Requiem for a friend, and mentor

We all have mentors. They’re the people who show us the way, whether they know it or not.
Mine was Ron Kuzyk. He was a steelworker and a hell of a photojournalist who worked the weekend shift we came to share for a stretch at the Burlington Post, where I started my career.
Ron passed away this week.

In 1984, I was just out of journalism school and determined to use a camera as my storytelling tool of choice. Circumstances that summer connected me to George Tansley, then the chief photographer at the Post. He said he could offer me some shifts to relieve his weekend guy who spent his weekdays working at Stelco and sometimes needed a break from the grind.

That guy was Ron.

We probably first met in the studio/darkroom one of those weekends; he was likely passing through to collect something, and I was probably trying to figure out how I too could get some of the great shots that were printed and hung on the walls of the studio and down the hall outside it. I particularly remember a colour wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence, arms and leg splayed out; I loved that photo.

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My friend, and mentor, Ron Kuzyk, was the king of the silhouette. He loved shooting them, even as editors told him they needed to see faces in the newspaper. Of course, when Ron came back from an assignment with one of his beautiful silhouettes, it inevitably ran in the paper, usually on the front page.

Of course it, and many of the others, was shot by Ron.

Especially the sports.

I knew I wanted to be able to shoot sports like Ron.

He could capture peak action like nobody’s business, but he also had a keen eye for those quiet moments, like the kid stealing a glance back at his coach, the consoling hand on a player’s shoulder, the goofiness of 5 year-old t-ballers.

And, amazingly, he didn’t need big time pro athletes or glorious bright arena lighting to get his great sports photos. He made them in dark high school gyms, dusty sandlot baseball diamonds and pocked minor soccer pitches.

Over the course of that summer, as Ron and I crossed paths, we became buddies. He encouraged me, talked me through the frustrations of learning how to shoot with the Hasselblad because the big colour transparencies made for better front page colour reproduction. But mostly he showed me the way with his eye and his instincts.

Whenever I had the chance, I studied his contact sheets, checked out his prints, paid attention to his byline (although, by the second week I was already pretty good at spotting a Ron shot in the paper), and when my shooting shifts came, I distilled what I learned to get in the right position for a good baseball shot, look all around at a spot news scene to find that storytelling moment, seek out a fun juxtaposition at a community event.

When I happened to be in the darkroom and he popped by for a studio shot, I studied how he set up the lights and, more importantly, how he made his subjects feel at ease, joked with them, broke through their guard to find something that captured the story they were there to tell.

Ron was the most natural, instinctual photojournalist I ever met. More importantly, he was also the most fun. Because as much as we liked to bitch about shooting pet of the week or real estate features, as much as the repetitiveness of shooting the same cycle of community events year after year wore down your creativity, he really got a kick out of his job, and that joy came through in every one of his frames (well maybe not the photos of used cars for dealer ads).

The next summer, all the lessons I’d absorbed from Ron paid off when I landed a full-time gig at Oshawa This Week.

On the weekends I wasn’t working, I often came back to Burlington to visit my family and hang with Ron. Usually over beers, sometimes in the vicinity of naked women dancing on stages. We kibitzed and kvetched as professional colleagues. We also complained, because that’s what journalists do when we get together (oh, if only we knew then what was coming for our industry, for our profession…)

But when Ron finally made the decision to cut his ties — and the big paycheque — to Stelco, he was over the moon with delight, thrilled to be working full-time at his passion even if it meant keeping his heap blue car that smelled like an ashtray on the road a little longer.

There were often adventures on those weekends, usually involving Post sports reporters Kevin Nagel, Dave Rashford and Tim Whitnell as well; road hockey in the back parking lot on New Street, some ice hockey games, the annual Metroland slo-pitch tournament, a concert or two.

When a group of us bought a tournament package for the 1987 Canada Cup series, Ron somehow managed to get photo accreditation for the climactic final so when Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and the rest of that amazing Canadian team were celebrating their victory on the ice at Copp’s Coliseum, we were peering through our binoculars from the upper deck at Ron sliding around working the scrums. Oh yeah, he scored an amazing photo of the two superstars celebrating, jumping into each other’s arms behind the net in his corner. Like I said, Ron had great instincts for timing.

