Life of Water        

Life of Water was an enormous undertaking; in 2004, it was the biggest project yet for PhotoSensitive.

It involved one hundred photographers, a national show and a gorgeous coffee-table book that included an essay penned by Canada's champion of all things environmental: David Suzuki. Tony Hauser was taking portraits for another project and when he mentioned Life of Water, David Suzuki was intrigued and generously agreed to contribute an essay. With that, a book was born … or at least it was floating in utero.

Until 2004, PhotoSensitive images were unveiled at public exhibits - their signature large, black-and-white prints always garnered attention and were greeted with rave reviews. Often, selected images were reproduced in Canadian newspapers and magazines, exposing an even larger audience to the subject matter. This was the first exploration of the conservation in photos by the collective, a theme the team has continued to develop.

With Life of Water, it was decided the photographs should also be celebrated in a book to be written, designed and published by PhotoSensitive. Water - and its conservation and protection - was a hot topic of the day, so Andrew Stawicki believed there would be a demand for such a book. He was right. But first they had to collect the images.

The project itself felt a little like a centennial project: one hundred photographers, all Canadian; one hundred photos, one from each photographer, depicting water - its beauty, its uses, its abuses. Andrew recalls being surprised by some submissions.

"We had expected pictures of swimming, canoeing, kids playing in the sprinkler. We got a few of those, but we also got egg-boiling, car-washing, hydro dams. The photographers' choices forced us to look at water in different ways and it made for an eye-opening exhibit and a fantastic book," said Andrew.

"Fantastic" it was, but putting together the book turned out to be a big part of this project and had lessons for future PhotoSensitive endeavors. The images came in, from across the country, from seasoned photographers and new students of photography, and each was asked to provide the caption that should go with their shot. It was quickly learned that photographers express themselves quite happily through images, and most will chat about the photo, but to get them to sit down and write text? That's not something they all like to do!

Editor Eleanor Gasparik has been involved with many of PhotoSensitive's books. But Life of Water was her first, and her voice warms with admiration when she speaks about Margaret Stawicki, Andrew's wife.

"Sometimes people forget that taking the photographs is just one part of a long and involved creative process. As soon as I was drawn into this project (back then, I worked in the office beside PhotoSensitive and happened to say, 'If you need some help, let me know…'), I realized how priceless Margaret is in the PhotoSensitive group. As the designer, it often falls to her to pull everything together and make it beautiful. Life of Water certainly took time and creativity. Because the photographers were given freedom to choose their own interpretation of water, Margaret could only design the book after all the photos came in. Plus, she'd received David Suzuki's essay, which was amazing, but it was also longer than expected - and we had to figure out a way to make it fit with the photographs," said Eleanor.

Margaret is never one to put herself in the spotlight, but when asked about working on Life of Water, she is suddenly transported back in time…

"Oh goodness. Andrew printed all the photos, as 4x5s, and I took them all to the cottage. I lay them out on the floor, and just shook my head: so many photographs, so many subjects, and I didn't know how we were going to include all of them and make sense of it. This is the way it is sometimes with Andrew! Big ideas, but then: who is going to make it come together?! So I started to group them - pictures of children and water, industry and water, celebrations of water … and then, slowly, I took it from there. I did the layout. And then I sat with Eleanor in the boardroom back in Toronto. She is really terrific, so creative, with such a good mind, and we switched this one for that one and - Oh yes, there wasn't just the placing of the pictures. I also had to work on some, enhance them with PhotoShop. It takes time, so much time. Days and nights: 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. Andrew, he is the energy, the ideas, the one with passion and promises … and then I do it! I'm very calm and very quiet, and it just has to be done. For me: it is work; I like it, but it is work. For Andrew: it is passion. And maybe you need both," said Margaret.

Along the way, Peter Robertson, editor emeritus and co-founder of PhotoSensitive, stepped out of retirement and into the fray, joining Andrew and Margaret, project coordinator Lesley Sparks, and Eleanor in cataloguing the photographs, editing captions and just helping out wherever needed. And as photographs and captions came together, Andrew spent days and nights printing the big images for the exhibit.

Finally, a beautiful book was born and the exhibit opened to glowing reviews in Toronto in September 2005, before going on tour to five Canadian cities. Today, six years later, Andrew Stawicki says that when he looks through the Life of Water book, the photographs still make him think.

Inspiring and mentoring young photographers

PhotoSensitive photographers went into schools and talked to students about the Life of Water project. Tory Zimmerman was attending Loyalist College in Belleville, Ontario.

"I've always been drawn to health issues so I took pictures of people doing aqua-therapy at a local pool. Andrew Stawicki chose the picture of Ernie, which I love, but I also took pictures of Carrie. She's had sixty-eight major surgeries because of too much fluid in her brain. Her whole life has been a struggle, but she is always smiling. She's giving her instructor an Eskimo kiss in this photo. This was the first time I had been let into someone's life just because I had a camera. I remember feeling it was like I was entering their home, their life, their heart.

"When you're young and you think, 'I want to follow my heart and use my skills and save the world,' well, this whole experience - being part of a PhotoSensitive project, meeting the people, being mentored by Steve Simon - taught me I can! In this digital world, with so many photos everywhere, I wondered what impact one or two by me could possibly have. But then I realized if my pictures let someone like Carrie feel her story was being documented - whether five or 5,000 people see her photo - that was the impact she needed: to have her story told.

"Another student and I dared each other to send our portfolios to Steve Simon and see if he'd give us any feedback. He called me and said to keep at it and invest in a wide-angle lens, and then he invited me to New York to watch him work. That's when the bell went off for me. I was becoming a photographer! I'm so grateful the door was opened to me. PhotoSensitive got me out there, shooting and meeting people and accessing stories. That was all I needed to get started," said Tory.

The value of a PhotoSensitive book

After Life of Water, PhotoSensitive dipped its toes into the book world again and again. Not all subsequent projects would have both an exhibit and a book, but many did: The Strength Within (2007), Vibrant Communities in Focus (2007), Inspiring Possibilities (2009) and Cancer Connections (expected publication April, 2011). (Earlier, a book had been produced for Precious Time (1994) for the Hospital for Sick Children, but its distribution had been limited to the hospital; and the book that grew out of Them=Us (1997) was handled by PhotoSensitive's partner in that project, Harmony Movement.)

Robin Cordozo, CEO of Ontario Trillium Foundation, says PhotoSensitive books are priceless, because they are a permanent record of the work and the celebrations.

"We commissioned Vibrant Communities in Focus to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. We didn't want to celebrate in a splashy, frivolous way, but we wanted to do something meaningful. So, we approached PhotoSensitive and asked them to capture twenty-seven special stories out of the thousands we see and hear about each year, through our community and agency work. They produced an outstanding exhibit that celebrated the work, the volunteers, the people we help, and the importance of building strong communities. The second piece was the book; it helped us really explain, through the photo essays and the text, what these projects are all about - what we have been doing for twenty-five years and what we hope to keep doing for the next twenty-five.

"I hope and I believe the book encourages and inspires others to help in their own communities. I show the book to all our key stakeholders: MPPs, ministers in the government, agencies and organizations that we partner with - and every new board member gets a copy. The book, with its images and its essays, tells our story so very eloquently. It really captures what we are all about," said Robin.