Photographer’s Q&A – Marianne Helm
Former Calgary Herald photographer, Marianne Helm, is based in Winnipeg where she does editorial, documentary and corporate photography.
Her web site is www.mariannehelm.com.
I shot this image of Sidney Crosby colliding with an opposing player during a World Junior exhibition game in Winnipeg for CP. It ended up winning The Canadian Press Sports Photo of the Year for 2004, the first year I began freelancing in Winnipeg. (Photo by Marianne Helm for The Canadian Press)
What were your first steps in the photo industry?
I’ve always had a thing for visual art. I still do. When I was younger, I used to draw and paint quite a bit. But I always loved photography. I travelled for a while which helped build my interest in people and places and the stories behind them. I also got hooked on newspapers while working for the Manitoban, the student newspaper at the University of Manitoba.
In 1996, I stuffed a van to its breaking point and moved to Calgary to study journalism at SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology). Being very aware of how slim the chances were on having a long and successful career as a photojournalist, I assumed I would end up becoming a writer.
In school, we shot on film. Developing your own film and watching your images appear like magic in a room that smelled of stop bath – there was nothing like it. I decided photography was something I couldn’t do without. I applied for the second-year photojournalism program with Frank Shufletoski and was accepted. I became great friends with photographers Leah Hennel and Laura Leyshon there. Photographers Darryl Dyck, Kevin Van Paassen were also at SAIT at that time, as was Chris Bolin and so many other great shooters. It was an inspiring place to be.
I would drive out to Banff on weekends to see if Gavin Young at the Crag & Canyon would give me any assignments. At that point, I also started to hang around the Calgary Herald every chance I could and followed around Larry MacDougal and David Lazarowych, staff photographers at the time, as much as they would let me.
In the summer between my first and second year, I was hired to be a writer/photographer at the Strathmore Standard, a weekly paper in a town 25 minutes east of Calgary. I was able to fill up a photo page every week, take all of the photos for the paper, and do some reporting as well.
Ballet dancer Janet Sartore looks out from behind the curtain backstage as she waits her cue during a performance of ‘Nutcracker’, put on for the holidays by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, as it has for many years, at the Centennial Concert Hall on Thursday, December 29, 2005. (Photo by Marianne Helm for The Globe and Mail)
During my second year in school, I landed an internship at the Calgary Herald and was thrown pretty much right in the deep end. From day one, I was expected to bring back A1 photos daily and do everything the staffers (who were generous with their time and tips, as was Don Denton who was an editor there) were expected to do. The learning curve was incredibly steep. From that experience, I was offered a summer internship at the paper.
At the end of the summer, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Staff photographer Rob Galbraith decided to leave the paper and pursue consulting for digital photography, which, at that time, was new to newspapers. I was hired as a staff photographer along with Shannon Duncan.
I worked like crazy and loved every minute of it. I shot everything I could — news, sports, portraits, illustrations, features, everything and anything.
One year after being hired, I found myself locked out with the rest of the newsroom for nine months. After it was all over, there were only a small handful of us who went back. There was still so much I wanted to learn. I worked hard and found projects to work on, sometimes both shooting and writing. I ended up winning the Western Canadian News Photographers Association “Photographer of the Year” award in 2003, which I think helped to get my freelance career running the following year when I decided to move back to Winnipeg.
This is a portrait of elder Florence KaKay Geesick that I took for story on the Buffalo Point FIrst Nation and Chief John Thunder on Thursday, October 25, 2007. (Photo by Marianne Helm for Maclean’s)
What events led you to where you are now?
I always say I was born in England, grew up in Winnipeg and found myself in Calgary. I certainly hadn’t planned on moving back to Winnipeg but as everyone knows, life happens. I had a baby which abruptly changed the direction of my life.
It was difficult to balance the shift work and expected overtime of a news photographer with having a family. I loved my job and I loved Calgary. But my folks still lived in Winnipeg and family was becoming more and more of a focus for me. It was a very difficult decision to leave Calgary but when I did, it immediately felt like the right thing to do.
Although, some days, I do miss the mountains and Calgary like crazy.
What kinds of jobs do you shoot today?
Winnipeg has been good to me. When I first arrived, much of my work came from a number of wire services and daily newspapers across the country but mostly the main papers out of Toronto.
A few years later, after my daughter was born, I chose to back away from the quick turnaround, spontaneous assignments and focus more on work that I could schedule. Roughly 80% of my assignments are ones that I can arrange and know about in advance. My focus is now on shooting for magazines, covering the Winnipeg Jets for Getty and doing some corporate work. But I still shoot for daily papers when I can.
Since I’ve been in Winnipeg, I’ve shot for Maclean’s, Getty Images, Cottage Life, Profit, MoneySense, Canada’s History Magazine, Canadian Business, The Globe and Mail, National Post, Canadian Press, CPImages, Reuters, Toronto Star, Winnipeg Free Press, Wave magazine and Ciao magazine, to name a few. I have a number of corporate clients I shoot for throughout the year as well.
