AT RANDOM: Gone but not forgotten

In my former life as a photojournalist on Vancouver Island, I had many interesting assignments.

With my manual film-loading Nikon FM2 cameras, with the attached motor drives and assortment of lenses, I captured everything from the colourful powwows held by the Cowichan people at the Native Heritage Centre in Duncan to the giant freighter navigating Doman mill’s lumber out of the tricky waters of Cowichan Bay.

There were the accidents on the treacherous strip of the Trans Canada Highway between Victoria and Nanaimo (how I hated going to those),  and the 4-H kids cuddling up to their animals at the Cowichan Exhibition before sending them off to their buyers. (yes, heartbreaking stuff).

Those three years working as a stringer for the Cowichan News Leader in the mid-to-late ’90s were unforgettable with some close friendships forged and enough decent prints to go in my portfolio, which is now gathering dust along with my cameras under a desk at home.

However, there is one particular assignment that didn’t come from the newspaper that is being unearthed now that a certain anniversary is upon us. It still stands out to this day because of its subject matter - probably one of the most important shoots I had as my time as a photographer.

In the mid-90s, I was hired by Veterans Affairs Canada to photograph a  service for veterans in Chemainus.

I was there to document about eight to 10 veterans from the south part of Vancouver Island who were being recognized by the Canadian and French governments for their service in the Great War.

That war started exactly 100 years ago this weekend and all of those men are long gone now.

However, at the time that I met them, they were aged 90 on up, many in wheelchairs, but most of their memories were intact as if the war had happened the month before.

As I photographed one veteran, his gnarled hands holding his freshly polished medals, his face beaming with pride, he told me of serving with his battalion.

I wish I could remember his name, which division he was in, and where exactly he had fought.

I can now envision the trench, mortars flying in all directions, the stench of death, thanks to all the movies, documentaries and books that have been done about the war.

But at the time, I couldn’t imagine it at all. Here I was decades later with my camera enjoying the freedoms they had fought for. But I listened in rapture, pausing the shutter release on my camera to sit down next to him for a while. He deserved my full attention.

The funny thing is I’ve always been a peace monger.

I’ve marched in anti-war protests, against the Gulf War, apartheid in South Africa, and more recently, the U.S. invasion in Iraq, but back then and to this day, what I owe these men is my respect.

After I finished the shoot, I went back to the darkroom (another place from my past where I spent way too much time), developed the film, and printed the black and white photos to be shipped off to Veteran Affairs.

Although I probably still have the negatives somewhere, buried in my piles of former assignments and cameras, I don’t really need the physical images to see those faces, and hear those stories even if the details are now a tad hazy.

It sounds sappy, but they had a profound effect on me that still resonates to this day.

I’m sure the same is being felt even more personally and deeply by all of the veterans of wars since who are commemorating the start of the First World War this weekend.

Those men who served may be gone, but they are not forgotten. I’m glad I had a chance to meet some of them.


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