You might be wondering why I don’t post a lot of photographs, or why any I do post are from festivals long passed. The time has come to let you in on my little secret… I shoot film.
I have vivid memories of flipping through issues of National Geographic as a kid; I think most people my age do. I remember the way the images made me feel as though I was standing right there in the desert, or a Turkish market, or on the crowded streets of Shanghai at night. I could almost smell the air, thick with the scent of a passing sandstorm, spices, or a mix of perfume and diesel fumes. Every one of those photographs were shot on film. They have that ethereal, gritty, and nostalgic feeling that photo editing software companies try to duplicate through a myriad of special filters that can be applied in the post production of digital images… but it’s just not the same, is it?
I never got to have my great European adventure. At a time before the internet was really a thing, and before the surge of digital and mobile photography, I was lost in post-secondary mistakes and minimum wage jobs. I never had the chance to up and leave with no connection home beyond a pack of postcards in my backpack and the occasional sketchy long-distance phone café. But that world is now gone forever. Today, the modern backpacker feels the need–or duty–to report back in real time with ease, afforded to them by the immediacy of digital or mobile photography. Instagram and Flickr accounts run hot with fresh images of the current moment, and friends and family are constantly kept abreast through up-to-the-minute selfies in front of tourist monuments narrated with cryptic captions. Gone are the scrapbooks hastily pulled together as a showpiece for friends and family.
Don’t get the wrong idea here… I do firmly believe that the immediacy that the smart phone has brought to photography has done wonders in the industry of reporting. We are now able to instantly inform mass amounts of people about social injustice or heinous war crimes being committed around the world. We are able to mobilize and act even before events are reported on the nightly news. However, photography at its core is, and always will be, a retrospective. When you think about it, a picture will always depict the past even if it is shared seconds after it was captured. Why is it that we so vividly remember a 1984 National Geographic photograph of a young Afghan woman but fail to bring to mind the definitive photograph of the Montreal student protest in 2012, one image that sums up the movement?
This project was meant to be looked back on as a personal retrospective and choosing to shoot it on film was, to me, a no-brainer. Film has always been, and always will be, my instrument of choice. Just as a carpenter carefully selects their tools to execute the job perfectly, so does a photographer. Simply put, I connect with film in a way that I just can’t with digital photography. The immediacy of digital or mobile photography takes me out of the moment; eyes glued to the tiny screen on the back of the camera I find myself contemplating sensor size and image quality rather than the artistic merit of the photograph captured. Film allows me to not only remain in the moment, but to feel as though I was a real part of the memories I am capturing, as though they are mine as well… and well, they are. It allows me to slow down and think about every single shot I take, conveying the very emotions that I see in others as well as those I feel within myself.
One can argue that film may have its limitations, but I will counter that in saying that the limitations push me to become a better photographer. In low lit situations I have to work harder and be ever more conscious of my camera settings as I search for the beautiful light pockets that pop up every now and then, gently caressing the faces of animated people. Under bright, sunny conditions shadows become my enemy as they occasionally creep up and block people’s faces all the while completely blowing out the highlights. At times I may get frustrated shooting under the dull yellow glow of tungsten lightbulbs, resulting in images often prone to an incomprehensible slurry of red, orange, and yellow tones – but when imperfections are embraced, magic begins to happen and the elements combine in a way reminiscent of the photographs of my childhood birthdays, under the tungsten sun that is the chandelier in my parents’ dining room. Sometimes I get to have my cake, and eat it too.
I have a confession to make: I am judgemental. I am guilty of pre-determining my enjoyment—or lack thereof—prior to attending a festival. Forming assumptions while imagining the things I might do, see, or even eat leads me down a slippery slope of false expectation. My objective from the very beginning was to attend as many events as possible, no matter what; to avoid the path most chosen that we are all guilty of taking when it comes to new experiences that, at first glance, stray from the norm. This decision was not made lightly, but as I did not want to impose any sort of limitations, it was essential. Instead, I wanted to expose myself to endless possibilities and new experiences, a decision that has seldom let me down. But we are all guilty of being human and so I admit I have judged, and still occasionally do. More often than not it is in a negative sense and, luckily for me, in most cases I am wrong.
