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  • Beverley Laing

Naomi Harris: Oh Canada!

Naomi Harris set off on the Trans Canada Highway in the summer of 2011 in a car she bought on eBay. She had a Canada Council for the Arts grant for her project Oh Canada! Her plan was to drive from coast to coast, photographing Canadians — the ordinary and the extraordinary.

We asked her how she decided who to approach and how she made her approaches. “Frankly, if you live in Canada, you are a Canadian, right?” she replied. “I simply said I was doing a road trip from coast to coast to make portraits of Canadians and could I kindly photograph them and include them in the project.”

Harris explains, “I wanted to try to be as inclusive as possible of people from all walks of life and make sure the project wasn’t just a bunch of white, apple-cheeked people.”

She had an ambitious idea: start in Victoria and keep heading east; get to events such as the Spock Days festival in Vulcan, Alberta; photograph the oldest living Canadian (Pearl Lutzko of Ituna, Saskatchewan); and end the trip in St John’s, Newfoundland by Labour Day. “Most of my subjects I just stumbled upon along the way, which to me is the nicest way to meet people,” she says.

Harris’s portraits have a gravitas and dignity, presented with respect and a calm clarity. They suggest stories we would like to hear and people we would like to talk to, about the very different ways we are or have become Canadians.

Through her images and between her words, you get a sense that Harris cherishes the stories she’s been told. She met Ruth Kells, now 92, at a veterans’ event in Halifax, and now counts her as a dear friend. When Ruth was 18 in the early 1940s, she signed up to the RCAF as a wireless operator. For a woman to go to the war in Europe, she’d have to be 21, so she worked from Canada and travelled after the war, a bold ambition for a woman at that time. “She even had a motorbike!” says Harris.

“Part of my experience as a photographer is that you get to spend a brief moment in time with people and capture it in a photograph, but then move on to the next adventure,” Harris shares.

Another road-side acquaintance that has stuck with her – and still travels with her now – was the result of choosing a back road in Saskatchewan.

“I looked on a map and saw that a hamlet called Kandahar wasn’t too far away. Since I would never go to Kandahar, Afghanistan, why not go to Kandahar, Canada? There were two different routes I could take, one on a highway that took me a little bit out of the way or one that was more direct, but on a dirt road that went through the Poor Man First Nation Reserve. If you know Saskatchewan roads at all, you know that they are the worst in the nation; paved or unpaved, your shocks are going to take a beating. I decided to take the unpaved but more direct route.”

Halfway along that road, driving alone in the baking sun, Harris saw a hitchhiker. She’d never picked up a hitchhiker before. She says, “Maybe it was the heat and the fact that the reservation was 15 kilometres away, but something urged me to give this man a lift. I think he was surprised too when the car backed up, the window rolled down, and this lone woman offered him a lift. He quietly got into the car. We made small talk and, when we got to the turn off, I asked if I could come and photograph his family, to which he replied, ‘Sure.’

I had never been on a reservation before; I don’t know too many people from Toronto who have been. But it was honestly sadder than anything I expected: bleak pre-fab homes with no landscaping, dirt roads, broken down cars in yards among other garbage, stray dogs roaming the streets and, to top it off, a tornado had torn through the community the summer before.

While I waited for his parents to return home so I could photograph the family, I began talking with the hitchhiker’s younger sisters. Out of nowhere this horrible, tick-ridden, dreadlocked, muddy, wretched creature waddled up to us. Instinctively they kicked it away, to which I was like ‘Whoa! What are you doing?’ They simply replied it was a ‘Rez’ dog, so it didn’t matter. I wanted to prove to them that under that horrible coat was a sweet creature so I went to my car to get some scissors and began giving the dog a haircut. She immediately rolled over in submission and let me cut off all of the matted hair. I asked the girls to get a bucket of warm, soapy water so we could give her a bath. By the time we were done, they were all excited by how sweet this dog was. Underneath that mess was a purebred Shih Tzu. She had a cherry eye that required surgery and scabs from the ticks but seemed okay otherwise.”

Harris asked if she could take the dog with her, as no one owned it. “As I drove away, I felt guilty that I was taking a dog away with me instead of being able to do something for the family I just left.”

Her new four-legged friend Maggie turned out to be anaemic and heavily pregnant. Harris consulted a vet and, through a friend she met on Tumblr, found “an incredible woman who said she’d keep Maggie, help deliver the puppies, find homes for all of them, and then deliver Maggie to me when I was done the trip. Just before I pulled out of Winnipeg, Maggie gave birth to six puppies … and true to the woman’s word, all the puppies found good homes.”

Two months later after the end of the roadtrip, Maggie was flown to Toronto. Harris picked her up from the airport. “I set the carrier down in the airport parking lot, opened the hatch, and Maggie flew out! Confused from the ordeal of the trip, she looked around and suddenly there was a distinct look of recognition in her eyes, like ‘It’s you, the one who rescued me!’ She jumped up and down and licked me excitedly.”

A chance meeting in a remote town and a connection online: these networks of people and fate reveal the ways we intersect, support, connect, and contact strangers, friends, and family. This is a part of what Oh Canada! shares.

Has she finished? Did Harris find Canada in her coast-to-coast adventures? “I would say it isn’t a complete project. I’d like to return to the road again sometime in the future and fill the gaps in and go to places I didn’t get a chance to visit the first time round.”

We asked what advice she would give to new and emerging photographers. What has she learned, and what would she pass on?

“How we choose to photograph people [has] repercussions. We also have a responsibility to our subjects to share their stories and likeness in a way they would want to be portrayed. I tend to like to photograph ‘real’ people and, in a way, that isn’t always the most flattering. But I think pictures can have elements of peculiarity, awkwardness, and absurdity to them… it’s your intentions that are important. Are you capturing a bizarre moment in time or are you intentionally trying to mock or ridicule your subject? I think photographers have to ask themselves what their intent is, and what the consequences of their photos will be.

I feel like I’m still learning about myself all the time. Like right now I’m trying to figure out how much longer I can sustain this lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, I love photography and the experiences I’ve had through it, but financially this isn’t sustainable anymore. Now whether that means I’ll get a day job but continue doing photography in the form of personal projects remains to be seen.

But this is the best piece of advice I can give to young photographers. That you don’t have to make a living out of being a photographer, because surviving off of photography alone is really, really hard. There is no shame in having a ‘real’ job to make ends meet. In fact, it can be a plus, because it’s easier to be creative when you aren’t in debt or stressed out about how to pay your rent.”

This story and other great Canadian photo stories can be found in our Spring/ Summer 2017 issue, CELEBRATING CANADA. Get it in beautiful print, HERE.

*** Maggie is very popular on instagram : @maggiewhereyouat

maggie's adventures Naomi Harris's dog

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