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Henry VanderSpek: Human Connections and New Possibilities

An interview with photoED Magazine


photoED magazine spoke to Toronto–based photographer Henry VanderSpek about photography on the street.


Beloved crossing guard Kathleen Byers stops at her corner before guiding pedestrians safely to the other side. • Shot with the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD at 1/250 at f/4 at 47mm with ISO 800.


Henry VanderSpek (a.k.a. Culture Snap Photography) is a Toronto-based street photographer with a passion for people and community.


He has exhibited a number of projects in the city’s CONTACT Photography and DesignTO festivals, and his work has been featured on CBC Radio, CBC TV, Now Magazine, and published in a variety of additional national media outlets. He works with both digital and film cameras to capture scenes where objects, symbols, and people interact to create something new.

 

Downtown Camera portrait
Ajeuro, one of the friendly staff at Toronto's Downtown Camera, isn't afraid to bring some style to the workplace. • Shot with the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD at 1/125 at f/2.8 at 46mm with ISO 1600.

photoED: Based on your prolific portfolio, it seems like you have always had a camera in your hands. How did you get started, and what drives you to pick up a lens every day?

Henry:

I see visual opportunities every time I leave the house. Every day brings something different. I do not want to miss capturing brief alignments of beauty, irony, or curious mixtures of both. What is momentary can live on in a photograph, and so I rarely step out without a camera.

Between my father developing film at home and my mother taking our family to countless galleries and museums, my parents are my original sources of inspiration. My passion grew in the mid-2000s with a project I took on with an international non-profit, and some of my images were published. In 2011 I became a stay-at-home dad, which allowed me to explore the city with my kids and to find new opportunities to practice my craft.


Street scene photographed with a Tamron lens
Inside and outside worlds unite in a bar window in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. • Shot with the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD at 1/80 at f/10 at 56mm with ISO 1000.

photoED: What do you love most about creating stories through photography?

Henry:

Through intentional documentary projects or chance encounters, I love meeting people and hearing about their life experiences. There’s something very satisfying about the human connection that these moments offer. Capturing someone’s smile, expression, and gesture, and even their character, in a way that surprises them feels very meaningful. It is a joy to document people and their stories, but even more so to be able to share them with others. My projects often celebrate local business owners and community members, and I include both images and text excerpts from our conversations, so that those who attend can feel the warmth that came from the lively dialogues that we shared.


photoED: Whose work has influenced yours?

 

Henry:

There are so many that I admire: Sally Davies’ street scenes of New York City, layered with detailed points of intrigue and juxtaposition, and her projects celebrating the people of New York and Los Angeles in their homes. Fred Herzog’s eye for composing scenes on Vancouver’s streets, captured brilliantly with colour film. Jamel Shabazz’s skill and empathy while documenting people on the streets of New York in the 1980s, which continues to have so much resonance and impact. George Webber’s beautiful work capturing the people and scenes of the Canadian Prairies. Ruth Kaplan’s documentary skill and leadership for inspiring the next generation of photographers. Larry Frank’s insight, wisdom and playfulness has also ignited a passion for photography in so many. I find myself drawn to, and constantly learning from, each of these individual’s impressive bodies of work.


Pairing a book and a handwritten message on a rain-soaked newspaper box provides food for thought. • Shot with the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD at 1/125 at f/4.5 at 50mm with ISO 1000.

photoED: What makes a good photograph?

Henry:

Every genre of photography offers distinct ways to create a strong image. At an essential level, a good photograph begins with bold elements that draw your eye. Creating images in a street context involves seeing unusual alignments of light and shadow, words or objects, combined with a human presence. It is deeply satisfying when these all come together to present something new and engaging.

 

Joel Meyerowitz talks about making more than just “copies of objects” in our images, but rather creating something unique by bringing together within a frame diverse components that may align only for a fleeting moment. Seeing this done well inspires me and it is what I aim for when creating a photograph.



photoED: How has working in photography influenced you personally?

Henry:

I feel more connected and engaged with people as a result of being a photographer. I’ve learned to take risks in starting conversations and benefited from the gifts of human connection and new possibilities that come about as a result. I have found a deeper purpose in both creating art that inspires and moves people, but equally so in serving others by celebrating my city and the people in it. Each new connection and outcome along the way encourages me to continue on this journey. Over the years I’ve also grown connected to a community of photographers and that is something I am equally very thankful for.


photoED: What has been your favourite or most personally impactful project or adventure?

Henry:

In 2017 I exhibited Taxi Drivers of Toronto, a project that celebrates the hard-working cabbies of my city. It started as an assignment for a course on portrait photography, but I soon realized that it could become a larger project. It was all new territory for me: pitching my project to cab drivers, sorting out which gear to use, building relationships with taxi companies and with arts organizations, looking for sponsorships. It was an exciting journey, and the stories that taxi drivers shared were truly wonderful. There were many challenges, but I’ll never regret taking on this project, as it helped me to develop skills that I continue to use today.


Captain Markham and his team stop for a break on Tecumseth Street, near Queen Street West. • Shot with the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 Di III VXD at 1/1250 at f/5.6 at 35mm with ISO 320.


photoED: What does your dream project entail? Where do you hope photography will take you in the future?

 

Henry:
Creating images that elevate others is where I aim to be. 

I named my photo business Culture Snap as I love to celebrate unique people and vibrant cultural expressions. I also value working in a team to accomplish something meaningful, with a greater purpose. These elements are what made my past work with non-profit organizations a real joy, and are what I look for in future opportunities. 


A dream project would involve being a member of a creative team whose goal is to tell the stories of people whose lives and contributions are under-recognized. The world is full of such stories to explore.



GEAR UP

What camera and equipment do you most use? What’s your favourite lens? Tell us about your experience using Tamron lenses.

Henry:

I own multiple zoom and prime lenses that work with my Nikon Z6 II. Some are used for event photography and others I like for portrait shoots. I tend to favour ultra-wide angle lenses when going out for a photo walk, as they allow me to show a larger context and to connect diverse elements into a dialogue within my frame.


The Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8 for Nikon Z has been a wonderful surprise to me. It is so practical to have a zoom that starts at 35mm instead of the more common 70mm focal length.

I’ve been impressed at how sharp and crisp the images are that this lens delivers.

Having a starting aperture of f/2 certainly helps in that regard. The quality of materials and design incorporated into this lens matches, if not exceeds, that of the best lenses that I have owned. I’ve seen buzz about this lens online and having used it now for several months I can understand why. It is very handy to have a high-standard, all-around lens to work with for events, portraits, or even street scenes.



Toronto street photographer
Henry VanderSpek

See more of Henry's' work - HERE.






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