In 2003, more than four hundred people in Canada were diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and forty-three died, most of them in Toronto. Thousands of people were quarantined, and airport security was increased, to try to screen for common SARS-related symptoms among passengers arriving in Canada.
Toronto endured two waves of the SARS illness and the city's economic future looked gloomy, especially after the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory. PhotoSensitive invited sixty photographers to capture the spirit of a healthy, vibrant Toronto, a city they felt was still worth visiting. And for this occasion, for one time only, the photos would be in colour - because, in Andrew Stawicki's words, "if ever there was a time for colour, this was it."
"Yes, I blinked and allowed colour. We wanted to show the flowers, the red dress flying - it was a time to reveal the pretty postcard of Toronto. Would it have worked in black and white? Maybe. But for once, I felt colour was the better choice. And the majority of pictures were in colour," said Andrew.
Mayor David Miller said the exhibition and the Destination Toronto DVD helped convince people that the city was alive and well.
"The PhotoSensitive images conveyed the reality of our streets - that there was life and breath and celebration. People had read about SARS and had this image of illness and disease and people walking around with protective masks. There was a perception that our streets were dangerous, full of germs, that we were a ghost town. But the illness had been contained, in the hospitals, and while it was a terrible thing to go through, and brought pain to so many health-care workers and families exposed to SARS, the streets were safe. And in the photos you can see joy and dancing and festivals and life! That was the reality of Toronto and Andrew and his photographers gave us the images - the proof - which was priceless," said Mayor Miller.
Mayor Miller has remained a fan of PhotoSensitive. In 2008, he opened the first Cancer Connections exhibit outside Toronto City Hall.
"My mom died of cancer in September 2001 and I found the photographs so profoundly moving that I could barely speak at the time. The power of the images: the spark of life that people will fight for, the healing, the joy, the grief. You look at the faces of the people, their inner strength, their courage, an acceptance of their fate and a fight for life. From my own experience with my mom, I remembered that sense that something is heaven-sent, that a strength is given to the patient and their families. The exhibit is inspiring, healing, supportive and compelling—not just for the people in the photographs but their families, their friends, their physicians, their nurses, anyone who sees it.
"It is all quite magnificent. From Destination Toronto, where there were sixty professional photographers, to Cancer Connections, with submissions from hundreds of Canadians, PhotoSensitive keeps re-inventing itself. It is a powerful, powerful group for social change and inspiration," said Mayor Miller.
Freedom to choose (photos and more)
One big pull of PhotoSensitive is personal freedom. Freedom to shoot what you see; freedom to take time to get the right shot; and freedom from photo editors who may be limited by time, speed and space—and may have to worry about a photo's 'appropriateness.'
Andrew Stawicki's original plan was that photographers would shoot their pictures and then choose the five or ten that they liked best for final consideration by Andrew and Peter Robertson.
Dick says Peter was always telling him to look at the light and the dark, show the feeling, see the faces—things he often couldn't take time to do when he was working on a newspaper assignment. "Peter is by far the best photo editor I ever worked with. He has a great eye, incredible instincts, an artist's touch with layout - and I honestly felt he and Andrew were better at choosing photos than I was." However, Dick recalls that unofficial photo selection was always part of a project: "We'd all sit around after a day of work and show each other what we'd captured - a good time of friendly competition, but also a sense of camaraderie.
"A good photo is about having a great eye and seeing the shot. It's one thing to see the potential in a 'pretty' picture. It is quite another to see something that will capture the honesty of the moment. A combination of talent and training and practice guides things like who is in or out of the frame, what you want to say, where you shoot from, how you approach the moment, why the photo matters, when you take the shot … the definable and the indefinable. When it all comes together, though, then choosing the right picture is easy," said Dick.
Heart trumps scoop
Mayor David Miller met Andrew before SARS, but really got to know him the first day after being elected mayor. "What he did after election day told me a lot about the man. I was up until 2:30 in the morning for my victory party. And I was woken up three hours later when Andrew banged on my front door. There he stood: 5:30 a.m. and he snapped a picture of me - in my dressing gown. My wife stepped in and said, 'No, you don't! You cannot print a picture of David, on his first day of being the mayor, dressed in his pyjamas!' It's the only time my wife has ever intervened in my political life. Andrew stopped, looked at her, looked at me, and said, 'Okay.' I went up and showered, got dressed and then he snapped some new pictures. It could have cost him his job at the Star. So we both swore to never tell the story to anyone - at least until he changed jobs!"