Makoto Ono, head chef of Gluttons, in the kitchen before for dinner on Wednesday, February 21, 2007. (Photo by Marianne Helm for Maclean’s)
One thing I miss about being a staff photographer is being part of a newsroom. A few years back, photographer Jimmy Jeong approached me about being the Winnipeg member of Rogue, a collective of photographers from across the country. As a freelancer, it’s great to have a group of photographers to bounce ideas off and to showcase our work together. It feels like you’re a part of something bigger.
What was your first front page picture? Do you still have a copy of the page?
My first front page for a major daily paper was from the aftermath of a fire that happened in downtown Calgary in 1998 when I was still a student. A number of us went from school with a scanner during the fire. But I decided to go again the next morning to see if there was an image from the aftermath. I chatted with a firefighter who was walking around and he allowed me to walk up to the house to take a photo of the inside of the home through the window. It was winter and the water from the fire hoses had completely frozen inside the house. I took it to the paper and it ran front page.
In the old days of film, news photographers printed, and even framed, their favourite pictures. Today, it seems most pictures exist only on computer screens. Which pictures do you choose to print?
When I print photos for hanging in my house, I tend to print ones that are personal: my family and detailed images of places I’ve been. I have favourite images printed from assignments but I keep those in my office. I’m also my own worst critic so when I look at my photos, I usually just think of what I could have done differently. I do intend to print and frame my personal project “England by Train”.
These images are part of a series I did when I travelled by train through parts of England in 2009. It’s a little like street photography, perhaps, but from a moving train. Without the option of crossing the street to get a better angle, it was about trying to time what was instantly there and to see what would find its way into the frame. Part of the goal was to get as many aspects that I could from my journey and to incorporate as much as I could about how I see England. I have always loved travelling by train and tend to believe that you really get to see what a place is all about right beside the train tracks. (Photos by Marianne Helm)
When I was young, I would always look at my family albums. It was something I could do any time I wanted since albums were everywhere in the house. Now, I have most of my/our images on the computer which is something I am in the process of changing. I’m attempting to organize and print my family photos and have them available for my kids to look at any time they want. It is apparently an epic mission but it will be done. It’s too important not to.
What is your most memorable assignment(s) and why?
• Spending the night in a museum with a haunted doll named Mandy in Quesnel, B.C. She looked like “Chucky” from the old movies. I had two digital cameras and a film camera die on me. It was pretty freaky. The doll was freaky. Everything about that assignment was freaky.
• Traveling to Austin, Texas, to spend time behind the scenes with Cirque du Soleil. It was amazing having that access. But the part that intrigued me the most was documenting the school classes of the children who travelled with their performer parents. Many of these kids were also performers themselves.
• Covering three ex-Calgary Stampeder quarterbacks, Doug Flutie, Jeff Garcia and Dave Dickenson, as they all played in an NFL game in San Diego. It was a big assignment and incredible to be asked to shoot it.
• Flying to Regina in 2009 for Maclean’s to spend an afternoon with Colin Thatcher, a former politician who spent 22 years in prison for his ex-wife’s murder. He was released on parole in 2006 and had just finished writing a book maintaining his innocence. It was a pretty unique opportunity.
• More recently, I was asked by Getty Images to shoot the Winnipeg Jets and their return to Winnipeg. It was an amazing experience to document this story last season. The only game that was bigger and more exciting to shoot than the first game was the return of Teemu Selanne, who used to play for the original Winnipeg Jets, when he came back here with the Anaheim Ducks. It was nearly overwhelming actually. It was one of those moments when you realize just how lucky you are to do what you do: being able to witness Winnipeg history in the making and to photograph it for others to see and remember.
WINNIPEG, CANADA – DECEMBER 6: The Winnipeg Jets salute the fans after defeating the Boston Bruins 2-1 in NHL action at the MTS Centre on December 6, 2011, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Marianne Helm for Getty Images)
What’s the most important business skill that a self-employed photographer has to have?
Always have a written contract. Keep your paperwork in order. Network. Listen to Warren Toda.
What was your biggest photo mistake?
When I was at the Calgary Herald, there was a school shooting in Taber, Alberta, in 1999. The writer I was with got a tip on where the suspect lived, with his parents, and that the police were searching the house.
I was using two old Nikon NC2000 cameras and stood outside the house in the freezing cold for hours, staking it out as the police were inside. I was outside for so long — and back then, the batteries were actually sealed in the cameras — that no matter what I did, I couldn’t keep them warm.
When the police finally came out with their arms full of guns found in the house, the cameras wouldn’t fire because the batteries were completely frozen. I should have stayed in the writer’s car to keep the camera warm but I was certain I was going to miss something. And I ended up missing it anyway.
What was the silliest photo gadget you ever bought?
I’m not a huge gadget buyer… maybe a mini reflector?
I keep my light stands and reflectors in a guitar case with shoulder straps because I can store more than in a simple lightstand bag and carry it easily. That actually makes me look pretty silly.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
Larry MacDougal taught me to:
Always look around you, behind you, look for what you are missing.
Always ask questions.
Never stop learning.
Always be respectful.
Always have a warm set of batteries (see above).
Anything else you’d like to add?
I have an amazing recipe for ginger cookies.