Chris Donovan: Complicated Maritime Clouds
When Chris Donovan was a child, he looked up at the smoke billowing from the pulp mill in his hometown of Saint John, New Brunswick, and asked his dad if that was the factory that made all of the world’s clouds. “No,” his father replied. “They make money.”
Chris Donovan is a multi-award-winning documentary photographer who has travelled the world to tell stories with his camera. With patience curiosity, and a gentle approach, Chris produces work that highlights people often ignored by mainstream media, thrusting them into the public sphere. He refers to his interests as finding "the interplay of community and industry" and finds photography compelling because it is a "universal language, accessible to all.
Following formal photography studies at Mount Allison University and Loyalist College, Chris' vast portfolio of impressive work has led him to win the News Photographers Association of Canada's Canadian Photojournalist of the Year award for two consecutive years (2017 and 2018). His work has been recognized by Pictures of the Year International (POYi), the Sony World Photography Awards, and the National Newspaper Awards. His clients include Maclean's Magainze, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, ESPN, and many other news outlets
Chris' current and ongoing photo book project The Cloud Factory speaks to the disparity of wealth in Saint John. "This is an important project for me because it's about my home, " says Chris. "Saint John is home to a number of billionaires, members of the Irving family who run the country's largest oil refinery and own dozens of other companies, including all the local newspapers, employing practically the entire city. It's also home to some very high child poverty rates.
"I don't try to be an activist or to change things with this project. It's not about blaming anyone for the issues in new Brunswick. It's about challenging a culture of censorship. What's worrisome isn't what's in the newspaper - it's what's left out. That's where The Cloud Factory comes in. Books, like newspapers, are a record of history. I hope that my books can fill in some of the blanks."
Chris’s own projects and images do not, however, feature idyllic scenes of Maritime life. His project Patricia’s Dolls tells the heartbreaking story of a Saint John woman for whom life has been a challenge.
“Patricia is a special needs woman who walks around Saint John and always has one or two dolls with her — in her arms or her stroller — caring for them as if they were her own children. Everyone in town knows Patricia but very few people actually know her story. Unfortunately she is often bullied because of her connection to these dolls. In 2013, I was working on a project called Humans of Saint John that was inspired by Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York. Patricia was one of the people I interviewed.
“She told me the story of how she had been sexually assaulted by a relative as a teenager. She became pregnant and had a baby as a result, but because she was not mentally fit to care for a child, he was taken away at birth and put into foster care.
"I saw Patricia again in 2017, she mentioned that after I posted her story online, she noticed people were treating her a bit better. I asked if she would be interested in working together on a photo essay. She agreed, which culminated in the project Patricia’s Dolls.
“Patricia said that she wanted everybody to know her story but she was uncomfortable sharing it with strangers. This project was difficult for a few reasons. The first is that we had to make sure Patricia fully understood what she was consenting to.
“Patricia was accidentally thrown against a ceiling as a baby while a relative was playing with her. She suffered brain damage and now lives with a caretaker; although she is very high-functioning. Once I started to understand Patricia, I felt an obligation to help others
understand her, too. I met with her caretaker and her sister and we discussed what disseminating her story might mean. Patricia and her family were insistent that this was something they wanted to do.
“Ultimately, we ended up publishing the story with CBC and it was shared tens of thousands of times in Saint John alone. Patricia and her family said it had a measurable impact on the way she was treated. They felt like it had improved her life.
“This was an extremely rewarding story because it was one of these rare moments where there’s proof that the pictures actually improved someone’s life. However, deciding that I needed to back off for her sake was also one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I think that when we get wrapped up in documenting people’s personal lives it can get complicated quickly and that is a blessing and a curse.”
Chris finds inspiration for his projects from people in his community, such as Patricia, but also is inspired by fellow Canadian photographers. He speaks gratefully of the influence that photographers from his hometown had on him, either in helping him develop his skills (such as Jamie Wilson) or in their work that changed his perspective (such as Matthew Sherwood and Dan Culberson).
When asked to provide advice to emerging documentary photographers, Chris says, “The main thing is to make a lot of pictures. Even if what you’re photographing doesn’t seem big and important, just keep taking pictures. Think about a professional
athlete, for example: they’re working at their craft every day. Practice, practice, practice, game, practice, conditioning, practice, game, practice, etc. I try to think of my assignments and working on my personal projects as the game. If I were just playing game after game and never practising, I’d probably be a subpar athlete and I think the same is true with photography.”
Find this story and more in our DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY - ISSUE #56