Profile: Boreal Collective

for Photo Life Magazine

The world of freelance documentary and photojournalism is weathering a fierce storm. Over the past two decades, news outlets in both Canada and abroad have seen a consolidation of newspapers, slashed budgets and reduced staff ultimately resulting in less in-depth storytelling. Hardest hit by this phenomenon are the bastions of independent inquiry; those photographers committed to the visual communication of issues and stories that underpin a society. And in an attempt to stay afloat, freelance documentarians have turned to an age-old adage: strength in numbers. Since 2010, Boreal Collective has harboured some of Canada’s foremost photographers in what is now an establishment of both contemporary photographic practice and community engagement. But unlike similar collectives across the globe, Boreal’s drive and momentum has made it not simply a port in the storm but a stalwart flagship of documentary that is pushing the limits of the genre. And just as the Northern Lights themselves, Boreal Collective is shining a light on the often under-exposed north.


For Ian Willms, AaronVincent-Elkaim, Brett Gundlock, Rafal Gerszak and Jonathan Taggart, the reason for forming a photographic collective was relatively simple: the Canadian photojournalism and documentary industry was somewhat stagnant; a tried-and-true formula for technical and aesthetic images was saturating Canada’s news outlets to the point of monotony while a paucity of interest in ethical, long-term visual inquiry meant making a living from anything outside of hard-news photography very difficult. With most of Canadians’ daily news images still conforming to the “tight and bright” mantra, Boreal’s founding members set out to further establish a more conceptual and in-depth branch of photojournalism as similar movements in the United States and around the world were being sparked. For Willms, the traditional photojournalistic aesthetics as so cherished by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail were all but ubiquitous within the industry but as the Toronto-based freelancer admits, the idea behind Boreal was never to replace this ethos but simply to offer an alternative. “The general tone of most of these institutions was this sort of simple, formulaic, very technical approach to photojournalism that didn’t really have a lot of context, atmosphere or emotion and certainly no conceptual approach,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that kind of photography but we wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something more artistic and we felt like we were being dismissed a lot of the time or we weren't being taken seriously. So, we thought: let’s form a collective, let’s make a lot of noise with the kind of work that we want to do.”

After several years as a formal collective, the group saw expansions to their team of practitioners with the additions of Eamon MacMahon, Johan Hallberg-Campbell, Matt Lutton, Laurence Butet-Roch and Mauricio Palos in 2013 followed by Daniella Zalcman and Annie Flanagan in 2015. Now six years afloat and with a total of twelve photographers at the helm, Boreal’s original sentiment remains relatively unchanged, with the exception of furthering their emphasis on community outreach. As Willms, describes: “It evolved over time into a more general mission to support and foster documentary photography or more conceptually based photojournalism and try to provide opportunities for photographers to come together and learn from each other. But we are also trying to navigate this changing landscape of the editorial industry and we’re experimenting with different ways of bringing our work to the public and with different ways of actually earning an income so it is like a laboratory in a lot of ways but a really fun one full of people that you really care about.” Echoing Willms’ sentiment, fellow collective member Johan Hallberg-Campbell, referred to the groups’ penchant for “experimenting with different forms of storytelling” in the face of industry adversity, adding that while the group’s current mission statement, which admits the “photographic industry is being dismantled”, Hallberg-Campbell points to the positive impacts of an industry in flux. “Dismantled references the so-called ‘death’ of print media and the rapidly changing landscape of our industry. Yet we see this as a time when opportunities are bountiful though largely undefined,” he says. “It is not about what or how you photograph something. We would rather focus on the ethical and moral intent behind making choices, and not to follow a formulaic style.”

It’s here that perhaps Boreal really comes into its own; as slow journalism has gained more traction within contemporary media but also perhaps as the collective realizes the pertinence of such a discipline within their home country that is so fraught with deep-rooted and extensive social issues. And in describing his personal practice, Hallberg-Campbell seems to touch on so much of the Boreal approach. “My projects tend to connect thematically with each other, they always end up being long term and I strive to be proactive as an image maker, a storyteller, to look deeper, beyond the ordinary and the everyday,” he says. “I have seen much of Canada now… but there are so many different cultures and I feel in many regards that I’ve only scratched the surface. It’s a complex country.”  

