Dr. George Burrows 1928 – 2015


When Dr. George hired me 8 years ago to do some photographic work for his family, I could not resist the opportunity to celebrate and honour his contribution to our community with this, my then first foray into multimedia storytelling. For like so many of my time and place I loved this man, whose twinkling eyes above his cotton surgical mask were very likely the first human features that our own newly born eyes fixed upon, even before those of our mothers. Many of us owed him our lives.

If the 1950s and 60s were a no-nonsense and paternalistic era, Dr. George nonetheless had a few gentle tricks up his sleeve to coax a young child to offer up a finger for a pin prick or an arm to set a cast. And despite the pain, we forgave him because we knew that it was in the spirit of good will and caring that he extended to so many in Georgina. Indeed, I was an unhealthy child and so I remember his occasional visits to our house, sparing my mother and me—as he doubtless did with countless others in the community—the difficulty and discomfort of an often long wait in his busy clinic. And still, decades later, many of us in Georgina would know that it was Dr. George’s regular house calls that permitted our elders not only to remain with dignity and care much longer in their homes, but not infrequently, to do so in their own beds, right up to the end.

At least one time, prior to the public ambulance service, Dr. George risked his life in a desperate attempt to save the lives of 3 young children in a fatal vehicle accident by skimming across the treacherous newly forming Lake Simcoe ice in his car to the nearby Chippewa reserve at Georgina Island at Christmastime. I know this because one of the souls lost that night was my childhood bed friend, Kelly Johnston. Doubtless it was not the only risk or heartbreak in his nearly 60 year career. Lake Simcoe would take the life of his protege, Dr. Big Canoe some decades later. Dr. George was the epitome of a country doctor and a gentleman, and he gave us his all apparently doing his final house call only a couple of weeks ago.

Despite our grief in his passing it was consoling to hear that his own incredible family were able to bring him home to surround and support him in his final hours.

To Joyce, Heather, Frank, Jennifer and Tania, and your families, my thoughts are with you.

Dr. George, you have been greatly appreciated and you shall be deeply missed.

—Peter Sibbald
May 24, 2015

P.S. Many thanks to Rita Celli of CBC Ontario Today, for the interview used in this project.


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Clash: Conflict and Its Consequences—a film by Johnny Alam

Photography, Memory & War from Johnny Alam on Vimeo.

This is a very thoughtful film on the nature of photography in conflict zones containing several of my photographs from the Oka Crisis of 1990, as well as the work of some of Canada’s greatest photographers and photojournalists of the past century. It is built around an interview with Andrea Kunard, Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Canada.

You can see some of Carleton University Ph.D. student Johnny Alam’s other work here and on his website.


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The Graduation Day Blues

St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada. 2013/10/25. OUA 2013 Finals.
A down-and-dirty observational short documentary about University of Toronto Women’s Novice Crew.


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Congratulations to Our Alice-Nobel Prize in Literature 2013

2013 Nobel Laureate for Literature,  Canadian author Alice Munro

Clinton, Ontario. 2013 Nobel Laureate in literature, Canadian author and “Master of the Short Story” Alice Munro, near her Ontario home.

Shot on assignment for TIME.


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Of Redemption: Remembering Francis Penashue

Penashue Camp, Lake Minnipi, 1996. Francis Penashue lolls on the floor of his tent playing with his grandchildren while his wife Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue prepares a meal of fresh duck and bannock on their home-made wood stove. The Penashues spend several months a year in the bush reclaiming their traditional Innu culture and passing it on to their children and grand-children.

It must have been about this time of the year, 24 years ago, when I met Francis Penashue, although I don’t actually remember our first encounter. I lived briefly with his family—in fact Francis’s father Matthew and partner and their grandson baby George Nuna—in the Mealy Mountains in the interior of Labrador, a place the Innu call Nitassinan, “Our Homeland”. I was intending to stay for only a few days, but became weather-bound for an additional week. It was 10 days that I can only regard as a privilege and that would tie me emotionally to that place and those people, affording me a perspective on the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, and change my life.

Actually I don’t remember Francis in that 1989 camp per se but, I can still have nightmares about the Francis of that era, for he terrified me. Perhaps Francis was not in the camp at that time because he could not escape the poison that held him in its grip in the village. In those days, and for years before and some after, alcohol was his demon and he raged against it and the circumstances that drew him back to it again and again. No one was too young or too strong to escape his wrath, least of all his little kids or his wife, Tshaukuesh, and certainly no young white man with a camera and a big city attitude. I must have embodied everything he hated. For Francis was part of that lost generation of children wrenched from their families and beaten into submission in the residential schools, though in Francis’s case it was not technically a residential school, but the now notorious Mount Cashel orphanage on the island of Newfoundland. “Kill the Indian in the child” was Canada’s official policy in those years.

