Photographer’s Q&A – Peter Power
This week’s Photographer’s Q&A is with Peter Power, staff photographer at The Globe and Mail. His web site is www.peterpower.ca.
TORONTO, ONT July 20, 2007 – Image from a continuing story about the “Marsh Muckers” – the people who work, live and farm the dark muck of the Holland Marsh north of Toronto. Photo by Peter Power/The Globe and Mail
What were your first steps in the industry?
What started out as a hobby for me as a high school student and then later as an Officer Cadet in the Canadian Military, grew into a passion that was difficult to resist. I left the military after five years and while living in Belleville there was a chain of events that would change my life forever.
It was 1987 and I was visiting Loyalist College to register for a night school course to maintain my level of French bilingualism. Learning a second language was one of many positives I gained from five years in the military. The first-ever class of students in the new Photojournalism program had created a poster as part of their year-end project and this is what greeted me as I arrived at the College’s front doors.
The poster read, if memory serves me correctly, “Photojournalism – Only at Loyalist College!” I had already applied to Ryerson’s photography program but had been placed on a waiting list, so I was quite intrigued by this display.
During a brief meeting with John Peterson, the driving force behind the new program, I was told that the program was full for the coming semester. However, a few days later, as luck would have it, John called me and offered me an opportunity to take a position left vacant when another student backed out. I didn’t hesitate, and as they say, the rest is history.
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?
I think that like most enthusiastic beginning photojournalists I had dreams of travelling the world, photographing wars, famine, and the beautiful stories like those displayed in National Geographic. But at school, I tried not to point myself in any specific direction but rather to be successful at what I was doing at the time. Remember that for me, this was the beginning of a second career at the tender age of 21.
I was lucky that Frank O’Connor and Bill Whitelaw, both of The Intelligencer at that time, took it upon themselves to gently guide me during those early months. Their advice on photography, career and personal life was always appreciated, even if I didn’t always listen.
By the time I was ready to start working full time, I had a few options. It was the proverbial fork in the road so to speak. My decision at the time was to accept a full-time newspaper job rather than freelance for the wires. While I don’t regret my decision in the least, I do sometimes wonder how my career may have been different.
I never dreamed that this career could be so rewarding. I only wanted to succeed, to do the best I could, and to make my parents understand the choices I had made. That drive to succeed has, and continues to serve me well.
TENT CITY-Images from tent city where Johnny B was being showered by his girlfriend, outside of their shanty, in preperation for Johnny B’s visit to the doctor where he is being treated for a serious infection in his hand. Photo by Peter Power/TORONTO STAR.
Do you have a mentor?
I don’t currently have a mentor but that is something I think I’m lacking in my professional growth. After more than twenty years in this business, I still feel the need to have conversations about my photography, perhaps even more now than before. It’s important to me not to stop trying to improve the way I work or to consider new approaches. I think we all need someone who can speak to us frankly, to provide another perspective on our work, and to rip us a new one from time to time.
I’ve been lucky throughout my career to have, and to continue to have, many great friends and talented colleagues who are always generous with good advice, encouragement and critique. It never hurts to seek out people like this and be receptive to their opinions.
Erin Elder has consistently provided me with feedback since I arrived at The Globe and Mail in 2007 and her input is always appreciated.
What or who are your biggest inspirations?
I find inspiration everywhere. In excellent images being made by friends, colleagues, or other photographers here in Canada and around the world. I love the enthusiasm in new photographers. I love to see photojournalists who continue to produce great work after many years in the business. There is always something we can learn from others’ work and for that matter, other’s attitudes.
I have to add that I’m also inspired by people who allow journalists into their lives and share their most intimate stories. I don’t think I could ever be so publicly open. When I making images in these cases, I’m not just trying to make photographs I’ll be proud of, but I’m trying to give their story everything I can.
What was a pivotal point in your career?
I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. With that said, it is incumbent on everyone to prepare themselves as well as they can to accept any challenges that may come their way.
After my first year at Loyalist College, I was given an interview for a summer job at the Toronto Star. You would not believe how green I was and how terrified I was of being outclassed by classmates. I had been taking photographs for some time by that point but I had no clue about the industry. But I was determined and, as it turned out, more cocky than I knew.
When Toronto Star photo editor Brad Henderson, perhaps the best photo editor I’ve ever worked for, asked if I’d work in the darkroom instead of on the street, I said no.