Early on in the project I encountered a festival that I was not at all excited about, Festival de Casteliers. Those were the days. Only a few weeks into the project my list fit nicely on one sheet of loose leaf paper and my ignorance to the sheer volume and diversity of the festival scene in Montreal that I had yet to discover was truly bliss. And so, it was quite understandable that I was less than enthusiastic at the discovery of a marionette festival for all ages. Nonetheless, I had an empty slot in my calendar so I kept true to my commitment and went to my first puppet show as an adult. To my absolute amazement and utter surprise, I had a blast! Still buzzing from the performance, I wandered into the park around the corner after I left the theatre and came across an independent troupe’s impromptu marionette show held on a section of a frozen pond just below a small bridge. Flood lights illuminated the ice as cello and throat chanting filled the air, creating a presentation both creepy and odd but at the same time absolutely awe-inspiring, especially when admiring the grandeur of the puppet they had created. It was my first lesson learned in keeping an open mind.
Another event that I was dreading from the very beginning was the Grand Prix. From this project’s inception I knew that it was unavoidable, that in order to be considered at all complete I would need to include the Grand Prix in my portfolio of images… and before you jump down my throat, hear me out. Grand Prix for me is the embodiment of everything I stand against in the world: money, high class snobbery, sexism and objectification of women, and cars so expensive that you could eradicate homelessness in Canada with their worth. It’s just not my thing. In fact, I usually skip town for the whole weekend, only to return once the checkered flags have been unmasted and the streets are mercifully liberated from the endless throng of onlookers and suffocating plume of cigar smoke. And yet, amidst the debauchery and over-the-top courting displays of the rich and famous, I somehow managed to surprise even myself and have a great time! I was able to disconnect with preconceived notions and reach out to complete strangers through my lens whilst we all danced together in the human comedy that had become of the streets of Montreal as day surrendered to evening. I’m not ashamed to admit I was wrong, or maybe that’s just the magic of a city in celebration. Will I attend next year? Who knows, but definitely not without a camera.
Forrest Gump famously said “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get”, and I think the same goes for festivals. Sometimes it can be the experience of a lifetime, like getting to see a musician you love at Jazz Fest, or discovering a new dish you never knew existed. Other times it can be the complete opposite and might leave you feeling a little cheated or let down, you just never know… and unless you open yourself to new experiences and adventure, you never will.
Today I reached a milestone: I attended my 100th festival, Weekends du Monde at Parc Jean-Drapeau! It was a perfect day surrounded by thousands of beautiful people of all ages. The light was phenomenal the entire time, I couldn’t have wished for anything better. I trekked relentlessly through the beauties of Colombia, Trinidad, and Cuba, and even stopped by a little ristorante in Italy for a delicious slice of pizza. In the end, an entire roll of film was shot, each frame capturing the beauty of the many moments that presented themselves to me, moments that have now become memories in my mind and those that shared them with me, now forever frozen in time through the photographs that lay undeveloped in my camera.
When I began this project 4 ½ months ago I had no idea where it would take me, nor did I imagine I would experience so much in so short an amount of time. I have seen movies and theatre pieces that under normal circumstances I would never have considered, I have tasted new foods and drinks, I have danced in the streets with total strangers, and I even had my hand at pouring a hideous example of latte art during a demonstration for a coffee festival. In short, I have managed to travel the world without even stepping out of the city. I have been overwhelmed, tired, sore, sun burnt, and frozen solid, but I wouldn’t trade any of it. I am constantly in awe of the incredible amount of creativity that exists not just in Montreal, but the world over, and I know I’ve barely scraped the tip of the iceberg.
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There is no such thing as an opportune moment to have your life abruptly re-arranged beyond your control. Hardly a welcome feeling, it demands all from its victims each and every time it manifests itself. Suddenly daily activities no longer seem so important. All you want is to be left alone to cry in a dark room and wallow in profound sadness. The absolute last thing anyone would want to do in this situation is leave the safety and comfort of their bed, get dressed, go outside, and be surrounded by happy people at 3 different festivals in the same day.
It had already been an emotional rollercoaster of a week. I felt as if nothing was going right and I was beginning to lose control over my photography, not to mention my life in general. My mood kept see-sawing from sad to utter despair and I didn’t know why. The immense pressure of it all combined with the undertaking of such an extensive project was causing me to lose faith in myself and my abilities, and it was beginning to show in my work. It was at that moment when the news arrived.
