Saturday’s simulcast of the final concert for The Tragically Hip, one of Canada’s iconic rock groups, will certainly be one that will live long in the memories of those attending the free Canatara Park event in Sarnia.
But for at least one Sarnian, there’s a very personal connection to the group, one that has fueled his passion for photography and music and which, at least in some sense, will live on in the future careers of students that go through the Digital Photography program taught at Lambton College.
The context for the concert, for those who may not be fans of The Hip, is the announcement in May that lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. That announcement lead to a “farewell” tour, culminating with the concert, telecast on CBC TV from Kingston, home town of the group.
While the event is free, sales of refreshments and memorabilia (including t-shirts) are being split between the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research and the local Bluewater Health Foundation, which has earmarked donations to go to Bluewater Health’s Cancer Care Assessment and Treatment Centre.
But now we talk about that Sarnia connection.
Richard Beland, who went to public school in Bright’s Grove and later high school at St. Clair, studied mechanical engineering at the community college level.
He decided, however, that work of that type wasn’t something he was particularly interested in pursuing as a career.
What he was passionate about more than anything was music and when a friend urged him to learn how to “make photographs,” he jumped at the chance.
Things for Beland took a different twist when a teacher’s strike at Fanshawe College resulted in that pursuit being put on pause.
What he did then was head to Europe where he bought a van that he’d live in for the next six months, armed with a camera and 100 rolls of film. “I was going to figure out photography on my own,” he says.
Six months later, a road accident resulted in the van being totaled and Beland returning to Canada.
At that point he took one of what he calls “one of the dirtiest jobs imaginable,” working at a Toronto sandblasting company and “coming home with sand in every orifice of my body.”
That’s when Beland headed back to Fanshawe to “reset” that passion for photography that Europe had solidified in his mind.
“I was determined to make a go of it,” he says. “And I was driven. I’d already lived this other life and I might not have been the smartest in the class, but I had the drive.”
Beland calls it a “rich education,” one that was fostered by the fact that conventional film still existed but digital technology was becoming “a thing.”
“We could scan negatives into digital and work in Photoshop,” says Beland of that 1992-1994 time period.
At the end of year one of the program, one of those “happy accidents” occurred that ended up propelling his career, arguably to the point where it is today.
“I connected with someone in a darkroom as I was printing some of my work and she mentioned that her brother was involved in a Canadian music magazine. One thing lead to another and I ended up going to London, England, to work with a photo agency there,” he recalls.
That experience, which Beland was able to do in the summers between school at Fanshawe, further fueled his enthusiasm for the craft and lead to frequent assignments and enough money to at least pay for a hotel room.
“I couldn’t put my backpack and everything I owned on the floor at the same time,” says Beland, describing the size of his room at the time. “Something had to be on the bed.”
Halfway through the program, Beland says he felt like he was “shot from a cannon.”
“I was going for it and I only wanted to shoot entertainment,” he adds.
What those times may have lacked in money they made up for in experience, with Beland shooting concerts by Metallica, Neil Young and, wait for it, The Tragically Hip.
“The first time I saw them was in Belgium,” he says. “That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”
Beland will be at the Kingston show tonight (August 20, 2016), having worked the farewell tour, including Thursday’s concert in Ottawa.
“That was the 159th concert I’d shot with them,” he said.
When Beland graduated from Fanshawe, he immersed himself in what essentially became a freelance photography business, shooting four or five nights a week, in the clubs every night and building up a portfolio of work.
He lived at the time near the corner of Bloor and Spadina, eating Kraft Dinner and riding his bicycle everywhere, with no need for even subway fare.
“I started getting bigger and bigger photo shoots and people would see me, which lead to other work,” he adds.
He also started understanding the fundamentals of the business, that it takes a combination of creative (the composition of a shot), technical (operating the equipment) and business (which is the “monetizing” part).
All are, by the way, aspects of Lambton College’s Digital Photography program that he and his colleagues try to pass on to their students.
He was also continuing to do work for various groups, including The Hip, whose album “In Violet Light” was released in 2002.
At the time, Beland was also working part-time at the Roy Thomson Hall, ushering patrons at various shows and events.
On one of those nights, he actually seated The Hip’s Gord Downie, which Beland admits was “a little weird.”
“I’d just finished doing their album cover [for In Violet Light’] and there we were,” he says. “I think Gord thought it was a little surreal as well.”
Beland quit the Roy Thomson Hall shortly thereafter.
“I realized there’s a time when you throw yourself into what you’re passionate about and that was it,” he says. “It’s either sink or swim and now I didn’t have the $300 a week, so I had to focus.”
Beland’s career continued to flourish, with further connections and business coming along, including a contract to shoot for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG).
It was at one of those assignments, in Niagara Falls, where Beland was photographing Al Pacino that he connected with two of his childhood friends, Alastair MacKay and Greg Lee, both of whom were by this time working at Lambton College (MacKay is the program coordinator of the Culinary Management Program; Lee is manager of Conferences and Special Events).
Not long after that, when MacKay and Lee were back in Sarnia, they were part of a meeting where discussions were being held around a photography program at Lambton College.
Lee called Beland, inviting him to Sarnia for a chat about how those plans might play out.
“That first hour-long discussion lasted nearly five hours,” says Beland, who says Lambton College made enough of an impression on him that he took the opportunity of helping to build the Digital Photography program.
Not long after, with the pieces in place, Beland was also involved in the hiring process and was subsequently convinced to move with his family from Mississauga to be one of the teachers.
One of the instructors he ultimately grabbed was Dave Chidley, who is a working freelance photographer with contracts with Canadian Press and several print and web publications, including the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.
“I realized I wasn’t going to be the big fish,” says Beland. “That’s Dave. He’s the kind of guy you want if you’re building a strong team.”
Other instructors now in the program at Lambton College are Petro Tiahur and John Densky, both active photographers based in the London area. Chidley, who lives in Petrolia, interviewed Beland and wrote a “Q & A” for the Digital Photography program’s blog which can be seen HERE.
While there are certainly other Digital Photography programs to choose from, including Fanshawe College, where Beland graduated, he argues that the Sarnia program is distinctive for a number of reasons, not least of which is how connected its teachers are to the profession on a daily basis.
“The difference is that when you learn from someone who just used that technique in a working situation, it’s current,” says Beland.
In the case of Beland, that includes having photographed, in the 10 days prior to this interview, Gavin DeGraw, Nickleback, and Peter Frampton.
“We want people to learn the fundamentals of photography,” says Beland. “For me, the connection was music but whatever someone is passion about, the program will help them make photographs of that subject matter. We’ll help get them the fundamentals and build a portfolio of what they love.”