To this day, I don’t know where that answer came from. I felt incredibly stupid at the time for it. But despite, or perhaps because of, my cockiness, Brad still gave me the opportunity to work with some great people that summer and I’ll never forget him for that. (Brad Henderson passed away in 2008).
Sub-Comandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994. Photo by Peter Power.
What are you working on now?
The biggest project I’m working on now is raising two teenagers. No joke. I have two amazing children but as good as they are, ensuring their happy and healthy development is a full-time job for my wife Kathleen and I. It’s all-consuming. We’ve lost the instruction booklets that they came with our children so we’re winging it these days. So far so good. But since we’re both worry-warts, our children are always on our minds.
As far as journalism is concerned, I’ll be honest and say it has been a quiet few months. Last year was very busy, with Haiti, the Olympics, a lengthy project on dementia, and another project on Nunavut which was just published. I’ve welcomed a return to the daily routine for a while but lately, I’ve been getting restless and it’s time to dig into something more substantial again.
I try to spend as much time as possible with my family when not working. So these days, I need to know the paper is behind projects I’m working on and it will find a place to publish them at some point. Finding ideas that are visually appealing and attractive to management can sometimes be the biggest challenge with any project. Researching ideas, and finding ways to present them has been occupying most of my time. But it will hopefully pay off with some images very soon.
How important to you is multimedia?
Multimedia is very important to me and should be to all of us. By this, I don’t mean video but rather any way you can effectively provide good journalism that can be viewed and appreciated in various media.
The opportunities to have our work consumed by more people and for longer periods of time have never been so plenty. Multimedia has given many of us a new outlet and has forced us to develop new skills.
What employers need to understand, and we need to somehow communicate to them, is that there are many ways to produce multimedia. But no matter which way you choose to work, the best stories will always be produced when journalists work to their strengths. The bottom line with any visual piece is that the visuals need to be strong and the journalism needs to be strong.
For me, in most situations, I can still do this best with still images. It has been an exciting evolution but I have to say that, as much as I have enjoyed working on stories which include audio, video and stills, I still get a huge rush out of seeing images in print on a well-designed page.
How do you ensure you are progressing as a photojournalist?
Great question because I believe that we should always be trying to progress no matter what we do. These days, I’m trying to look at others’ work and perhaps more so, at other approaches to work. As well, I’m trying to look outside the photojournalism community to get a different perspective on making images.
It’s becoming more and more important to me to stress the “journalist” part of our profession and to try to communicate better with images. While the opportunities for story-telling evolve and grow, it’s crucial to take more responsibility in the process.
This means reading, researching, and being very pro-active with stories that interest you. If you contrast the shrinking print space in newspapers and magazines with the almost limitless space available on the web, you discover that the story which drives your strong images is what will make the difference.
Wayne Gretzky bows his head into his hand as his limousine leaves his mother’s funeral. Photo by Peter Power.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
An evening of shinny hockey with friends is always a great way to burn off some steam and forget everything else. Other than that, I find winter is tough because I love to BBQ and hang out in my backyard with family and friends, usually with a beer in hand. Those days will be here again soon and I can’t wait!
I used to spend a lot of time in the outdoors, backpacking and climbing rock or ice. But in recent years, I’ve been spending more sedate time with a fishing rod in my hands.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
The best advice ever given to me about being a photographer came from Jim Wilkes, a talented reporter/photographer and good friend at the Toronto Star. He has had to reiterate this many times over the years and I think that I’m finally beginning to learn the lesson:
As we all know, this industry has its ups and downs which take many of us on an emotional rollercoaster. To remain healthy, and to ensure a long and satisfying career, one would be best served to try and temper these extremes. Enjoy the highs but don’t get carried away, and try not to let the lows pull you down too much.
Additionally, the best piece of advice anyone has ever given me was from my high school guidance counsellor, Harry O’Reilly, who became a very good friend. When I was trying to decide what to do with my life, he encouraged me to always aim for the stars.
“You may never get to that point but in all likelihood, you’ll do damn good trying.”
Fourteen-year-old Khadija Hassan Aden was taken to Liboi from Somalia by a cousin, after her entire family died in Somalia. With the takeover by the UIC in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the southern port of Kismayu, there has been a huge increase in the amount of Somali refugees fleeing from Somalia across the border in Kenya. At one of these border stations, hundreds of refugees are processed each day by the staffs of CARE and the UNHCR, and moved by truck to the refugee camps at Dadaab, Kenya. Photo by Peter Power/Toronto Star
Travel back in time to read Peter’s previous Q&A.