I found out that my parents had to make the heart-wrenching decision to have my seventeen-year-old childhood cat put down. To some people this might seem trivial, but in the context of a year-long journey in which you have left the comfort and security of routine in pursuit of adventure and emotional growth, even the smallest things can impact you the greatest. Anyone who has embarked on such an odyssey–be it spiritual, geographical, or otherwise–can attest to the fact that despite the amazing experiences, there are still moments spent feeling totally and utterly alone in the world.
Anyone who really knows me can tell you that animals are my world; I consider them part of my family. I find an innocence and compassion in their eyes unmatched in their human counterparts, and because of that I hold them in the highest regard. I got Avalon when I was seventeen, half a lifetime ago. Her passing, although expected, hit me hard because I was now being forced to face the loss of a large part of my youth. I simply was not ready for that.
When I got the news I completely broke down. Huge gut-wrenching sobs erupted almost immediately, and I couldn’t hold them back. In the beginning of this project I knew life would go on and that I would have to power through weather and sickness, that I would miss out on family events and outings with friends; it is all part of the experience. And so, apprehensively, I eventually made it out the door and to the 3 festivals I had planned on attending that day—a day which can only described as having been survived, not lived. I felt such a disconnect from my surroundings that I may as well have been a ghost, and my images from the day will most likely be a reflection of that. Nevertheless, I did make it out the door and that in and of itself is a victory.
The next morning the sky was dark and the clouds were threatening to spill over, mirroring the very emotions I was experiencing. A night’s sleep had helped quell the storm in my mind, but I still harboured some trepidation as I headed out the door towards my final festival of the weekend, the Tour de l’Ile. Failure was not an option, as only 2 nights prior I struggled greatly to find my place at Tour la Nuit. This was my chance for redemption.
Upon my arrival on the scene I plastered a smile on my face and approached the 25,000 participants, who had tightly consumed every inch of Parc Avenue in anticipation of the start. Within minutes I was welcomed in among the crowd as they all clamoured for my attention and posed for my camera without hesitation, their smiles re-igniting the fire in my heart. In what seemed to be no time at all I had already spent a roll of film, a roll full of the beauty and compassion that I so desperately needed. The kindness I experienced that day was the best therapy I could have asked for, it allowed me to rediscover my confidence and fueled my courage to continue on. As I loaded my second roll of film into my camera I quickly glanced around; not a single photographer was to be seen… they were all stationed at the media tent, far removed from the action.
I’ve heard people refer to Montreal as “The City of Festivals” and I finally understand why. Actually, that title may even be a bit of an understatement. Everyone knows the major festivals like Jazz Fest, Just For Laughs, and Osheaga, but beneath the surface of highly subsidized and highly publicized mega-fests there lies a cornucopia of culinary, music, theatre, alcohol, art, literary, film, cultural, and other festivals that don’t seem to fit into any one particular category. The scene as a whole actually verges on ridiculousness. There is literally something for everyone.
When I began this project I had no idea that there was so much to be seen and done in this city. Because I was too broke to travel I joked that this was my way to see the world without having to leave home, that this was my chance at a backpacking adventure or rite of passage that many before me now justify to potential employers on their résumé as a “gap year”. I was utterly unaware of how true a statement that would turn out to be.
For a while I was really excited at the prospect of attending 100 events in the duration of the project. I would count them out again and again to see how close I was, and every time I added a new one I would get a little thrill. It wasn’t long before I surpassed 100 so a new goal of 150 was established, and next, 175. Now it looks like I will probably be attending 200 events by the end of December, with two months still to go before my final festival (which all of you will be invited to!).
Each of my days begins as the last, with a steaming cup of coffee and an intense scouring of the internet–sometimes for hours. Right from the start I’ve been making, updating, and remaking lists. So many lists. I have a list of all the events I’ve attended, I have one for my upcoming events, another for the events where the dates have yet to be announced, and yet another for the ones I will attend in 2017. I even have scraps of paper at an arm’s length for when my lists aren’t within reach. I have a calendar with each event marked down in a different colour ink, and an accompanying agenda to keep track of the specific day and time I plan to attend each one. Often I have to fit three or four events into one day–so rare is it now to only have one. My days off are used to find new events, scan rolls of negatives, write, work in the darkroom, visit family, run errands, and occasionally even get a little cleaning done.