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Ron Kuzyk and a great love, and eye, for shooting sports. He also had that innate instinct for being in the right place at the right time with the right lens. Oh yeah, and also for finagalling accreditation for bigtime events even though he worked for a community paper.

When I headed west in 1991, our contact became more sporadic.

He came out once, riding shotgun in his brother’s big rig. I drove him around, showing him my new turf, including a bar or two that may or may not have had a brass pole. I think the motel in Port Coquitlam where he stayed burned down shortly after his visit.

Again with the timing.

When I was home for a visit, we’d go for beers or lunch and shoot the shit about old times, compare notes about our current situations.

But I’ve always felt Ron’s guiding hand, tried to follow his eye, even as I forged my own path as a community photojournalist.

I know the changes to our industry weren’t easy for Ron. He was old-school, driven to get the shot and to hell with all the bullshit of the business.

After he left the Post, we caught up a few times on my visits back to Ontario. I think one of those times I managed to tell him how much impact he’d had on my own career, how those early exchanges in the Post studio set me on my path.

We also tried connecting on social media, but Ron was never one for the Facebook, unless he was trading/peddling his vinyl records. I think he Tweetered about 12 times.

But even as our contact waned, Ron was often in my thoughts. He’s the reason I park myself about three metres back of first base at a baseball game so I can reach second base for a steal or double play, but also can grab a close play at first. He’s the reason I sit instead of stand at the touchline of a soccer match because that means a cleaner background. He’s the reason I keep my eye on the bench near the end of a big game as much as on the playing arena. He’s the reason I’m still trying to emulate that great wintry silhouette of a kid balancing on a fence.

Thanks Ron, my friend. RIP

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Coquitlam’s Junior Firefighting program an adrenalin-pumping sampler

While their friends have been soaking up the sunshine and catching their breath for the final push to the end of the school year, a dozen students from SD43 high schools spent the first half of their spring break learning the challenges of being a firefighter.
The pulled heavy hoses and rolled them up. They compressed the chest of a dummy while practising CPR. They cut open a car with high-power tools. They dangled from the end of ropes, rappelling from the four-storey training tower at the main Coquitlam fire hall.
The students were participating in Coquitlam Fire and Rescue’s first Junior Firefighting program that wrapped up Friday with a showcase for parents and family members of the skills they learned through the eight days prior.
And those weren’t inconsiderable, said deputy fire chief Rod Gill, who helped organize the program.
“They’re packing about eight weeks of the recruit program into eight straight days,” he said, adding the participants weren’t given a weekend break so they wouldn’t forget some of the things they were taught.
Gill said the program is a bit of a sampler of everything a firefighter might be expected to do, from routine tasks to adrenalin-pumping high-angle rescues.
“It’s about giving the students a chance to see what it’s like to be a firefighter.”
Gill said the students invited to participate had to first pass a rigorous application process that included letters of reference, a transcript of their school marks and volunteer activities, as well as an interview.
“We want to see they’re motivated,” he said.
And while one of the goals of the program is to help attract a more diverse population to a firefighting career, Gill said only time will tell if this inaugural cohort that included several young women, will follow through.
“It’s kind of a jumping-off point,” he said. “This is a perfect opportunity to see if this is something they want to do.”

Canoe a symbol of reconciliation

I had the opportunity to cover a special traditional dedication ceremony for a canoe to be installed at the Kwikwetlem First Nation’s new Healing Spirit House on the Riverview Lands, a provincial mental health facility.

The Kwikwetlem First Nation, along with representatives from the provincial government, dedicated a canoe at the Healing Spirit House in Coquitlam’s Riverview lands on Tuesday. The hand-carved ocean-going canoe will be installed permanently in the facility’s gymnasium, as a symbol of reconciliation with the province.

“In our view, reconciliation goes two ways,” Kwikwetlem First Nations chief Ron Giesbrecht said. “The province has demonstrated a willingness to work with KFN to right the wrongs of the past and dedication of this KFN canoe for display at the Healing Spirit House is our way of showing appreciation for our new relationship with the province.”

The Healing Spirit House will have 38 beds available for First Nations’ youth experiencing mental health issues by providing a welcoming and positive environment to allow them to heal.

