This image has been widely used as visual shorthand for the flood of immigration in Western Canada. We see it small in textbooks, or Wikipedia entries, but as with all things about our history, once you zoom in and personalize it, it resonates more.
As a photographer here in Winnipeg, I've spent over 20 years looking at our faces, finding the stories.
Zoom in...see the children in the front row: a whole book could be written on the brother and sister in the very front! The warm embrace four rows back, of one friend to another as they set off to that plot of land in the Interlake they've been promised.
I sit here warm and cozy in February and look at the scarves, the furry collars on wool coats, imagine the long train ride and shiver. This being Winnipeg, you probably know someone who's claiming their great-grandpa is that guy holding the box of Harvest bread. Whether it's true or not? Look hard at this photo and you see men who've given up everything to come over to this wild, strange, and cold land and make something better for themselves and their families back home. But you also see hope.
In my mind's eye...I see Foote standing on a rickety wooden luggage wagon, pushed out to the train by a couple of porters. He's under the cloth, focusing a big clunky 4X5 camera on a tripod.
A translator stands in front of the wagon, explaining to all in Ukrainian or German or Hungarian that they all have to have a photo taken to represent the process of immigration for a story in the newspaper and they must stand very still for the exposure.
Foote blows on his bare hands, cold from handling the gear, as he cocks the shutter and pulls the dark slide. Grabbing the cable release he tells the translator it's time. The translator yells louder: this is the time to stand very still and look at the camera. Foote looks out in the sea of faces, gauges when it's time and gently presses the cable release for the 1/2 of a second. Of course that one guy, there is always ONE guy, moves during the exposure. Foote shrugs, no time to do another, he's already late for the next job. He replaces the dark slide and gives the translator a little nod.
As Foote packs up, everyone files past the wagon silently.
I see this photo happening this way, vividly, because I've done big shots like this (in fact, I’m shooting a 240 person group shot this week!). I've also worked with the essentially the same camera, the 4X5.
As well, a few years ago I captured the same moment for the Province of Manitoba, promoting immigration. A family of four from Ghana rather than a sea of white faces, this time at the airport instead of the train station, but in the eyes, the same hope for a better life.
- Ian McCausland
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Ian McCausland has been a commercial photographer in Winnipeg since 1988. He lives in St James with his wife and son. His website is http://www.ian.ca/ and his blog is http://www.ian.mb.ca/.