Just another schmuck with a camera

To celebrate our new partnership with the Langara Journalism Review, an all-journalism publication from B.C.-based Langara College's j-program, we're featuring the 2011 cover story on photojournalist Andy Clark. Clark may say he's just another schmuck with a camera, but as Langara writer Leasa Hachey writes, he also gets the shot nobody else does.

To celebrate our new partnership with the Langara Journalism Review, an all-journalism publication from B.C.-based Langara College's j-program, we're featuring the 2011 cover story on photojournalist Andy Clark. Clark may say he's just another schmuck with a camera, but as Langara writer Leasa Hachey writes, he also gets the shot nobody else does. Read on for a taste of what great stuff you can expect from Langara this school year – especially with a new website on the way.

He holds the screen door open with his hip as he squeezes through gingerly with his gear.
Tucked under one arm is a military history book—a Christmas gift from his parents—and his other hand tightly grips a box filled with hand-painted miniature soldiers. His mom’s Brownie Hawkeye camera swings from his shoulder and he takes a quick and sudden step forward to avoid the metal door as it slams shut with the kind of bang that makes mothers yell and sends the neighbour’s dog into a fit. Crossing the deck and making his way into the backyard, he begins the tedious task of setting up the plastic miniatures to match the battle scenes depicted in the book. With each one in perfect position, he begins to photograph the scene from different angles—a young Andy Clark’s introduction to recording history through the lens of a camera.

Some 40 years later, the five-dollar Brownie is long gone, replaced by a more expensive digital Nikon with a variety of lenses—and the plastic soldiers are more likely to be live ones.

Clark has been a photojournalist for more than three decades now, mostly for Reuters News Pictures, shooting photos and capturing moments in history in various parts the world—from diplomatic tea parties in Ottawa to suicide bombings in the Middle East.

Currently based in Vancouver, Clark’s beat is all of Western Canada, which means he’s often on the run. It’s frenetic, but he basks in the breakneck pace of a news photographer’s life—always on call and ready to go—his camera like an added appendage on his lean, sinewy body. His face is drawn but his calm, laid-back persona belies the stress of his profession.

He sits at a slanted metal table on the patio of a coffee shop on a bright, spring afternoon, slowing his pace just long enough to be interviewed. Having returned from an assignment only minutes before, he is unperturbed as he uploads and files photos while being interrogated. Clark is quite matter-of-fact in tone and expression at first, clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight and unaccustomed to having to talk about himself.

But this changes when he delves into memories of the exotic places he has seen and the important moments he has witnessed. When storytelling, Clark leans back in his chair, his eyes stare off into the distance and his voice takes on a more animated tone of nostalgia, like the symbolic grandfather in a rocking chair telling stories of the good ole’ days.

Once known as a long-haired hippy, Clark now sports a grizzled beard and white moustache, stained yellow at the edges from the nicotine of his cigarette habit. He is never without his trademark ball cap that surely disguises the mournful loss of that hippy hair on top, but swaths of white hair still spill out the back. In fact, he’s so known for his baseball caps that friends have said they wouldn’t recognize him if he walked by without one perched atop his head.

Clark is no front-page magazine model. His casual style perfectly captures his personality and nature; simple, modest and informal in faded denim, sneakers and unassuming black fleece jacket. Clark’s demeanor makes you forget you’re in the presence of award-winning greatness. He comes across as an Average Joe, someone you’d strike up a conversation with over a beer at the local pub.

Clark is aloof about his photographic talents, despite many award-winning photographs and the fact that friends and colleagues often refer to him as the best Canadian photographer of his time.

He has no formal photography or journalism training but once you discover his genealogy it’s not hard to figure out where he comes by his journalism smarts and knack of photo storytelling. Discover is the appropriate term because that’s the only way you’ll find out. Clark does not volunteer information about his celebrity lineage, preferring to earn a reputation based on his own merits.

Clark’s grandfather is one of Canada’s most widely read journalists in history— the late Gregory Clark—a veteran and war correspondent, as well as one of the initial Officers of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. He crafted poignant and often haunting features on topics ranging from the horrors of war to everyday people living everyday lives. In his day, more Canadians would have recognized Greg Clark on the street than the prime minister.

“I always kept it quiet about my grandfather because I wanted to make it on my own, not on his heels,” Clark explains. “I knew if anyone found out I was the grandson of Greg Clark it would change people’s decisions.”

In keeping with the family tradition, Andy Clark started his career at the Canadian Press news agency in Toronto in 1970 as a 17-year-old copyboy. He knew his grandfather was proud to see him in the news industry but Clark never really felt that spark of interest in the business; that is, until he met Gem Mitchell.

“Gem was an elderly darkroom technician at CP. He saw I was interested in photography and he took me under his wing to show me how it worked, how to process film, how to make prints, some rough ways to take pictures,” Clark remembers fondly. “That experience allowed me to be promoted to the darkroom. Then I bought my first camera, a 35 mm Nikon F.”