To say there are some moments when I feel a little overwhelmed is a vast understatement. There were even moments when the guilt of not being there for those around me became too much that I even considered quitting all together. I’ve got so many blisters all over my feet that I’ve run out of band-aids, and I’m only a quarter of the way into my year. I catch myself falling asleep on the metro and I have a sunburn so painful that I truly hate myself for not remembering to use sunscreen.
On the other hand I am having so much fun, much more than I had imagined. I am no longer afraid to go to new places by myself and I have met so many amazing people that my faith in humanity is slowly beginning to be restored. I am rediscovering who I am and the person I want to be, the person who is friendly and caring and not weighed down by depression and cynicism. Sure, I’m stressed, but I am happy.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually, it was lunchtime on a Tuesday and the plan was to first visit a restaurant participating in this year’s Grilled Cheese Festival before capping off the day with a few beers care of Montreal’s first annual Beer Week. How better suited can two festivals be for each other? The day was mine!
Act 1, scene 1: The best of times
I arrived at the restaurant to find it nearly empty, with the exception of the staff and a couple who were just finishing up their meals. I glanced at the menu for vegetarian options and chatted for a bit with the person taking my order, explaining to him that I was there for the event and asked if they had a special sandwich for the occasion. After placing my order I chose a seat and set my camera down, slightly disappointed that in all likelihood I would be unable to get a shot due to the apparent lack of subjects. It was then that I had a moment of inspiration.
I walked back up to the counter and asked the chef if I could be allowed into the kitchen and get a few shots of the cook putting together the sandwiches. To my delight (and surprise!), the request was enthusiastically accepted, and we had a lovely discussion about my project and film photography while I snapped some shots.
This was one of those times where having a professional camera in my hand is like holding a backstage pass, allowing me access to a magical land that mere mortals cannot enter. Like a badge of honour amongst fellow photographers or enthusiasts, giving me a chance to forge an instant kinship, even if only for a few brief moments before we go our separate ways.
Act 2, scene 1: The worst of times
Still full from my delicious grilled cheese and glowing from the day’s events, I continued on as planned to a bar for Montreal Beer Week. The sun was still shining so I was pretty excited that I would actually get a little natural light for this shoot, as most of the festivals I’ve been to in dimly lit bars or concert halls have been photographically challenging, to say the very least. The waitress was happy to hear I was there for the event and told me about the beer that was being offered up. I ordered a glass, sat down at a table, and took out my camera.
I did a light meter reading and enjoyed my beer, waiting for an opportune moment to snap a shot. Nothing much was happening, it was still early in the evening so I decided to go up to the counter and order another drink while snapping a few shots of the couple sitting across the bar from me. I realized that the waitresses were at the other end of the bar and not looking at me, so I walked over to them. While waiting for my order, one of the waitresses asked if I was taking pictures for the event. I replied that I was, and that’s when things got uncomfortable. Her demeanor abruptly changed and she told me to make sure that I asked before taking anyone’s photograph while giving me the vibe to drink my beer and get out. There was no use in explaining my intentions, my camera and I were no longer welcome.
Obviously this came as a shock to me as I was expecting more of a warm welcome given that this particular bar’s website comes with a link to its own Instagram account, loaded with mobile uploads of patrons enjoying drinks and dancing. I guess anything bigger than a smartphone in my hand instantly makes me persona non grata. How bizarre.
I understand the apprehension some people have when it comes to being photographed. With the immediacy that the smartphone has brought to the distribution of images, some people are uneasy with the fact that their image could be splashed around the internet. However, as a photographer I am deeply interested in the candid moment and feel that it is vital to the documentation of life in this time and place.
I was not even upset that the waitress advised me to ask for my subjects’ permission, but more surprised that it was instantly implied that I wasn’t welcome to photograph the event, without even given the chance to explain myself. If I had had a smartphone in my hand we wouldn’t have had that conversation and it would have been business as usual, but because I had what to some looks like a professional camera, I was seen as an immediate threat.
I ended up attending the event a second time at a location more open-minded than the former. The image you will eventually see will more than likely be from the latter, as I prefer the beauty of the natural moment.
