Our nation's collective memory

By Amy Reiswig, November 2013

Thelma Fayle has written an ode to Canada’s father of photojournalism,Ted Grant.

We always think people see what we see,” Victoria writer Thelma Fayle tells me. “They don’t.” This seemingly simple statement reflects an underlying message in Fayle’s new book Ted Grant: Sixty Years of Legendary Photojournalism (Heritage House, October 2013). Grant—known as the father of Canadian photojournalism—saw things like no one else, from the world’s elite power figures to the most common street scene here in Victoria, which he has called home for 32 years. And through her  professional collaboration, friendship and over 50 interviews with Grant, in addition to archival research, Fayle has seen both his work and the inspiring man behind it like no one else. Now she shares that insight, as the foreword by the Right Honourable Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer explains, on how “a kind, determined, generous, and brilliant man has made one of the greatest contributions to our country’s history through the lens of his camera.”

Most Canadians of a certain age recognize the book cover’s iconic photo of Pierre Trudeau exuberantly sliding down a banister. It’s probably Grant’s best-known image and captures not just a historical moment but a human moment, telling us a story about Trudeau the man. Grant once explained photojournalism as writing with his camera, and it’s what he did throughout his 60-year career: tell stories about people through his lens. His choice of stories to tell, however, is actually a surprising story in itself. 

Now in his mid-80s, Grant has eight books and countless photo publications, has won major awards for his work, lectures internationally and received an honourary degree from UVic in 2008. And while he has photographed all the predictable figures from the last 60 years—Diefenbaker, Douglas, Ben-Gurion, Thatcher, Reagan, the Kennedys, our once-illustrious national hero Ben Johnson, and many more—the bulk of Grant’s work is about average people both at home and abroad. 

From the children of Chernobyl to local cardiologists or the last inhabitants of Halifax’s Africville in the 1960s, Grant was most fascinated by basic human stories that we perhaps never really see: doctors, fishermen, meter maids, metal workers, loggers, farmers, cowboys, seal hunters, new mothers, a hitchhiker, actress—people living their lives, people who form our nation’s and world’s history, right down to two musicians relaxing on the very recognizable shallow brick steps of Victoria’s Centennial Square.

Of the approximately 300,000 images in the Ted Grant special collections at Library and Archives Canada and the National Gallery, about 80 percent focuses on anonymous Canadians. “Other than Ted and the archivists, I may be the only other person to have looked at the entire body of his work,” Fayle writes. “If Canadians could see the richness of their own reflected images in the Ted Grant Special Collections…they would know a little more about the importance of their individual roles in our nation.”

Fayle makes clear Grant’s role in chronicling Canadian history, geography, politics, culture, our nation’s collective memory. While we might not have occasion to visit those archives, this book and its selection of stunning photos fulfills Fayle’s hope that “As you read through these pages…you will get a sense of exactly what he has given to Canadians”—something Fayle suggests the humble Grant himself isn’t necessarily aware of despite his accolades. “Ted is the kind of person who would say ‘I just knew it was a good picture’ and not be aware of its significance,” she tells me, laughing.

Of his medical photography, Grant says: “It forms a record of the men and women devoted to caring for humankind.” From this book, though, it is evident that all of Grant’s work stands as a record of his own caring for humankind. And so we also see, as in Grant’s Trudeau photo, a story of the man himself in a book that is not simply a catalogue of great pictures or an analysis of their importance. Rather, it’s a respectful, even loving biography based on interviews with Grant’s friends, work colleagues and with Grant himself. 

Fayle met Grant when she took a photojournalism course at Camosun, one of about 1000 courses she’s taken since moving to Victoria from Montreal in 1977. Twenty-five years later, with a question about photographing the subject of an article, Fayle e-mailed Grant “with the subject line ‘Downright Bold Request.’” Being an award-winning photojournalism pioneer didn’t stop him from making himself available, and so they met again and a friendship was born. Given what Fayle tells us of Grant’s community involvement, his accessibility isn’t surprising. For example, in addition to his Camosun teaching, Grant has spoken to grade 10 photography students at Reynolds High School in Victoria every year for the past 30 years. When writing the Postmedia “House Beautiful” column in 2011, Fayle chose Grant as her photographer, and that time together was the impetus for this book. With great affection and admiration in her voice, she tells me: “I want Canadians to really know him. Everyone I interviewed said basically the same thing: ‘You have no idea how special this man is.’”

With that affection, Fayle does in words what Grant does in image: notices, captures and shares individual, resonant moments—from Grant writing “Happy 60th” to his wife Irene in toothpaste on a hotel bathroom mirror to his getting up at 4 am every Christmas to personally call 200 friends, or admitting “that he once failed to carry out an assignment to photograph a police officer pulling a toboggan carrying a drowned young boy. He was crying too hard.” By incorporating parts of her interviews, we also hear Grant’s voice, his tone and sensibility. For example, he recounts being thrown from a horse into a manure pile during an assignment on cowboys: “As I looked up at her, I swear she stood there killing herself laughing at me.” And in the book’s final “Ted Commandments” tips for aspiring photojournalists, we hear his mentorly advice on things like breathing, composition, letting go of irritations, responding to your gut, carrying raisins and, simply, wondering. 

Fayle, who has published in the Globe and Mail, Reader's Digest, The Tyee and right here in Focus, could never have known how that one-night course with Grant would change her life, but her gutsiness to write him must have come from a wondering moment of possibility.  And while the book is about Grant, her careful, sensitive selection and style shows it is actually about two artists. Excitingly, and probably also something Fayle couldn’t have predicted, the prestigious Leica Gallery in New York is holding a six-week show based on the book starting April 25, an incredible coup arranged by Heritage publisher Rodger Touchie. 

No one does, in fact, quite see what we each see. We are lucky to have, in this book, a unique look through Fayle’s eyes at a great figure in photojournalism history, an important Canadian who is also, by all accounts, a great man. Every reader will no doubt see different qualities in Ted Grant’s work, and it’s intriguing to think about the equally different ways people might go forward with his final advice: “I encourage you to have as many ‘I wonder what if’ moments as you can.” 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig wonders “what if” we were all bolder and took the time to learn about more of the surprising, inspiring people living in our local community.