For the next four or five years, Clark would live, breathe and sleep photography. While most 20-year-olds were out drinking beer, tinkering on cars and pursuing women, Clark dove head-first into photography.

Every spare minute away from the office was spent taking photo after photo, learning composition, experimenting with exposure, scrutinizing the effects light and investigating various techniques to process or “soup” his film in the makeshift darkroom of his apartment bathroom. People began to notice his hard work and more importantly, that this young kid could take interesting photographs. He was soon promoted to full-time Canadian Press photojournalist.

Before long, Clark’s name was being tossed around at press gatherings. He won awards for his news photos, followed by an offer to join the Hamilton Spectator. It took him only a year at the Spectator to realize he didn’t like shooting for newspapers.

“Newspapers are unlike the wire services in that they tend to pigeonhole their photographers, with one for sports, one for features and one for hard news. I just started to feel stifled.”

Clark got the chance to return to the wires when photojournalist Bob Carroll returned to Canada after the Vietnam War. Carroll was scouting photographers in 1978 for a full-scale national news service called United Press Canada. He found himself at a news photographers’ conference one weekend and a certain photo display caught his eye. Carroll was told the photographer was
Andy Clark, a rookie from the Hamilton Spectator who had just been awarded the title of Canada’s News Photographer of the Year.

“I was so impressed by his photos. I thought, my God, this guy is really good,” Carroll says. “I remember thinking he would die at the Spectator; he was far too good for that paper. The Spectator was a good newspaper, but not too many papers can display Andy Clark’s work like it should be displayed.”

It was a warm summer night when Carroll sat across a table from Clark and his wife in a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. The young Clark was nervous about meeting this respected veteran photographer and his apprehension showed. Not one to beat around the bush, Carroll explained his intentions for UPC and before the menus were even presented, had offered Clark a job covering the West for the wire service in Vancouver.

Carroll had handpicked a group of rookies like a sandlot baseball team, most with little more than a year or two of experience. But he knew what he was looking for and could recognize talent. Through patience and the occasional swift reprimand, he was able to cultivate these fledgling photographers into skillful, polished professionals. Clark accepted the job and moved to Vancouver. His photos never disappointed Carroll, who continued to be amazed with Clark’s talent.

Carroll often found himself at his desk, leaning back in a chair with one of Clark’s photos from a routine assignment in his hands, trying to figure out how Clark had again managed to capture a photo that set him apart from the rest of the photographers shooting the same scene. Carroll concluded that while most photographers were looking for the obvious, Clark was always searching for something unique. “They could use the same camera, put on the same lens and stand right beside Andy and they wouldn’t see the photo that he was going to kill them with tomorrow,” says Carroll.

In 1981, one of Carroll’s Ottawa photographers left UPC. Needing someone to cover the political scene, Carroll called Clark to see if he would move back to Ottawa. Clark had missed political photography and the feeling of being a part of history in the making, so he agreed. Almost immediately the Ottawa bureau of UPC picked up speed.

“Andy’s photos were making the paper every single day. Canadian Press and other agencies were racing and scrambling to keep up with Andy,” remembers Carroll with a chuckle. “And if they didn’t get the picture they would try to suggest our stuff be pooled because Andy was just killing them.”

One photo in particular stands out for Carroll, taken on a cold day in November 1981 while Clark was covering the Grey Cup. The Edmonton Eskimos had just won their fourth straight trophy and Eskimos quarterback Tom Wilkinson had announced his retirement. Clark spotted
Wilkinson strolling through the athletes’ tunnel on the way to the team bus after the game. He captured the darkened silhouette of Wilkinson from behind—equipment bag on one arm, the Grey Cup gripped loosely in the other—like it had been just another routine day at the office.

“We ran it on the wire and every single newspaper used it,” says Carroll, smiling. “Only a guy like Andy Clark can see a moment like that.”

Clark remained in Ottawa until 1985, when he was hired by Reuters News Pictures. Six months later he was offered a job in the Prime Minister’s Office as personal photographer to Brian Mulroney. Seeing it as an extension of his interest in politics and recording history, Clark jumped at the chance. He felt it was an opportunity to observe the political scene from the inside and it was an offer that would take him to back rooms and countries few people ever get to see.

But at the same time, his decision had the potential to jeopardize a future in news photography. Often when a journalist moves from the public arena to private or corporate employment—such as being a personal photographer of a political figure or celebrity— it is an exit position that can make a return to mainstream news media difficult. Clark was taking a big chance in becoming
Mulroney’s personal photographer, but he did not see it as such.

“I have always felt, whether naively or not, that a prime minister’s photographer was a very important part of documenting the behind-the-scenes life of a prime minister for posterity.”

Clark treated the position as somewhat of a sabbatical, always knowing that he would return to the news business. And like any sabbatical, it carried him to many different countries in the world and gave him many incredible opportunities to record history through his lens.

