Rising star: What makes Toronto photojournalist Ian Willms stand out

A young man fishes in a river that is known to be contaminated with cholera, in the village of Mirebalais, Haiti, March 29th, 2014. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the Haitian cholera epidemic is estimated to have killed approximately 9000 people in four different countries. Photo courtesy of Ian Willms for the New York Times.

A young man fishes in a river that is known to be contaminated with cholera, in the village of Mirebalais, Haiti, March 29th, 2014. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the Haitian cholera epidemic is estimated to have killed approximately 9000 people in four different countries. Photo courtesy of Ian Willms for the New York Times.

By Mark Taylor, Photojournalism Editor

Ian Willms’ photos have appeared in Time, The New York Times, The Guardian Magazine, Harper’s, The Walrus and Maclean’s among others. Not yet 30, he’s also founded a photo collective, won numerous awards and grants and had several solo and group exhibitions. Before heading off to yet another engagement, Toronto photojournalist Ian Willms tells J-Source how a tough childhood opened his eyes and a serendipitous encounter put them to work.

J-Source: You’ve been doing quite a bit of travelling. Your work keeps popping up in The New York Times with photos from Germany, France, Serbia and, most recently, Haiti. How do those assignments work? Does the Times send you to those places, or are you there as a stringer?

IW: When I first started barking up the tree of The New York Times, I was just emailing my work to the editors saying, “Hey, what’s up, this is who I am, this is what I do.” Eventually they called me for a travel assignment here in Toronto. Then I went down and met with the editors in New York. Then I ended up travelling in Europe and I just stayed in touch. I just said, “Hey, I’m in Germany right now.” And then I got an email from an editor I’d never spoken to. He said, “I’ve got this thing. I need you to do it. Can you get there?” I made it happen and worked hard and he was impressed with the work so he started hiring me more. I did a story on the German/French border, two in Poland and one in Serbia. I’ve done a number of assignments for them in Canada. As they come to trust your work ethic and the quality of your work, they get more comfortable with sending you further. So they actually sent me to Haiti from Canada.

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J-Source: A New York Times assignment is something a lot of photojournalists dream about. When you graduated from Loyalist College in 2008, did you ever think you’d be this busy this soon?

Photo courtesy of Kuba Kaminski

IW: When I graduated from school, I remember the feeling quite vividly. I had gone home and realized school was over and I had to go out into the world and be a photographer. It was such a terrifying idea. It felt like the rest of the earth had just dropped off in front of my feet and I was staring off into this impossibly dark abyss. It was very daunting, very depressing. I ended up at a bar with one of my friends. Then I just started putting one foot in front of the other I guess. Just started making calls, sending emails, working on my website, handing out cards, going to conferences, all that stuff. And it came around. No, I definitely didn’t expect to be where I am today. I knew I wanted it. But if you had told me then that I would have done the assignments that I have, or had the shows I’ve had, or won the awards I’ve won, I would have just laughed in your face. But I still feel scared. I think it’s natural to be hard on yourself and be critical of your work.

J-Source: I understand you were raised in a YWCA women’s shelter. How does that upbringing inform your photography?

IW: It was a building for women who had been abused or were dealing with mental health issues or substance abuse. They were all at-risk women. I lived there for about nine years. My mom had suffered a major nervous breakdown brought on by heavy workloads. She was a city worker, doing heavy construction and maintenance work in Waterloo, Ont. She had been doing 60-hour work weeks and combining that with heavy drug abuse and she had a total breakdown, so we ended up in this building. There were a lot of things I had to come to terms with, a lot of things that a kid usually doesn’t have to when they grow up in an average city in Canada. I was growing up around a lot of difficult situations and people who were hurting. I saw a lot of these telethon drives for people living in Africa—these NGO television spots. I would watch those and be blown away, thinking why do those kids have brown water? Why are they living in a mud shack? I guess the empathy was there pretty early on. And I guess growing up and watching my mother struggle as hard as she did, and also the other women in the building, it made me realize that struggle is everywhere and it’s something you have to address and understand. I always wanted to express it to people. I tried painting and drawing and sculpture and writing. I was a decent writer but I wasn’t good at anything else. And eventually I found photography.

J-Source: When was that? And what were your first pictures?