Game day

The local junior hockey team recently scheduled an afternoon game on a weekday to accommodate a promotion to attract school kids and seniors to the arena.

I could have gone and just shot a period of action and been done with it. But this presented a rare opportunity to do a little more storytelling. So I arranged for all-access about an hour before game time so I could tell the story of what goes on in that hour leading up to the opening face-off.

Requiem for a rematch

The local high school football season ended Saturday.

What was supposed to be a titanic rematch between opponents from last year’s provincial championship game, that was decided on the last play of the game, turned into a bit of a dud, as the defending champions earned the opportunity to defend their title by defeating their challengers, 33-0, in the semi-final.

Here’s how the game looked.

 

Ride for mud & glory

I love shooting cyclocross. Especially if the weather is bleak. That just makes the muck much more epic.

Leaden skies and rain might mean the end of summer. But for cyclocross racers, the fun is just beginning.
The Vancouver Cyclocross coalition kicked off its season of nine races in the Lower Mainland Saturday with the annual Donkey Cross at Castle Park in Port Coquitlam.
Cyclocross is where road riders go to wallow in the mud.
It was started in the early 1900s in northern Europe as a way for road racers to stay fit as their summer season wound down. The cyclists would challenge each other to race to the next town or village in Belgium, France or the Netherlands and they were allowed any route to achieve their destination. That often meant traversing muddy farmer’s fields, skittering along narrow dirt trails, hopping fences.
By 1924, cyclocross had become a recognized cycling discipline when the sport’s first international competition, Le Criterium International de Cross-Country Cyclo-Pédestre, was held in Paris. But the sport wasn’t officially sanctioned by cycling’s governing authority, the Union Cycliste Internationale until the 1940s and the first world championship was staged in Paris in 1950.
A cyclocross race is usually contested on a tight, twisty route that includes several obstacles and challenges that forces participants to carry their bikes, over a barrier or up a steep, slippery hill. Saturday’s event included races for kids, youth, novices, masters and elite men and women.

How cycling makes me a better journalist

I’ve been a journalist for more than 34 years, a cyclist a little longer.
At some level, the two pursuits have always intertwined.
It was during summer break after my first year of journalism school I bought my first real road bike, a Raleigh.
After graduating and landing a job, I upgraded to a beautiful Italian roadster with Campagnolo components.
When I headed west and got another gig, I rewarded myself with another road bike customized with components I selected myself.
Over the years, I’ve done many cycling stories, from ride-alongs with the bike squads of various police departments and an outreach worker for a homeless shelter, to training with a peloton of first responders preparing for a week-long fundraising ride. I rode the track at the Burnaby Velodrome after doing a story about its fight for survival.
I’ve written and photographed stories about cyclists using their passion to try to change the world, cyclists who commute, cyclists who pedal to seemingly impossible destinations like the far North in the middle of winter.
I’ve covered stories about local pros and some who want to get there. I’ve covered bike races and trike races and even — for a time — a local bike festival that’s since morphed to a community street party.

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I’d like to say i completely planned this photo from the PoCo Grand Prix, but the truth is it was a lucky frame I had no idea I had until I downloaded the memory card.

I’ve helped countless cyclists get the word out about their charitable efforts, riding to raise money for cancer research, Parkinson’s, a friend or group in need.

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A local group of volunteers getting used sports equipment, including bikes, ready to sell to raise money for KidSport.

One afternoon, I got a call about an elderly gentleman whose bike was stolen from his garage, a bike he’d possessed for years and had actually ridden across the country to visit his daughter. Of course I’ll tell his story and maybe help get his bike back. He did.
Even when I’m not telling stories about cyclists, I like to think my own passion for cycling has aided and abetted my storytelling.
Knowing local roads as a cyclist has gotten me closer to newsworthy scenes than some of my media colleagues.

Mario Bartel photojournalist storyteller
Knowing the local roads I’d ridden my bike on got me a parking spot closer to the scene of an anti-pipeline protest on Burnaby Mountain than most of my media colleagues.

And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen something on a ride, like a new store, an unusual sign, or even a notice taped to light standard, that later became fodder for a story or a photo op, either by myself or passed on to a colleague.

