Story ideas can come from anywhere. I read all the time, be it blogs, news sites, magazines or books; I also listen to music, visit galleries, and look at the work of other artists and photographers. That said, many of my best ideas come from my own life.
While still a staff newspaper photographer, with money I had saved and a leave of absence from the job, I set out on a fantastical road trip to travel the United States that bordered Canada, from Maine to Alaska. It was my way of trying to rekindle my love affair with photography; the journey was to be the destination and my hope was to collect images and experiences that I would learn and grow from.
I’m going to talk more about finding inspiration later, but for me, inspiration came from an article in which Canadian writer Margaret Atwood talked about my native Canada becoming more and more like the United States, for better or for worse. This was the spark that ignited my idea. (Since them we’ve seen a political back and forth on both sides of the border).
I wondered: If Canada were to become more like the United States, might we start to actually look more like the US? What would that look like?
I decided to take a photographic road trip to observe life and find the answer, and I would do it just across the border that separates the two countries. My thinking was that through my photography, I could illuminate what life was like along the northern edge of the United States and give Canadians a peek into our own futures. America at the Edge became the working title.
This project was organic for me. As a kid growing up in Montreal, I would often venture across the border on vacation with my family and I remembered how different and captivating life was in this strange new place. I also wanted a project that was not too specific, leaving me free to experiment throughout the huge geographic landscape I was about to cross.
Once I began and started seeing results, I was inspired to work, moving through obstacles, toward a place of competence and excitement I couldn’t have imagined. This was a beautiful feeling that renewed with each subsequent project.
I took a variety of cameras to push myself beyond the self-imposed barriers I had erected over the years. I wanted to feel different when I was shooting this; but I also wanted the picture-taking process to be second nature—organic and fast— feeling my way through and reacting on instinct. I mostly shot with wide lenses for the look and feel of intimacy I was hoping to convey.
It was the pre-digital era, and I brought Nikon SLRs, a Leica M6, and a Pentax 645, along with a tape recorder to interview people. I think it’s smart to keep meticulous notes, which come in handy later if you choose to do a book, exhibition, or both.
Collecting relevant artifacts is a good idea too, as is thinking of the inevitable multimedia components of sound and video, which technology has made much easier since this project was undertaken.
You want to leave yourself and your project with as many options as possible, since you can’t predict exactly how it will come to life.
In retrospect, I learned that the tool (camera) I used was not as important as knowing how to use it. Simplifying the gear selection would have made more sense for this project—one camera and a lens or two. But that was a conclusion I needed to work out for myself, but maybe I can save you some time.
The zen photographic state I was looking for only came when I knew the camera completely and unconsciously; when it became an extension of my eye, and I could react instantly and capture the moment. Struggling with new and unfamiliar tools meant missed opportunities.
I’m in the middle of a new transition from my Nikon DSLR and my new Nikon Mirrorless. It feels similar. I know the mirrorless is a great camera but my process and shooting flow is different. Once I work out the kinks and know the limitations of the new system compared to my DSLR, all will be good. Because I’ve already notice some distinct advantages for my street and travel work using a smaller and quieter much more stealthy tool.
Image above from the America at the Edge project.