It’s rare to see Wayne Eardley without a camera in his hand. I could listen to him all day, talking about the stories behind his current exhibition of photographic prints from the Relative Project at Star X, his magical and sometimes hair-raising travel experiences, his belief in the importance of education, and the different ways the arts are valued around the world. Ironically, the prolific Eardley is camera shy, but his superb storytelling, both via the camera lens and in conversation, is evidence of his deep personal commitment to capturing our shared humanity and giving that humanity a voice.
Eardley’s Relative Project is an ongoing series of black and white photographic prints, unvarnished portraits of people from around the world. They capture all the humour, defiance, curiosity, pride, courage, suspicion, shyness, self doubt, and openness of our global family.
“It’s only joy that I ever feel doing this, it’s not a commercial project,” he tells me. “I want to keep doing this until I can’t do it anymore. But then I don’t feel it should end, I feel that someone else should take it over.”
The project is not the product of a detached photographer’s eye, or an artsy appropriation of third world exotica. Posed against a stark white background, his photographic portraits are so direct and intimate that they strike me as cinematic, like the opening sequence of a nuanced biographical film. They ignite conversation and are unflinching and compelling in the tradition of Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Shelby Lee Adams or Richard Avedon photographs. The work has been featured online in National Geographic and Eardley hopes one day to turn the series into a book.
Ryerson professor Don Snyder writes:
The white background, the square format, the use of black and white film, and the deliberate, intentional way of working, in combination with Eardley’s field notes, are all related to the traditions of documentary photography. Yet the photographs are in no sense limited to the documentary genre, and there is no subtext here of the outsider’s gaze or an external agenda.
Travelling to places halfway across the world, Eardley sometimes brings locals on board to assist him with scrims, lights and other equipment. They also act as interpreters and go-betweens when asking people if they will participate, and often help to set up an impromptu shoot on the street. Every person he photographs receives a print or digital file of their portrait, which is no mean feat when sending work to remote villages in places like Egypt or Brazil.
He reckons the Relative Project has cost him at least $50,000 of his own money, but insists the experiences it has brought him are priceless. Still it has not been without risk. In Zimbabwe he was chased down and taken to a police station for questioning when filming the house of the chief of police. He threw film out of the car window and exposed it to avoid confiscation, but managed to hand off a few rolls to his companions. Released that evening, he was supposed to report to the station the next day with his papers; his lawyer host recommended he leave immediately and he did, but managed to salvage a few images documenting the country’s stark divide between rich and poor.
No less fascinating are the travel diaries he keeps:
Soucho China, 1996
…We began our shoot by setting up the backdrop against a storefront, a little light adjustment and I was photographing, a farmer, carrying his goods. Nice shot maybe, but then the commotion starts. Crowds gather – little room to shoot – it’s over. Its all over I think. Not because of the crowd, but rather the farmer demands money and I have to explain that I can’t pay everyone, I’d go broke. The shopkeeper realizes this and starts tearing down the backdrop. ‘Just sit back and wait’ I tell myself. Until Chang (our fixer) says ‘no problem’ and we move 30 meters to an open area in the town square. We have no choice but to rig up the backdrop between two mangled trees with bamboo, string, pins and clothes pegs. It works…
He exhibited photos taken in Zimbabwe this summer at ZimArt on Rice Lake; a recent exhibition at ACME focused on landscapes of Egypt; a selection from the Relative Project was on display at Star X in September, 2018 and will be followed by another exhibition in Cuba in October at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a major art gallery and performance venue in a converted factory in Havana, facilitated by the Canadian embassy.
He tells me, “Artists are some of the wealthiest people in Cuba because they’re allowed to travel all over the world. Artists are everywhere. The artists are revered more than almost anyone, not because of propaganda, they are actually allowed to criticize the government. We have statues of hockey players here and they have statues of poets.”
Although the U.S. embargo has not been kind to the island, and many artists live in poverty, the arts prevail in Cuba due to a history of great writers and a socialist model of free education. “If you have a government that really cares about education, all sorts of great things can happen. They are one of the most highly educated people in the world.”
“I’m hopeful that the young generation can see these images and hear some of the stories about travel.” He believes strongly in the positive impact of an early arts education and credits his own attraction to the arts to his enrollment in a special art program in grade 6 through R. F. Downey Public School in Peterborough; he laments this type of program no longer exists.
He identifies with the late Anthony Bourdain, whose travels illuminated a kind of grassroots hospitality not found easily in our culture.
“In Mexico I never once heard a television,” says Eardley. “I heard people singing, I heard lots of conversations, There were always fireworks going off, there was some celebration in some part of that town. I never got the sense that anyone was sitting around watching CNN.”
Using a Hasselblad camera, he processes the film himself, old school style, in the darkroom. The use of a camera with a viewfinder at waist level allows him to have some eye contact with his subjects. Like field recordings, he captures the world around him in situ, not posed in the studio.
I ask where Eardley plans to stage his next photographic adventure. He says it usually comes from a story, a connection with someone with ties to a particular country, like the German guy he met biking in Jackson Creek Park who offered to underwrite a trip, or the Brazilian woman he met at Studio in the Attic. India is on the list, as is Nigeria. He feels the U.S. would be too difficult to visit at this time and Canada too expensive. “I still dream, if I won the lottery, I’d convert an old van or a bus and I travel across this great, great country which I’ve never seen by road,” he says. “That would be cool. But the reality is that it’s cheaper to go to India.
Although he has always supported himself with commercial photography, at one time he could make significant royalties as a stock film photographer, but his last payment came in at forty-six cents. Nonetheless he survived the shift from analog to digital film. He frequently donates work to non-profit fundraisers and is often found behind the scenes of the arts community, documenting 4th Line Theatre or Public Energy productions for their season brochures.
His affinity for musicians has led to some gritty photo essays: Neil Young’s fundraising performance in his home town of Omemee; Russ deCarle beside his Airstream in Janetville; last call at the Pig’s Ear neighbourhood pub before the arrival of a developer’s wrecking ball.
Born outside of Montreal, Eardley moved to Cavan at 10 when his dad left corporate Toronto to open an antique store.
His interest in theatre and his respect for people from all walks of life is evident as he vividly describes a seminal experience as a young man. One summer he and some buddies would frequently hang out around a campfire at the back of a friend’s farm. They had noticed that someone was taking the newspapers and empties, and cleaning up the campsite in their absence. One night they heard branches breaking in the surrounding forest. Like an apparition, local hermit farmer John Egri suddenly burst out of the woods, 6’5” on a white horse, sporting a Cossack hat. Eardley developed a deep friendship with John and his brother Alex, a man with 3 university degrees who loved Robert Burns poetry, yet would make his own hammer out of salvaged materials.
Integrity is at the heart of Eardley’s work. The principled photojournalist once returned an OAC grant when he realized that the community where he wanted to teach photography to kids lacked the resources needed to create a darkroom. In everything he says, it’s evident that he cares deeply about honouring his subjects and sharing his love for humanity.
Eardley volunteered his time teaching photography at the Prince of Wales Public School for 9 years until a board member decided darkroom photography was no longer relevant in a digital age. But Eardley believes that using a film camera teaches kids to take the time to look more carefully at the world around them.
He hopes his photographs influence a younger generation to experience the world. “The thing I try to instill into the kids, is that no matter what you see or hear, you have to go see the world for yourself. And you should do that because really it’s a beautiful world full of amazing people.”
All photographs © Wayne Eardley, used with permission.