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When I needed to get a shot to illustrate the poor quality of air, I immediately thought of this spot along a popular riverfront bike trail that usually offers an expansive view of a nearby mountain range now obscured by smoke and haze. I’ve ridden this very trail many times.

Cycling forces you to look at the world at a slower pace. Riding with your head up allows you to notice things you might not otherwise see speeding past in a car or loping nearby with your head down looking at your feet.
Cycling enables your curiosity, allows you the luxury of thought. Many a lede — and sometimes the arc of whole stories — have been written in my head while on a bike.
But there is one thing cycling has not facilitated in my career as a journalist; lugging camera gear and the need to get to breaking news scenes quickly, or assignments on the far side of town efficiently, means I need a car for work.

Night racers

BC Superweek is Canada’s largest, most prestigious series of pro bike races. Over the course of a week, riders from as far away as Germany and New Zealand converge in Metro Vancouver for nine races, most of them criteriums around tight, fast city courses.

This year’s PoCo Grand Prix was the first time the racers did their thing in the fading light of twilight and, for the men’s race, darkness.

The Friday-night party vibe around the course and the city’s central square was unrivaled, and the racers put on a great show, even if it was hard to see in the growing gloom.

Mudflats a deceptive danger

Apparently some people like wandering onto mudflats when the tide is out. It’s not a good idea. Here’s the story and photos I filed for The Tri-City News of rescue training on the mudflats of Port Moody Inlet by the Port Moody Fire Department.

It took just three steps for Rob Suzukovich to become hopelessly, and helplessly, stuck in the mudflats at the eastern end of Port Moody Inlet.
Fortunately, he’s a Port Moody fire captain who was taking part in a training exercise Thursday to give the city’s firefighters some practice extricating people who’ve wandered off the shoreline and into the heavy muck at low tide.
Port Moody fire chief Ron Coulson said that happens about twice a year.
He said the easy access to the flats from nearby trails, and the proximity of lots of residents and visitors to the city who may not be aware of the dangers of the mudflats make it imperative his crews keep their skills fresh.
He said the mudflats can be deceiving because when the tide is low they look no different than a soggy beach. But the mud is heavy with organic material and so saturated with water it creates an instant vacuum when unwary visitors step into it. That’s when the trouble starts.
“The harder you work to get out, you just sink deeper,” said Coulson of the process called liquefaction.
He said anyone who gets stuck in the ooze should stay calm until help arrives.
That help includes firefighters equipped with special plastic overshoes they strap onto their boots that allows them to walk on top of the muddy surface. They’ll also carry a spare pair of the overshoes for their victim, as well as a spinal board to provide a solid surface once that victim is extricated.
A high-power water pressure gun attached to 1.25-inch hoseline allows the firefighters to blast muck away from the victims legs, replacing it with water so they can be pulled out easier.
Suzokovich said the suction was immediate and overpowering.
“It’s very deceiving,” he said.
Coulson said visitors need to respect the signs warning them to stay off the mudflats at low tide.
“They don’t realize the danger,” he said. “And if the tide comes in, it can quickly turn tragic.”

The thrill of victory

Photographing a championship game at any level is like covering a 90-minute trailer leading up to the fleeting feature. It’s all about the “jubo.”
With so much at stake in a winner-take-all finale, the action is bound to be intense. So is the emotion.
Capturing the former is a given. Shooting the latter is usually the product of intuition, positioning and having the players turn your way.
At the BC High School AAA senior girls soccer championship on Friday, the local team I was there to cover dominated the run of player over a younger, upstart underdog. But they couldn’t score.
The match went into overtime, scoreless.
I knew I had some good action in the camera, so with a few minutes left before the match would go to penalty kicks, I moved from my usual position behind the end touch line to a spot along the sideline near midfield.
One goal by either team would be decisive, releasing a season’s worth of emotion, on the pitch as well as the bench, and being on the sideline near the team benches put me in a better position to capture that. (Plus I wouldn’t have to walk as far if the match went to a penalty kick shootout, which usually happens at one end of the field or the other.)
And sure enough, when a player from the team I was covering squeaked a shot through the legs of the opposing goalkeeper in the last two minutes of the second overtime half, she turned back towards her teammates running towards her, all their faces alight with joy, excitement and exultation. The despairing opponent in the background was just a lucky coincidence.