Decolonizing Storytelling

One of the most evident of these complexities is the long-standing and constantly evolving relationship between Canada’s First Nations and a medium that is inextricably tied to colonialism. As long-form storytelling continues to find its feet in Canada, the legacy of photography as a practice historically dominated by white settlers of this continent has spurred the need for increased awareness by practicing documentarians - something that Boreal is all too well-aware of as a majority of the collective’s members have tackled issues surrounding indigenous rights and land treaties, environmental racism and settler colonialism. Most notably, this has included long-term bodies of work surrounding issues in northern Alberta, Ontario and a series of double exposures by Daniella Zalcman examining the legacy of Canada’s Residential Schooling System. Referring to the prevalence of First Nations stories amongst the collective’s member’s work, Zalcman points to cognizance of this history as a foundation of Boreal’s ethics. “Half of the collective is now or has been involved in documenting Indigenous communities in Canada,” she says. “We all need to be aware of how to responsibly and respectfully tell stories from communities that are not ours - particularly in the context of communities that have struggled for centuries of settler colonialism - and we need to help each other think about how we can better do that. That's definitely part of the broader Boreal ethos.”

Furthering Zalcman’s sentiment, Laurence Butet-Roch highlights the complexity of First Nations issues in Canada as past of the need for an embrace of less traditional storytelling techniques. In her ongoing work from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Butet-Roch has expanded her role as a photographer to a “facilitator” or “technician” - seemingly combating the complexity of such issues by encompassing a spectrum of creative influence well beyond the camera’s frame. “The problem often is that a lot of the stories that are coming out of Canada are not black and white issues - they are very complicated and that makes it a lot harder to pitch to foreign media because people aren’t necessarily ready to read a very complex, nuanced, layered essay,” says Butet-Roch. “I'm now more interested in working with the communities from the get-go, letting them decide how to express, produce and disseminate their stories -  for instance, one of the young people from Aamjiwnaang has been rapping about his situation for years. Finding ways to bring his songs to the fore, and explaining the connection they have to my work has become one of my focuses.”

Butet-Roch’s exploration of the issues faced by Aamjiwnaang, currently portrayed in her photo essay Our Grandfathers Were Chiefs, tells the story of the northern Ontario community’s safeguarding of traditional lands against an inundation of petrochemical plants in the region. Among the scenes from Aamjiwnaang, an ominous facility looms behind playing children at dusk, a flag held high in protest displays pride and defiance while photographs on a wall hint at loss and ephemera as Butet-Roch’s images serve not only as documents from Aamjiwnaang but as a reminder of indigenous issues across all of Canada. Working with the community since 2010, the photographer’s immersive approach also speaks to a cornerstone of documentary practice that lies outside the ability of run and gun photojournalism; a quality that as she describes, is axiomatic to thorough and contemplative storytelling surrounding such complex and systemic issues. “It’s one thing when you are being parachuted into a country and you have two weeks to report on a specific issue - you might not realize what some of the nuances are - but a lot of the Boreal photographers work for years on a project and when you do that you want to make sure that you approximate things as well as you can and make sure that you do the story justice and the people justice.” But as Butet-Roch further explains, this aspiration for precision within documentary is perhaps best achieved by a reduction of photo-ego. While the traditional modus operandi of visual storytellers so often (sometimes unconsciously) places those with the camera at the centre of any storytelling process, Boreal’s approach to both First Nations issues in Canada and reportage in general is moving toward a multi-author platform - one that encompasses the voices of those in front of the lens as well as those behind it. The important question to ask, says Butet-Roch is: “How do we include those voices within out work and it not just be our work? How do we change that idea of the single author behind an image?”

