Tony Fouhse Q & A
with Tony Fouhse

Interview by Ren Tomovcik
(Photo by Magida El-Kassis)

Award-winning photographer Tony Fouhse stops in to chat about Ottawa, photography, inspiration, and his latest exhibit, USER.
Tony Fouhse has been photographing the capital city and its inhabitants for over three decades, yet he is always discovering new perspectives.  This year, he made headlines with USER, a series of poignant images of drug addicts in Ottawa's Lowertown. 

USER is a bold, thought-provoking exhibit in portrait photography, challenging Ottawa's squeaky-clean image while putting a human face on on a marginalized social group.  The exhibit, which has travelled through Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal, has provoked reactions ranging from anger to tears, but the haunting, emotional images have definitely left an impression...

Tony, USER has caused quite a stir this year...The images you captured are challenging the perception of Ottawa as a picture-perfect, pristine tourist city and exposing some of the capital's underbelly.  How did you come up with the idea for this series?

The fact that I ended up photographing crack addicts is a fluke.  It's a long story, one that involves me needing to shoot for an upcoming exhibition, wanting to shoot it in Morocco, getting deathly ill, almost dying and having, in the end, to shoot in Ottawa. 

I knew I wanted to work with strangers at dusk.  I wanted to set them up into scenarios and photograph that. The first half dozen places I went, I didn't like the results.  Out of desperation, I ended up on the corner of Cumberland and Murray Streets, where I knew that people  - addicts - were always hanging around.  I set up the gear, waited,  and nothing happened, except some suspicion on the addicts' part. 

I was just putting the gear back in the car to try another place when this addict, Archie, came up to me and asked, "Are you looking for a subject?"  That's exactly what I was looking for.  I shot him and 3 other people that first night.  I really liked the results, and USER was born.

Your portraiture feels deeply personal, which is why it's so emotionally evocative.  How do you build such an intimate relationship with your subjects? 
I try to treat everyone I photograph the same.  In my line of work I meet Prime Ministers, ambassadors, CEOs, kids, mothers, street sweepers.  You name it.  One subject recently asked me: "Who is the most interesting person you've ever photographed?"  I told him: "You are.  Because you're here now and we're two people trying to make something interesting." 

Then I went on to tell him that within a week I wouldn't remember too much about him, but, while we were both there (here and now) what's the point of not being interested?  As well, I really believe that people instinctively know if you're being honest with them, or not. So I try to be as honest as possible. 

Tony Fouhse - Bubbles Tony Fouhse - Jessica and Melissa
Tony Fouhse
[click on images to enlarge]

Tony Fouhse - Morgan Tony Fouhse - Tracey

Would you expect the viewer to change their perspective on the city they live in, and the people in it, after seeing the images in USER?I have no expectations, all I'm trying to do with my work is to have experiences and encounters. If there's any art to what I do, it's that.  The photographs are merely a record of those experiences and encounters.  I never follow my work around and tell people how to react. Having said that, one of the most common responses I get to USER is people telling me that the images have changed the way they'll look at addicts.

If you were describing Ottawa in just a few words for someone who had never been here, what would you say about our city?I'd say that there is an odour of bureaucracy that hangs over it.  But, if you can get past that, it's as interesting as any other place.

You began photographing Ottawa more than 30 years ago.  Do you think that things have changed significantly in the capital?Ottawa, at least the parts where I hang, is definitely becoming more urban, which I believe is a good thing.  Better restaurants, more cultural diversity, better art.....more choice in general. 

Where in the city do you go when you're looking for some creative inspiration?Anywhere will do, it's all in your head.

Who is currently inspiring you?Ottawa photographer Darren Holmes' work blows my mind.  It doesn't directly inspire me, because it's so different from the work I do, but his approach and sensibility are a sight to behold.  Globally, there are many:  Roger Ballen, Alejandro Chaskielberg, Vanessa Winship, Simon Norfolk...

As a photographer who is gaining international renown, you have become an inspiration for emerging artists.  What advice would you give to a photographer who is just starting out?If you want to be a photographer you have to take pictures.  Lots of pictures. Not just once in a while.  All the time. You need to be consumed by their creation.


USER is currently on display at the IPS Gallery in Montreal.

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