my time and resources. I have been known to sneak in a matinee while I was “at work”.


Zeb Lanham gets lauched into the air by Wranglers Rock Star at the Calgary Stampede on July 9, 2007. Photo by Chris Bolin for Metro News.


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

After I landed a staff job at The National Post, my (then) editor Denis Paquin told me on my first day: “If you have only 15 minutes to photograph a subject and share their story, listen to them for 12 and shoot them for 3. We all have a story to tell and you will get a much better image if you put your camera down and just hear what they have to say.”


Ten-year-old Georgia Rae Giddings bursts into tears after Pope John Paul II embraced after waiting to meet him at the Toronto Airport for his arrival of World Youth Day in 2002. Photo by Chris Bolin/The National Post.



Category: Photographer's Q&A

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