Yesterday was my second year shooting Free The Children’s We Day, founded by Craig and Marc Keilberger. (Read my post from my first year’s experience here). Marketed annually as the ‘Rock Concert for Social Change’, 18,000 kids and youth packed Roger’s Arena in Vancouver, BC and squealed with glee as the celebrities took the stage to speak about social and environmental change, or to play their pop tunes. What celebrities? To name a few: Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Martin Sheen, Assembly of FIrst Nations Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, Rick Hansen, the Bare Naked Ladies, Hedley, Colby Cailat, and BC’s least favorite politician, Gordon Campbell. Unfortunately, but predictably given who was in the crowd, the pop artists got more squeals than the speakers. Warning: cynicism/criticism ahead.
Who exactly does We Day target? Martin Sheen, Jesse Jackson, even Al Gore are ‘old’ guys who are, even at my ripe old age of thirty-something, a little before my time to know well yet people who I respect and admire greatly. Even one of my fellow twenty-something photographers merely ‘recognized’ Jesse Jackson but didn’t actually know who he was. And then backstage I found myself explaining to another twenty-something person that Martin Sheen was the father of Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen, but in my opinion the most talented of the three (not to mention his activism which I admittedly know little about). Surely these three speakers weren’t chosen for the underage audience… by far the loudest squeals from the crowd came when Justin Bieber’s pre-recorded video popped up on the big screen to greet his fans – and the kid wasn’t even there! Justin Bieber, folks. There’s the majority of your We Day demographic. Martin Sheen didn’t stand a chance, poor guy. His speech, which I watched afterwards (recorded) was moving and powerful, but come on, I’d bet less than 1% of the kids even knew who he was let alone what the heck he was talking about – no one even realized he told two jokes in the first couple of minutes (I did, and laughed). He was one of my favorites even though he completely avoided my camera (nerves or just fed up with paparazzi I suppose – which I am not by the way). So for whom were Martin Sheen, Al Gore, and Jesse Jackson? For people my age perhaps, like the teachers? Or perhaps the executives of the sponsoring companies (and their most valued clients) watching the show from the private skyboxes?
I missed 95% of the show anyhow… and that was just fine because this year I scored another very cool assignment – covering the cue line backstage – as the talent were briefed before going on and coming off stage. So yeah, I got very close to pretty much all of the big names this year. I must say it was very fun despite my general disinterest with celebrity.
More than celebrity disinterest though, there are some things about this event (or at least some of the people or companies involved) that were a little off besides the speaker/audience match up. Some of the speakers in the line up are undoubtedly heroes of positive change in our history and I regard them very highly; it was surreal to be standing inches from them while taking their photos. Interestingly however the reverence they receive as individuals is highly contradictory to the very important message they are trying to get across: stop thinking about me, start thinking about we, and embody those changes in your life (for life, not for the first few weeks after the event, and not just in class because your teacher tells you so).
In our society financially successful individuals, and celebrities, are worshipped like deities. From birth our impressionable children have been bombarded with this belief, as we have had it engrained in us through our lifetime of media and commercial brainwashing. It’s truly unfortunate that the vehicle for this message has to be a highly polished media event that ironically celebrates the individual by placing them on a stage at the center of 18,000 screaming kids. But perhaps this is the very reason the organizers are using these methods to deliver their message – and by delivering their message using a familiar vehicle like a nationally broadcast rock concert, maybe it will actually sink in…?Despite much of We Day being run by volunteers (including me), this could not possibly be a free, or even cheap, production. I overheard last year that it is a completely volunteer-run event – of this I am highly skeptical. There are a lot of interests being served, exclusive broadcasts, public relations, etc. (Mr. Campbell, perhaps 2 minutes on stage before Al Gore goes on would help your 9% approval rating?). Someone, somewhere is making money, or will be making money in the future. The event is held in Roger’s Arena (previously GM Place) in Vancouver, Canada’s most expensive city, with a ten television camera setup (2 steadicams, a large jib and a 50’ dolly) covering an all-day event and broadcast on national TV and the internet. CTV’s Tanya Kim and Ben Mulroney hosted with the Keilberger brothers and Toronto-based Free The Children’s staff behind the scenes (perhaps the only volunteers, or are they even?). Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Martin Sheen, et al. … for those of you who also volunteered your celebrity and time – kudos for walking the talk. For those who didn’t, well, it’s a good thing we have large sponsors like Telus, Aviva Insurance, and the Keg Restaurants to step in. These, among other corporate sponsors, probably have an interest in giving 18,000 impressionable youth (our leaders and spenders of tomorrow) a national television audience, and an international web audience the idea that their company is a social and environmental good guy – so when you get your first paycheque from your first fast-food job kids, remember to buy your Blackberry/iPhone from Telus).
