Christian, your series “People (Who Sleep Outside)” is heartbreaking in its content but equally visually stunning. How is it that you are able create images so tragic yet so compelling?
I find photography to be about just a few things: light, composition and texture, then there are subjects that get more attention than others, usually photos with people get a heartfelt response. I see these people in my photos as me, I project myself in their place and feel what it’s like to be them. I have been around so much homelessness with my other projects that it was natural for me to look past what people normally shoot and take the harder photos, the composition comes naturally and the rest is chance.
Your use of strong colors, and all too familiar urban settings, strongly contrast the level of poverty that you document. Do you strive to highlight this duality or has the problem of homelessness risen to such a level that it can no longer be contained and that they are no longer on the fringes of society?
The people I shoot are normally in their element, and most of the time that means they are in or near financial districts. The contrast I saw in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side is what sparked my interest. They were on the fringes of the downtown core, a clear line separated them from condos and money. In Toronto they are everywhere. I think it has always been this way and don’t see much changing.
As a photojournalist, one sees how your need to tell a story permeates your work. But how is it that you were able to capture such intimate portraits under these conditions?
As far as People (who sleep outside), they were almost all asleep at the time. And I have become comfortable in their space from years of shooting people, and shooting portraits of the homeless in the DTES Vancouver. In Toronto sometimes the case was that I would approach the ones I found visually stimulating and basically shoot first ask questions later.
In working to bring a face to the problems that exist in our society, do you ever find yourself struggling to find inspiration or sources to draw creativity from?
There is always something happening out there that is worthy of a story, a problem that needs attention, it is endless. But for me, after doing it for many years I have become numb to it, and after Vancouver before the Olympics, the rest of the country seems less willing to tell their story, and more of a challenge to shoot. I have had more people here in Toronto say no to having their photo taken than anywhere else.
I do struggle for inspiration regularly; it takes a combination of factors for me to even leave the house. You can’t take any good pictures inside, so being out and always having a camera is key. Sometimes I’ll go out with my camera and not even take one picture. Sometimes I’ll snap a lot just to get in the groove, then when I see something I want I ‘ll get a rush of adrenaline and go get it. And that is what it will take for me to get more and more and out of that sometimes comes a series, like People (who sleep outside).
For our readers who are interested in pursuing a career in documentary style photography, what tips or advice would you give to avoid some of the common pitfalls of such a competitive field?
A career in documentary photography sounds great; I wish I knew how to go about it. So far I have worked full time for two newspapers but they are confined to local news. I worked for a magazine that only wanted music photography, and one that threw me into the street photography, Abort Magazine, they were going to make a book of my DTES Vancouver photography before the editor died. RIP E.S.Day. My only advice would be to go out and do it. Study some famous war photographers like James Nachtway, or someone like Martin Parr, and find yourself a muse and just keep shooting. If you can make money with photography you’re one of the lucky few. If you like shooting the way I do, you may not want it as a job, because doing work that someone else is asking you to do makes it a job. And no one wants their passion to feel like a job.
With the explosive growth in camera phones and their acceptance as a photographic medium, do you see more instances of amateur, and professional photographers alike, being able to embed themselves deeper into their stories unencumbered by DSLR’s and other equipment?
I think the only way to be taken seriously is to learn the DSLR and SLR’s and the traditional equipment first. Most of my photography was done with a Olympus OM1, which is pretty nondescript and non-intrusive. So yes, anything you have to use that gets you closer to your subject is great. But a telephone with a camera should not be something that you use to take serious photographs.
Finally, as a photographer in Canada, what is your view on the level of talent in this country?
I think Canada has many talented and creative people; we have some of the most diverse landscapes and people in the world. I feel our chances for the same opportunity as the USA and overall success are lower but with the internet as a tool it doesn’t matter where you are anymore.
We want to thank Christian for his time and the use of his stunning images. To see all of his galleries, please go HERE