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O Human Child / Vera Saltzman

Originally interviewed February 2018

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a photographer based in Saskatchewan, Canada. I grew up in on the east coast on Cape Breton Island but I’ve also lived in the Arctic, in Ottawa, and for the last six years, on the Prairies. I primarily explore themes of identity, place and memory.

How did you become interested in photography?

I came to photography quite late. I spent most of my life in the business world, wishing I could be a photographer. When my partner and I decided to go on an adventure and moved to Nunavut from my home province of Nova Scotia, I bought a digital camera, enrolled in a distance education program, and started to learn.

Photography was a way of getting to know the place where I lived and it helped me to fit into these small Inuit communities. However, I was still very shy about it all. When we moved to Ottawa, I decided to leave my full-time employment to complete the two-year portfolio development program at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (or “SPAO” as it is affectionately known).

I explored all things photographic there, including using film and alternative processes. It was their motto of “Vision, Content, Craft” that really motivated me. After I graduated in 2012, I moved to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, where I continue to work at it.

What kind of art interests you?

I have a restless mind so I make use of numerous genres in my work including landscape, architecture, portraiture and self-portraiture. Though I primarily use film, I also enjoy incorporating various techniques and cameras, taking advantage of all photography has to offer creatively to continue to expand and evolve my body of work.

I tend to work intuitively, often starting a project with a question rather than an answer. I make one image that resonates with me, then another, and another.

All the while, I am searching to understand the meaning of the work, and to bring what is in my subconscious to the surface. I am more interested in emotion than I am in seeking truth through photography.

For me, photography is about personal interpretation rather than documentation. Being a photographer enables me to express what is in my mind and heart, and I’m intrigued by the ability of the photograph to inspire feeling in the viewer.

You mention that you primarily focus on themes of place, identity and memory. What is it about these subjects that engage you?

Memory, place, and identity are three words I often use as touchstones. As someone who is always looking for home, I’m inspired by where I live. Since moving to Saskatchewan, I have been influenced by a profound longing for the east coast and a desire to feel a sense of belonging in the Prairies.

I believe landscape is more than a physical place, something that also encompasses memories, meanings, and associations. I use local iconography or portraits as a means to cultivate attachment and belonging, or what some call a “sense of place.” I enjoy the way Robert Adam’s describes photography as offering “a sense of inclusion.”

Tell us about your series, O Human Child.

The impetus for this series came out of a desire to better understand the place that I currently find myself, rural Saskatchewan. I turned to W. O. Mitchell’s seminal book Who Has Seen the Wind, in hopes that his words would help me gain a sense of the Saskatchewan identity. Mitchell depicts life as a child in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s, and as I read I began to question what life is like for children living in small prairie communities today.

In this series, I take a contemporary look at the children growing up in rural Saskatchewan and consider how the tensions and complexities of childhood today both contrast and mirror those of Mitchell’s time.

How do community and landscape shape their personal identity? In a time when the online world has opened up communication, learning, and entertainment, when family farms morph into commercial operations, and rural communities shrink with migration to urban areas – how will their primal landscape impact them as adults? I invite the viewer to reflect on the issues that today’s youth must grapple with.

During the making of the work, were there any moments which stand out?

Photographing Nick for sure. One day, watching him cruise down the street on his bike, his mother explained it had been his “first ever” ride without training wheels. I think many of us can relate to this childhood memory. I recall the rush of flying on my own and it gave me the warm fuzzies to share Nick’s joy.

Photographing Dannalee, a little girl with spina bifida – a spinal condition – also stands out. I lost my way trying to find her house. I’m always nervous before making a portrait but being late made me even more anxious. Her mother and brother walked to the end of the lane to flag me down – not to be left out, Dannalee followed behind. How could this little girl filled with such determination not inspire me? There is something delicate and fierce about her that I hope comes through in the portrait.

Tell us a little about your process. Your portraits are sombre, mature and quiet – somewhat opposite to what children are often portrayed as. What was it like to work with them?

In all the portrait work I do, I hope to leave the viewer wondering what is going on. If you photograph someone smiling, then everyone assumes the person is happy; but without a smile, it’s more open to interpretation. I wanted to carry this same process over to the children.

It was easier to work without the child’s parent by my side. The first thing they say is, “smile for the camera.” So I quickly learned that it was best to photograph the children without their parent’s influence. I remember Nick asked me why I didn’t want him to smile. When explained I made the photographs for art, he fully understood.

What are you up to next?

The dreaded question! Well, I’m still working on getting an exhibition for O Human Child in Saskatchewan, so keep your fingers crossed. I’m picking away at a typology of little houses reminiscent of my childhood and there is also a portrait series I’d love to do, but I haven’t built up the nerve to approach anyone yet. Stay tuned.

What are you recommending?

This may seem slightly random, but it follows from my last answer. It’s an article by James Clear called The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done. Sometimes starting a new project is a bit overwhelming. I feel paralysed by self doubt, insecurity and fear of failure to name a few. In the article he encourages people to focus on what you need to do to start the task rather than finish it. So, for instance, if you need to get the laundry folded then you would fold just one thing. Focus on a small, more manageable task – rather than the mountain of laundry that needs to be folded.

You can see where I’m going with this. One photograph at a time and eventually it all works out. I think it’s good advice and worth reading.

I’ve also been hugely enjoying Thelma Pepper’s book Human Touch recently. Canadian photography books usually focus on landscape, but Thelma’s black and white photographs share the stories of Saskatchewan’s people. She has just received the Saskatchewan Order of Merit. At ninety-seven years old she continues to influence younger photographers. I like to imagine her as a kindred spirit – she was also born in Nova Scotia, she moved to Saskatchewan, and she began her photography career late in life.

Tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

I received a critique on a portrait I took for an evening photography class about ten years ago. To demonstrate his advice the instructor referenced a photograph from Vanessa Winship’s Sweet Nothings, a series of portraits of rural schoolgirls from eastern Anatolia in Turkey. A simple black and white photograph of two little girls gazing unsmiling into the camera.

This look has always stayed with me. The timeless images left me wanting to reach in and touch their faces, to know their stories. Perhaps this was the first time I considered making portraits of people without the ever-present smile I’d been accustomed to.

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