I know I am being sarcastic, cynical, and critical, but I will again admit that it was fun and the staff were amazing. And I’m not suggesting it’s all bad… the message is the right one. What I am suggesting is that there are some things here that have more in common with where we’re coming from than where We Day and its speakers are suggesting we go. Now, having pointed this out, I wonder if I’ll be asked back next year? That could be quite telling.
ADDED NOV. 2, 2010: Here is an article in rabble.ca that resonates with my observations at We Day. C”We Day: The corporate selling of progressive ethics and hope to youth”
ADDED NOV. 3, 2013: Here is another article that resonates: “A Teacher’s Critique of ‘We Day’
“You want me to follow the Governor General tomorrow?” I asked. “Yes, the Governor General”, she replied. “Okay, sure.” I remained calm – after all, she couldn’t have meant THE Governor General. She did. I would be following and photographing Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, C.C., C.M.M., C.O.M, C.D., Governor General of Canada at We Day.
Monday night, the night before Free The Children’s We Day event, was the night I received that phone call from Amy. Amy had been corresponding with me since we were first introduced by the organizers of Hope In Shadows, a photography contest for which I taught a workshop this year. Prior to this phone call, my assignment was to capture the energy of the 15,000 youth and children in the audience at GM Place for this massive event. This was quite the change. Quite the responsibility.
So let me put this into perspective. I will not pretend to be a big time photographer because I am not. I am a humble, community-involved, self-taught photographer (and filmmaker). Yes I know my stuff – I have been shooting professionally for over ten years, but my largest commission prior to today was a wedding I was flown to San Francisco for back in 2004. So to find out that I would be photographing the Governor General of Canada while she met with other dignitaries, world leaders and celebrities was something so enormous for me that, well, I am still in a state of disbelief.
I arrived at 7:50am, ten minutes prior to my call time. There were four photographers. We were escorted to the staff room on the 400 level of GM Place and I was promptly rushed back to the ground level to be briefed by Her Excellency’s wrangler for the day, James. “Keep your distance, don’t be intrusive, don’t direct her for your photos. She’ll have an official photographer following her, just follow his lead.” These same instructions came from four different people and were carefully worded so that I would clearly understand, apparently because they were terrified that I would commit some hideous faux pas or worse. Really, I’m sure they weren’t trying to make me MORE nervous.
I am the only photographer permitted when Her Excellency’s (you must address her this way) motorcade pulls in. She gets out of the car quickly and begins greetings. In an instant, her official photographer (looking very official in his military uniform), Jeff (or Geoff), is standing next to me, firing away with his two Nikons. Oh crap! I should be taking pictures! I wake from my trance and begin…
The first stop on the agenda is to address some 70 senior educators on the concourse of the 300 level of GM place. We’re moving fast and I’m trying to keep up. When I find myself between Her Excellency and the security escorts, they quickly and quite decisively direct me to move outside of their perimeter. Watching where Jeff is and what he’s doing, I try to take position next to him but he’s fast and he’s done this before. He runs ahead and turns around to snap a couple of photos. I imitate his movements, but I’m not prepared for the speed and my shots are lackluster. I’m lacking confidence. We reach the podium and there is another photographer there, following Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free The Children. Both Jeff and this other photographer move to the front of the podium. I follow, take position and start shooting. The Governor General finishes her speech and another woman comes to the podium… wait she’s familiar – it’s Kim Campbell, our ex-Prime Minister. I look around to see where Jeff has gone but he’s nowhere to be found. I’m stuck in a corner next to the podium and I can’t move so I get what I can from my position. Suddenly we’re moving again and I’m again behind. Jeff is still nowhere to be found so I follow the entourage and try to keep a close yet discrete position.
The Gear: I’m shooting today with two rigs: a Canon 1D Mark II with a 70-200 2.8L IS and a 5D Mark II with a 16-35 2.8L. I have a 550EX on the 5D. The light changes quickly as we move through the corridors so I set up to shoot in low light – ISO 1600 most of the time, sometimes I dial it down to 800. Wide open on aperture priority most of the time and when we slow down I switch to manual. I SHOULD have attached my Quantum pack to my 550EX because, as I will regret later, the AA’s in the strobe just didn’t cut it for recycle time in the media scrum for his Holiness the Dalai Lama…
After a hectic walk through the corridors, we’re back on the floor level of the concourse at hair and make-up as Her Excellency is prepared to go onstage in front of the 15,000 kids and hundreds of thousands (maybe millions?) of TV viewers. I switch to the 1D and grab some candids from outside of the door. Geez, I wonder if it’s okay to take photos of the Governor General having hair and makeup applied? I think about my assignment for Me To We: document the Governor General’s experience at We Day. Okay. I keep shooting.