In the years that followed our first meeting, Francis beat back those demons into some form of recovery. I would stay again with his family in bush camps, but those times, he would be there, the dedicated father, adoring grandfather, sharing with family the traditional knowledge of how to live off the land, knowledge that he had acquired in his earliest years from his elders in the bush camps he was born and raised in. Francis’s sons became hunters and many of their children still know how to live off of and in harmony with the land. For that, Francis must have started to recover pride. Francis and Tshaukuesh’s tent became the heart of those bush encampments. By this time, the little children were no longer afraid of Francis, and there was a constant coming and going of little feet through the tent flap, both to savour Tshaukuesh’s partridge stew and to fill the balsam bow infused air with giggles.

In those latter years I knew him, we didn’t talk much, and he never spoke of the cruelty my kind must have inflicted on his child self, nor what of that he passed on to others. And after having my language forced upon him, why would he have wanted to use it to share such pain with me? Thereafter, Francis chose to speak mostly Innuemun as far as I know. That he rose above such deserved hate of my kind to condescend to sharing not only my company but the presence of my camera was huge for me personally. And so, like his children and grandchildren I learned by watching.

That was 1996, and I think Francis then was still struggling with remorse. I would like to think that—as later pictures and stories would indicate—Francis found some redemption in the role that he earned as elder and, along with Tshaukuesh, leaders of their people. It was a valiant thing he did—no mean feat of sobriety and wholeness in a social milieu then still highly compromised by multigenerational alcoholism. Many of his generation could not win that battle and succumbed to accidents, poisoning, suicide… indeed are succumbing still as are many their children and grandchildren. But Francis was evidence that the government, a succession of my governments—those groups of democratically elected Canadians who cynical legislation, with the blunt force of violence and with the careless failure to protect the people in its charge from mercury, carcinogens and other toxins into their food, water and air…  Canadian governments that are still trying to deprive the First Peoples of their rights, autonomy and  land—that they could not, cannot, “kill the Indian in the child”.

Earlier this morning CBC Radio journalist and producer Marie Wadden, who has written books about Francis Penashue’s journey, wrote of his final one, that it was Lou Gehrig’s disease that put an end to his life. Release from the tyranny of that disease is, I  guess, some sort of blessing. Last evening Francis was removed from the hospital and brought out to spend his final minutes laying in the fragrance of spruce bows of a white canvas tent, cozy with wood fire—home—surrounded by a circle of 200 loving family and friends. To me, that is evidence enough of his redemption, and that redemption is possible, proof to all of us of the importance of sticking to our moral compasses, of keeping trying. One can only hope to have the strength and bravery to do such work, and when our times come, to be so lucky.

To Tshaukuesh, Peter, Max, Bart, Jack, Gervais, Robert, Freddie, Angela and Kanani, and your children and grandchildren, I am so sorry for your loss.



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Adventures in iPhoneography – A Series: Part 1 — The Ground Rules

A.    Transparency re. Gear etc.

1.    Not that I expect anyone to offer them, but just to be clear, I will not accept freebees. I have been, and will continue to be, purchasing whatever apps or hardware I mention unless they are freely available to everyone, e.g. as a free app through an Apple App Store Account.

2.     I will not accept gratuity or payment to shill for manufacturers and code-authors.

3.     I will not  inflate, conflate, or hype my discoveries, nor squelch my criticism.

4.     From time to time I may query a company or developer from a support-need perspective, and I will share with readers the upshot of that as well.

5.     If something changes and a company or developer loans me hardware or software/apps, or sends me something to beta-test, I’ll let readers know right up front before I start writing about it.

6.     Loaning me gear, apps or web space will be no guarantee that I will mention/review it in this blog or elsewhere in the social-media-sphere, nor conversely will it afford the loaner any protection from honest critique or opinion. As I have said elsewhere I have no spare time to waste on something redundant with a competing device or app that already is giving me what need.


There are always rules....

There are always rules….

B.    Image Integrity

1.     Whereas I’m starting to notice that a number of well-known photographers have begun to insert photographs (including some very well known images) that were originally made with conventional film or digital cameras into smartphoneography contexts such as Instagram and Web.Stagram, any of my own images used in this series will be true iPhoneographs (SmartPhoneographs) made only with smart phones.

2.     To that end, any image tagged or otherwise identified with terms like #iphoneonly or #smartphoneonly, will indeed have been captured and edited only with a smart phone.

3.     Photojournalistic Veracity:

Truth is a slippery subject and ever slipperier for photographs in the digital era. I do not believe that absolute truth is possible in photojournalism any more than absolute truth or objectivity attainable in journalism in general. Truth is however aspirational and in a journalistic context an aspiration that is not only highly desirable, but essential. In that context it is incumbent upon those representing their work (be it text, photographs, video, or even smartphoneographs) as journalistic that they aim to represent a situation or a moment with as much accuracy—as much veracity—as possible, to report with as much objectivity as is humanly possible and to provide balanced representation where possible, duly noting its shortcomings. To that end:

a.    Notwithstanding my background as a photojournalist and photo documentarian, as it seems to be a part of the culture of iPhoneography that I am venturing into to mess with filters and aesthetic effects, and as I want to keep as open a mind as possible, I will give myself the license to play with these things, potentially altering the straight images. No such images will be represented as being photojournalistic.

b.    To wit, where an image is being represented as photojournalistic or purely documentary or in such a context, I will not indulge in the use of filters or aesthetic effects beyond that which would be considered as acceptable digital darkroom technique (eg. cropping, minor dodging and burning, neutral colour balance) in a photojournalistic context. In this context also all textual elements will be factually accurate, to the best of my knowledge.

