German photographer Martin Weinhold shines a light on working Canadians

Anthyme Kadjuk and Byron Attutuvaq, cargo handlers at Baker Lake Airport. Nunavut, 2016. Photo: Martin Weinhold

For a decade, the German photographer Martin Weinhold has been documenting the lives of Canadian workers. The result is a collection of more than 4,000 images in his Workspace Canada project. Some of the photographs have been collected by Library and Archives Canada and, in sum, they form an important contribution to our collective understanding of this crucial part of people’s lives. Weinhold explained to ARTSFILE why he takes these images and what he is trying to capture.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

A. I grew up in East-Berlin in the 1970s and ’80s. At that time I already had a peculiar liking for Canada, probably due to my aunt, a librarian, who constantly gave me books about North America and specifically about Canada, because, as she said, they were so kind to rescue Sitting Bull and his Lakota. 

Both my parents were and are working in the in the arts, being freelance stage designers. Though, I didn’t inherit their artistic skills. As a child I was neither able to paint nor to draw, let alone sculpt, so photography turned out to be my means of expression. When I was about 12 years old I began to steal my parents’ small camera, took pictures on it without permission. The photos I made were so terrible that everybody was hoping I would find some other way to make a living. I had no talent at all. 

I still live in Berlin when I am not in Canada. It is also where I have my own sophisticated darkroom for processing and printing. I have been a fulltime photographer for the last 10 years only, before that I also worked as a cameraman for television. I also teach photography and documentary media. 

Brian Groves is a miner and training supervisor with Agrium Potash in Vanscoy, Saskatchewan. Taken in 2011. Photo: Martin Weinhold.

Q. Please tell me about this project.

A. The beginning was actually an observation of my own work environment as a cameraman. The occupation went from being part of a proud guild of people who produced decent visual content in the 1990s to being cheap media labour in the early 2000s. I thought that I needed to document changes in the world of work. I made my first attempts in Germany in 2005 but I was not satisfied with the results. 

The spark came from Hannah Arendt and her book The Human Condition. What are we doing when we work? What are the qualities of work and how does that relate to our most precious good, the given life time? These were questions she raised that haunted me. They still do. 

The project began in 2006. The first WorkSpace Canada photo series was done on one day in April on a Mississauga truck terminal. 

Q. Why Canada?

A. I was at first trying to realize a project about work in Germany but it soon dawned on me that I may need some critical distance before approaching people on that subject. Work is always also a political topic and for that I was too close to my home country. That was one reason why, I think, Canada worked so much better for me: I am less biased when I work here. The other point is that Canadians responded more openly to my request. They allowed the closeness that I need for the intensity I strive for in the pictures. The third aspect is the (vast) space available in Canada.

On top of that, there is still a lot of resource-based industry in Canada which you can’t find in Germany any more. There are also First Nations peoples and people from all over the world who came to Canada for work. That makes for an ideal mix for the project. 

Canada is not yet as ‘established’ as most European countries, it is rather in motion. When everything is developed and, for example, every parking lot in a local recreation area looks perfect, is clean, has its own solar driven parking meter and a kiosk for buying snacks, then there is nothing left for me. I think that is why Canada was and is more intriguing soil to plough. 

Q. How many photographs have you produced so far?

A. I can only estimate right now but I would say there are about 3,500 photographs that can be shown publicly. It may be more and that number doesn’t include this year’s production. From 2006 and 2016, I travelled to all the Canadian provinces and to Nunavut.  

Q. Were people willing to be photographed?

A. As I do portraits, the project would have died early on if Canadians had not responded so positively. Very few people are crazy about it in the beginning but when they see that my general idea is fuelled by respect for what they do and who they are, the attitude often changes. I totally accept refusals, I personally don’t like to be in front of the camera either which is why I decided many years ago that I wanted to make the process a more pleasant one for the person being portrayed. Time helps: the time to listen and learn about a person before using the camera. 

Lucinda Carmona is a dressmaker with Becker‘s Bridal in Toronto. Taken in 2008. Photo: Martin Weinhold

Q. When you take a portrait, what are you trying to capture?

A. The beauty of portraiture is the individuality of human beings, so every time you try to capture something different. I am sorry, I know this is a truism. Also, photographs are not the truth, as Richard Avedon said. They can, under the best of circumstances, contain a captured facet. If I achieve that, I may be happy with a portrait. 

I also doubt that there is a most important part for every photograph. The most important part for a portrait may be the moment where despite the camera a part of a personality shines through. I remember that moment way more intensely than the photograph, as most times I just miss it by an eighth of a second.

Q. This kind of portraiture reminds me of the kind of images of working people taken in the first half of the 20th century. Is there an echo of that in this project?

A. I like that idea — an echo of the 20th century in the Canadian project about work in the 21st century. Yes, I think there is. August Sander was a strong inspiration artistically and so were the painters of the New Objectivity, such as Otto Dix or Christian Schad. With WorkSpace Canada I’m trying to assemble an inventory of what is still there, but also want to shed light on the transition towards a partly disturbing new world of work. I see my work in the tradition of 20th century artists who were keeping the status quo in times of great upheaval. 

Q. Library and Archives Canada has added some of your work to their collection. Why did they do that?

A. Library and Archives Canada made a large acquisition in 2016. These complemented works they already purchased in 2008. They always have been very interested in this endeavour, as it captures contemporary Canada which is LAC’s mandate. They understand what I am striving for — creating a one-of-kind document for Canada which can become a visual legacy for future generations. I consider Library and Archives Canada as one of my best allies.

Q. What’s next?

A. In the long run I need to find funding for completing WorkSpace Canada geographically adding the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. In the short run: there is a lot of film waiting to process in my Berlin darkroom, later in December. What comes after the project’s completion — I have no idea. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.