IW: I was always fascinated with it. I can remember as young as 12 years old hijacking the camera whenever I went on a trip and taking all the pictures, wasting all the film. The pictures were horrible. When I was 15, I found this camera at a bike shop I was working at and took a picture outside. I found out later that the roll of film in that camera was being entered in a photography contest and it won. And so one day I was at the bike shop and this camera shows up as a prize for a contest that I didn’t know I had entered. There was a Mennonite thrift store nearby I always went to. The day before I was there and noticed they had a roll of black and white film in the display case. So once I got my prize camera, I went straight to the thrift store and bought that roll of film and just started taking pictures of the decline of my hometown’s industrial sector. It’s pretty cliché, a teenager taking pictures of abandoned factories, but that’s how I started. 

An elderly woman walks past lines of riot police, during the G20 summit, in Toronto, June 26th, 2010. The police response to the G20 protests in Toronto, led to the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Photo courtesy of Ian Willms

J-Source: That’s incredible. That’s how you got your first camera?

IW: I think so. I think I had some super cheap Kodak point-and-shoot before that but this was my first half-decent camera.

J-Source: Describe Loyalist College and what you learned there.

IW: Loyalist is a community college in Belleville, Ont. They’re pretty technically oriented. There’s a lot of broadcast and print media there, TV, radio, photo. I had originally wanted to go to Ryerson (University in Toronto). Straight out of high school I applied there and they rejected me. I think I also applied to Concordia (University in Montreal) for journalism. I found Loyalist in the book of colleges and it turned out to be the only solid two-year photojournalism program in the country. When I called them, it was incredible. A human being actually answered the phone and said, “Hello, Loyalist, how can I help you?” I was sold right there and signed up. It was a solid foundation to start your education. It’s meat and potatoes, nuts and bolts. It’s isolated, so all the photo students band together and become a pretty tight community, or at least they did when I was there. It’s cool because it was very communal and collaborative. That was really the best part of Loyalist, the fact it was in Belleville. I think if I had gone to Ryerson I would have been far more disconnected from the people I went to school with. That would have been a shame because we learned a lot from each other, we had amazing experiences and some of us are still really good friends today.  

J-Source: Have you had any mentors along the way?

IW: Donald Weber has definitely been a guiding force for me over the years. He’s a tough love kind of guy. He’s not going to take me under his wing and be all fuzzy. He gives me good advice. At Loyalist, Patti Gower was definitely a really essential influence. The person who was showing me pictures that were inspiring me, examples of great photojournalism, was mostly Patti Gower. And Frank O’Connor at Loyalist. He was always a beacon of ethical guidance.   

J-Source: What are your long-term goals?

IW: I’d like to have an apartment. I’m just traveling so much it hasn’t really been practical to have one. The last time I had one was a year ago. I made the choice a couple years ago that if I don’t pay rent every month, I can afford an extra plane ticket every month. I do sublets and stuff, but I’ve pared down all of my possessions to a pretty minimal amount of things. But long term, I would like to have a base, somewhere. I don’t know if it’s going to be Toronto but I’m going to pick a base pretty soon and set up an apartment with a proper studio. Not a shooting studio, just a nice workstation. I’m ready to do that. For the past three years, I’ve been away from Toronto more than I’ve been here. It’s wonderful. I’ve seen a lot of things. But I also would like something to come home to. Career-wise I want to find representation at an art gallery in Canada and the U.S. As far as photo agencies go, the Boreal Collective is growing exponentially. By the time I’m in a position where I might be able to get representation, I might not even want to do it if the Boreal Collective is going as well as it is. I did the emerging talent mentorship with Reportage by Getty Images and I loved working with them. They have an intelligent perspective on personal projects and where they fit into the editorial market. So I’m still working with them and if that relationship grows then I would feel really good about that.       

J-Source: Any advice for aspiring photojournalists?

IW: One of the problems that I had when I was coming through college and establishing myself as a freelancer was that I had this desire to express what I was feeling and it didn’t always fit into what I was taught photojournalism was. I always felt like I was being to artsy or being too much of a rebel. I caught myself trying to fit in to something that really wasn’t natural to me. So if I could say one thing to young photographers and students, it’s that if you have a feeling you want to express with your work, then pursue it and don’t be ashamed of it. If somebody tells you that it’s not good and that you should be doing what everybody else is doing, I think you should take a really long look at what that person produces and their background. Because they could just be imposing a bias upon you that just comes from a different place. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not you. It’s OK to be yourself. That’s what will set you apart.

This interview was edited and condensed. 

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