C.     Additions or Alterations to these rules

Any additions or alterations to this set of rules will be posted in a timely fashion as this series progresses as well as in dated updates right here in this “ground rules” post.

Probable Next Post: Part 2: Quest for a camera app


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Adventures in iPhoneography – A Series: Flirtations, An Intro

I’m going to be teaming up with “misadventure” travel writer Kirsten Koza next July to co-host a workshop in Kirgizstan for travel writers and photographers. Due to one of her hilarious misadventures, Kirsten (an accomplished travel photographer in her own right) came to find herself in need of a new camera. When our recent kitchen-table conversation wandered perilously near the brink of that mud-pit that photographers are apt fall into, gear talk, I was reluctant to go there and exclaimed that ‘even if people travelled only with their iPhones, we could have an incredible adventure and they could make great photographs…’ the insinuation being that Kirsten—who’d been texting moments before—was already holding her next camera in her hand. After all, it is not so much about the tool as the yey and how one uses what tool one has at hand to tell the story, and the content itself… or so it is said.

To my suggestion, lets say Kirsten’s guffaw was tad dismissive. Nevertheless it got me thinking more about my own ancient 4-year-old iPhone 3Gs with its dinky 3.2 Mega-Pixel pinhole sized sensor. Frankly I’ve ignored it, and surrounded as I usually am by an arsenal of pro-gear, I’d come to regard mine as a piece of crap really. Generating highly compressed jpgs 2047 x 1536 pixels, it wasn’t totally useless of course, just mostly useless for anything other than acting as a visual note taking device.

Or was it?

A few days later I began to explore what I could do with just that device. It would be a challenge: could I make it into a useful tool?


Starting out on her own in the evening.

Looking Ahead
One of the first times when I consciously made a iPhoneograph rather than a quick visual note… just a straight shot, nothing done to it but cropped square, just like my old Kodak Instamatic, and my Hasselblad


After some more unsuccessful mucking about, the first thing I went looking for on the interweb were the experiences of other pros. I found many corporate reviewers and amateur photography bloggers, but very little from the keyboards of my peers. (Not to say they’re not there but I haven’t found them.) Most of what I found was gear talk, for in afterglow of the dawning of this new image medium a whole new industry of apps and gizmos has spring up to augment the humble iPhone camera and its competitors.

This got me thinking about this rambling old blog of mine. I am a photographer; it is time again to write about photography… at least a little more often. So in a coming series of blog posts I’ll be sharing trials, tribulations and triumphs from summary gleanings to technical minutia.

Along the way we’ll look at the role of camera-phones in the lives of professional photographers, revisit the Instagram debate (perhaps you didn’t even know there was one… hopefully I can advance it a little), view a bunch of neat examples of others that I’ve begun discovering, maybe play with a bunch of apps, take a quick look at the history, culture, ethics and industry of iPhoneography (or its generic term “Mobile Photography”), try to build an efficient workflow and see where all this leads. After all, I’m still not very far along this journey.

I will try to keep my posts brief  and pithy (hopefully this will be by-far my longest one) to leave people time to indulge in their own adventures, should they choose to undertake them. I’m anxious to get on with it myself and will not experiment with many of the possibilities if they do not seem likely to be useful. I don’t expect this to be a long series. It will not be a review of the 5, 10, 30, 100 best apps for the iPhone. It will however be iPhone-centric as that is the device I already own. I’ll try to curate the essentials both of what I’ve discovered and what I’ve experienced.

Feedback from abject argument to affirmation is most welcome. Perhaps you’ll give me better questions to ask, quandaries to mull, or mysteries to investigate.

Next post: “Finding the Love”Whoa Peter…Don’t jump to conclusions… first things first… Next post: The Ground Rules


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A tribute to the late Josef Riche

I am just catching up on the terrible news of the tragic loss of my old friend Josef Riche, former Grand Chief of the Innu Nation, by drowning hypothermia a couple of days ago. Back in the 1980s and 90s, as I struggled to make images of his even more struggling community, Josef often had kind words of encouragement, advice and  humour. His kitchen could be a place of refuge.

While it has been many years since we spoke, it was clear even twenty years ago when I photographed his wedding (on what was then a very happy day-above) that he might very well someday become the wise and great leader for his people that he is now being recognized  to have become by such notable admirers,  as Newfoundland’s Premier, Kathy Dunderdale.  One can hear one of Josef’s historic speeches on CBC’s Labrador Morning tribute to Josef. If you know anything about Innu history, or indeed that of the First Peoples of this land, it should break your heart.

To Josef’s family and the people of the Innu Nation, my heart goes out to you all. I will remember Josef for his kind and generous spirit.


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