Before she emerges I anticipate where she will be and raise my camera for the shot. She turns the corner and comes right towards me then whoops! She’s surprised to see me! I bashfully lower my camera and apologize and she turns around to go the other way.
We’re waiting backstage now and she is in a private tent preparing for her speech. Ben Mulroney and Tanya Kim are pumping up the energy onstage as I’m finding the right exposure for my shots. It’s a full house and the energy is peaking now. Jeff is suddenly beside me again and we ask if we can move to the front of the stage when the Governor General takes the podium. We are directed to the media corral, at the BACK of the floor, too far for even my 70-200 to reach for a decent full figure shot. I return backstage in time to follow Her Excellency to the queue for her introduction. I grab a few candids from behind the stage and as she is introduced. The crowd roars and I move around to the front, stopping at the podium. I shoot away: wide, long, crowd shots, closeups, as much as I can get. Okay, finally reaching full stride here – my confidence finally decided to show up after all. Jeff appears next to me again – wow this guy is a photo-ninja! – he got tired of the media corral and joined me closer to the podium. As we are asked to leave by a woman with a radio headset, I gather we are not supposed to be there. I tap Jeff on the shoulder to let him know and then move backstage again, just in time to catch the Governor General coming off stage.
As we move up the elevator I look over at Her Excellency. She gives me one of her infectious smiles and I feel compelled to speak. So what would you say to one of the most recognizable icons of our country after she has just addressed our nations children, introducing the “rock concert” for youth-led social and environmental change? “Uh, Good job” I blurt out. Brilliant Greg. Just brilliant.
To her private skybox we go, so she can watch the show in comfort – but I’m not allowed in so I have about an hour to wait outside and relax. Jeff emerges with a bottle of water for me. He gives me a few tips for carrying two fully rigged cameras and a weapon, like he had to on his tour in Afghanistan. It’s good stuff. I’ll be modifying my setup to match his, sans the weapon of course. I take a breath, a drink of water and text my girlfriend one word that sums up my morning so far: “Whoa.”
Okay this is taking a long time and we’re on the executive box level so I can’t see the show unless I’m IN a box – and I know that’s not going to happen. I decide to go back to the ground level to see if I can get any interesting shots backstage. As I’m walking to the stage there is a crowd gathering at the doors where the Governor General’s motorcade arrived. I learn they’re waiting for his Holiness the Dalai Lama. Hmm, okay I guess I’ll stay here then. This time, unlike at the arrival of the Governor General, there is media everywhere and security to match. I anticipate where His Holiness might end up, settle in, and wait with my cameras ready. A motorcade arrives, a figure emerges, and the scrum begins. I snap a few pics from a distance with the 1D. I stay put, patiently. Flashes are firing wildly, people – media and celebrities alike – are being displaced and shoved around, security is eyeing everyone and clearing a path for of His Holiness. I wait. Then the crowd parts in front of me and he is there – about two meters away. I raise my camera and begin. Whaaa? My flash isn’t firing! I jiggle it on the hotshoe and try again. Nothing. It turned out that it did fire the first time but didn’t recycle fast enough for the subsequent shots. Still, I got a couple of photos that are usable. No prize winners, but that’s okay. I’m not here to win a competition. I’m here because it’s cool to be here. I’m here for the fun of it and to hopefully get Me To We some great photographs.
As the Dalai Lama crowd moves down the corridor, I turn and head back to my assignment, Her Excellency. After a few steps down the hall I recognize some of her security detail and by the size of the growing crowd, it appears that something big is going down – so I decide to wait. Hmm, I’m the only photographer around. After a few minutes his Holiness emerges – how did he shake the media crowd? I quickly snap a few photos. Oops I think I surprised him! And no good shots again. Sheesh!! A minute later Her Excellency emerges. I snap a few photos. No surprises – she’s used to me by now I hope. I hope.
Upstairs to a private meeting. No photographing allowed, that’s made very clear, so I don’t. Instead I go upstairs to watch the Dalai Lama’s speech. I head downstairs again in time for Her Excellency to meet with Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free the Children. Then it’s back to the motorcade and away to the airport, oh and look – there’s Jane Goodall! This is so cool!
One thousand, one hundred and sixty-six photos. Maybe ten or twenty keepers. Typical.
Thanks to Carolyn Wong, Amy Gottung, James Lombardi, Jeff (Her Excellency’s official photographer), and of course Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada for your patience, instruction, support and for gifting me this wonderful opportunity.