He met world leaders, royal families and witnessed countless political roundtables and meetings. He was inside the Tokyo Imperial Palace and met Emperor Shōwa, as well as the British royal family inside Buckingham Palace—meeting and photographing Queen Elizabeth herself. He met George Bush Sr. when Bush was vicepresident and attended a meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mulroney in the White House’s Oval Office. He was inside Pope John Paul II’s private quarters in the Vatican and was handed a rosary as a personal gift as he shook the pontiff’s hand.

Clark’s reputation in the journalism world as being reliable for those important photographic moments proved to outweigh any disapproval surrounding his shift to the political sector. After two and a half years, Reuters was again knocking on his door Les Bazso, a veteran photographer for the Vancouver-based Province newspaper, points out that it says a great deal about
Clark’s fairness and professionalism that he didn’t have to sacrifice his career after becoming Mulroney’s personal photographer.

“If an organization like Reuters felt he hadn’t compromised his journalism ethics and integrity, then it is obvious that Andy conducted himself in a highly professional manner,” says Bazso. “Everyone who knows Andy knows that he is very proud of Canadian history. I’m sure this was a remarkable opportunity for him to witness it himself and to document it.”

So what makes Clark so necessary to the fabric of photojournalism that his colleagues and media professionals were able to overlook a temporary sellout? It probably has something to do with his thorough and tenacious work ethic, his willingness to take risks and his talent to capture the moment.

“A lot of us are afraid to take the risks he does in case we miss the bread-and-butter shot,” says Bazso. “Andy just finds a position and the results are almost always that he hits it out of the park.” He says Clark always arrives at a media event or press conference well-informed and well-prepared.

He seems to instinctively know where to take the photo and from what angle.

Carroll agrees. “There’s only one Andy Clark. He has a gift, and if you’re lucky enough to have him on your staff, then you are set.”

But Clark insists he’s just another schmuck with a camera who’s making a living off of it.

“I don’t call it a gift. I can just take a good picture once in awhile,” Clark says, shrugging. He insists that any photographic talent he has is purely an act of being observant—something he considers the most important aspect of photojournalism and a trait he inherited from his naturally
observant grandfather.

Clark is the first to point out that he is far from perfect. He tells of moments when he shot with empty cameras, screwed up the film in developing, or went left when he should have gone right.

He admits he gets upset when he misses shots. He also gets downright grumpy when other photographers try to emulate him, moving in to take the same shot from the same vantage point.

“A lot of people say they get worried when Andy disappears and sometimes it’s just because I’ve gone to the can,” jokes Clark. “But when people come looking for me when I’ve disappeared just to see what I’m shooting, then I get snarky. I mean, I can make mistakes like anyone. Follow me and you may just be following my mistakes.”

Two-time Pulitzer-nominated photojournalist Nick Didlick argues that while his friend can be moody at times, the high calibre of his character overshadows the quirkiness.

“All of us creative types have some unique personality traits. You just have to see past them to see the real people inside. I can say that Andy is probably the most loyal, most professional photographer I know.”

That kind of professionalism does not go unrecognized.

In the early 90s, Clark was hired as Chief Photographer for Reuters Canada. It was during this time that Clark found himself in the midst of the Gulf War. His intense interest in history—particularly military history—helped fuel a transition from photographing miniature soldiers in
his backyard as a boy, to photographing genuine soldiers at war.

Clark covered the Gulf War for Reuters and was placed with American ground forces. Embedded for three weeks in Iraq, he got to know the soldiers well. With no weapons to defend himself and only his camera equipment, he was comforted by the protectiveness of the soldiers.  

Still, Clark remembers being frightened often during that time.

“There were moments of sheer terror, but also moments of light-hearted fun. We would joke around to relieve the stress of the situation or, of course, have a smoke.” Clark doesn’t feel that recording moments of loss, pain and human suffering is sensationalistic, despite what some members of the public believe. Simply put, that’s what he is here to do.

His photos serve as emotional reminders that help the public understand and empathize, such as one photo he took of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer comforting a resident from the First Nations community as they kneel before an altar, praying for four Mounties who were killed in the line of duty. Or one of a resident of Florida City, Florida as he sits shirtless on a stool on his front porch amid the wreckage of Hurricane Andrew, his neighbour’s house turned sideways and leaning over on his own. Or another that shows local residents of Timisoara, Romania peering through the steel bars of a window into a small room where the bloody, bruised and charred naked body of a victim— tortured and killed by the Ceausescu regime—has been left on Christmas Day during the uprising and revolution.

“It is difficult at times, no question. And there are times where I’ve looked at something and thought, there’s no chance I’m going to photograph that,” Clark says philosophically. “But you can’t possibly conceptualize a situation like you can with the instant visualization of a photograph.”

Essentially, Clark’s love of history has inspired him to capture moments of great sacrifice, of natural disaster, of war, of political experience, of human triumph and defeat.

“These photos we take will be used and viewed hundreds of years from now and if we don’t photograph and document our history as it happens then the public won’t know or remember.”