The Boreal Bash

Another pillar of the Boreal ethos and what has undoubtedly become a defining institution both within the collective and in the broader Canadian photography community is the annual Boreal Bash. Traditionally held in Toronto, the Bash was founded on the principles of camaraderie and support for emerging talents, drawing on Boreal members’ experience in the industry to facilitate workshops, talks and guest lectures by established artists. As Boreal member and photojournalist, Brett Gundlock explains, the idea behind the Bash was that “we have a certain amount of knowledge as a group at Boreal and we have been through some things that other emerging photographers are going through right now,” he says, eluding to the precarious nature of finding your way in a very competitive market. “That has really been the basis of the Boreal Bash since the beginning; we can either waste our energy fighting against each other or we can share and grow together.”

Now based in Mexico, Gundlock and fellow Boreal member Mauricio Palos were tasked with logistics for the 2016 Boreal Bash after the group’s decision to transport the event beyond Canada’s borders. Taking place across the states of Puebla and Oaxaca, this year’s Bash invited Mexican and Latin American photographers to attend the bi-lingual portfolio reviews and intensive workshops which were made further accessible by the distribution of five grants to Central American students. “We had about 50% of the programming that was purely in Spanish and then we also had a full-time translator during all the talks,” says Gundlock. “It really was the first time I have witnessed two different groups of English speakers and Spanish speakers communicate so fluently between the language barrier. It was such a good exchange.”

In keeping with the Bash’s original sentiment, this year’s event tackled a spectrum of large issues facing the industry as participating photographers shared stories and ideas surrounding dissemination of work and diversity within storytelling. “The overall idea for this year was alternative platforms for storytelling, which means talking about ways that we can tell stories outside of the traditional media,” says Gundlock. “This is something that is very relevant here in Mexico. There’s a large number of my friends that are photographers that don’t even have Instagram or websites - they just have their editor that they work with and they don’t experience much outside of their practice”. Highlighting the informal nature of the proceedings, Gundlock explains that in contrast to the regular format of speakers and audience at a photographic conference, a less structured workflow allowed for the varied perspectives across a bi-lingual and multi-geographical cohort to materialize. “One thing that emerged organically was the really great talks on women in the media and forms of representation. That was an intense room to be in during those talks. It got very emotional - the stories that were told in that space and also the advice and ideas for moving forward on the topic really took off and we continued that discussion in our workshop in Oaxaca.”

On the Horizon

It’s with this momentum and under the guidance of conversation surrounding such issues that Boreal is propelling itself onward and upward in the world of documentary practice. The topics tackled by Boreal’s members and the attendees of this year’s Bash are sure sign of their ability to take on the more rusty aspects of this photographic genre and luckily so, as Gundlock admits the rough road ahead under the shadow of president Trump. “This next four years is going to be a war. It is going to be a hard fight and it is super discouraging that that large of a population with that kind of mentality was able to take control of a country,” he says. “As an artist, that means we are losing and as someone that is pursuing social issues as basically they’re profession, it means that we are losing at educating these people.” But in this David and Goliath battle, the discourse surrounding documentation of social issues lies firmly within Boreal’s arsenal and when addressing such topics as indigenous land use rights in Canada, drug cartels in Mexico or environment destruction in South America, Gundlock asserts the revalidation of his craft at a time when it is obviously so necessary. “It hurts your soul but I think if anything it re-establishes the importance of having these kinds of voices in the world and doing the work that we are doing - individually and collectively,” he says. “I think that this going to be a time of intense conflict but also a time of intense growth of the social consciousness on a world level.” And in typical Boreal fashion - interviewed from the other side of a sprawling continent - Ian Willms is on exactly the same page. Affirming the the synchronicity of Boreal members’ faith in visual storytelling yet their acute cognizance of the medium’s precariousness, Willms concurs that the power of documentary photographs in the face of adversity is only increasing. “Telling a powerful story has universal importance now regardless of whether you have a million followers or a hundred - anything has the potential to go viral if it is meaningful and powerful and just so happens to come at the right time,” he says. And as Laurence Butet-Roch further harmonizes, the original sentiment of Willms, Elkaim, Gundlock, Gerszak and Taggart still lies well at the heart of Boreal Collective, as they continue to propel documentary practice in the north. “I do think that in general, things are looking up within Canada,” she says. “The level of photography is tremendous and the talents are out of this world…. so it’s just a matter of making the rest of the world take notice.”