Fear is a nasty little feeling. On the one hand, it is entirely made up and exists only in our minds. On the other, it is an all too familiar emotion that casts a shadow on most of us on a daily basis. Some people are scared of dogs, others of heights. I am terrified of photographing people in public places.
It may seem a little oxymoronic and counter-intuitive, or even just flat out weird; a photographer that is scared of taking pictures. But such is the case for many photographers when it comes to interaction (or confrontation) with other humans. Put me in the middle of the woods and nothing scares me. In the middle of a crowded street however, I freeze. Standing only ten feet away from someone with a camera in my hands and I become utterly and absolutely unable to perform the simplest of tasks. My heart begins to palpitate, my palms sweat, my muscles stiffen to the point of temporary paralysis, and my brain triggers a flight response, screaming wildly at me to walk away and go get a coffee or catch a movie—anything that will get me away from a possible confrontation. Sometimes I persevere and manage to get a shot or two, but more times than not I chicken out.
The worst thing that can happen to a photographer is not getting the shot due to fear. I’ve run out of film on a shoot. I’ve missed some great opportunities because I had to reload film at the worst possible moment. I’ve even forgotten to check my camera to make sure it had a battery to power the light meter before I left home, leaving me to guess my exposure for a whole shoot. But despite experiencing all of these amateur and somewhat embarrassing mistakes, I’ve never felt worse than when I’ve chosen not to take a shot because I was too scared to raise the camera to my eye and release the shutter.
My fear, just like any other, is not rational. I realize this. What is the worst that can happen to me? Maybe someone will get upset if I take their picture. Maybe someone will even yell at me or threaten me, but they’re probably not going to hurt me physically. The most likely scenario is that they’ll just walk away. I am not a photojournalist in the middle of a battlefield or natural disaster, and yet I feel as though each move I make could find me stepping on a landmine.
Luckily there are already so many photographers floating around at festivals that most people expect to have their picture taken at some point. That is a definite perk of documenting a population in a state of celebration. People are usually at events to enjoy themselves, not to beat up on small female photographers.
This project not only forces me to face my fears head on, it also allows me the room to grow as a photographer. I am putting myself in places and situations that I would never be in otherwise, having new experiences and taking photographs that I never would have taken before. As terrifying as it is for me to photograph strangers, the idea of not getting a shot is much scarier. It’s not even a possibility. I used to think that fear was something to conquer, to overcome. I am learning instead to channel my fear, to realize that when my heart starts beating like a hummingbird’s wings it means that I’m on to something good.
Depression has a way of slowly killing you while at the very same time feels so warm and comforting; like an asbestos-lined blanket keeping you warm on a cold and wet day. It’s hard sometimes to take the leap and face the cold.
Just over two months ago, I began a new photography project. It was mid-winter and I was depressed. I have been for a while. I felt I had neither the drive nor the desire to create images beyond the odd snapshot under the not-so-clever guise of “depicting my daily life”. The images were disconnected, lacked emotion, and really weren’t all that interesting. I couldn’t work on any of my on-going projects as the weather didn’t allow for it, and found I just couldn’t seem to get myself out of the house for the ones I could work on. I had forged an even stronger bond with my three cats and I realized I was severely lacking human/social contact.
Even though it’s been almost three years since I moved to Montreal, this city will never really feel like home to me. I belong under big skies and in open fields, not amongst skyscrapers and concrete. Sometimes I think I can really love this city. There is so much culture and vibrancy here, and part of me thinks it quite neat to be part of the fabric that makes up this historical city. Yet other times I want to run away screaming and never look back. I really just want to find my place within this mess, to find where I belong.
And so we arrive at my latest photography project: for one calendar year I will visit as many festivals as the city of Montreal has to offer and photograph the diversity of the people I observe within the events, while coercing myself out from under my blanket and excite my senses once again. Through this, I will face many challenges as both a photographer and an individual, hopefully to come out on the other end with a broader view of the world around me and a deeper connection with the millions of people stumbling around this island with me.
I will continue to write about my experiences here, and I will post pictures from time to time so check back often. I hope that anyone who reads this finds it enjoyable, inspiring, and maybe even gets a laugh or two out of it.