Interview with Amanda McNaughton
Using her camera as a time machine, Amanda McNaughton (Ontario, 1988) shows what North America looked like two hundred years ago. In her pictures, we discover the roles developed by the British Empire, the United States of America, and Native Americans, and the overpowering meeting of all three groups in the New World.
But it’s not just documenting the re-enacting of Canada’s past that captured our interest in Amanda’s work. In a deeper way, we noticed a unique mood on her pictures; an empathic way of dealing with animals – especially captured in Among the Horses – that demonstrated a true personal vision.
Perhaps it’s the fact that she’s studied on the both sides of the Atlantic (BFA in Photographic Study from Ryerson University, Toronto, with a semester studying at Napier University, Edinburgh) that has enabled her ability to convey a new way of looking at the natural world.
GFM. How did you start photography?
AMC. I had been playing with photography in high school for about a year before my path shifted toward a career in photography. In my hometown, I was lucky enough to have an impassioned art/photography teacher – Mr. Ciaran Murray – who maintained a six enlarger darkroom in our small space. I took to the practice of photography naturally, though without any real intentions for future endeavours. It was during the summer following this first year of darkroom experimentation that my family decided to take a driving trip down a small portion of the Pacific coast. I took my camera along on the excursion and passed the time snapping away at the simple beauties that befell me. I vividly remember sitting on a wooden bench outside of the photo lab of my local shopping mall a week after my return as I greedily devoured the 4×6 prints. As I sifted through the shots, I remember saying aloud: “This is what I’m going to do. This is it. I’m going to be a Photographer.” It was a very exciting moment for me and I’ve never looked back.
GFM. On Among the Horses is there any special reason for choosing horses as a subject?
AMC. I conceptualized Among the Horses to meet the thesis requirements for my BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) at Ryerson. Despite living in a large city like Toronto, it was important for me to follow my instincts and continue pursuing nature photography. Once I made the decision to photograph wildlife, or as close to ‘wild’ as possible, I began to research horses. In my youth, I had taken riding lessons for some time and had found horses to be an incredible species; intuitive, honest, strong, and captivating. As experts on the species, Horse Whisperers often point out that our fascination with horses comes from their manner of communication; physical actions are how horses speak to one another, not words with hidden meanings. By communicating through visual cues, they show us exactly how they feel in that moment. Horses, unlike humans, do not lie. The act of chewing, for example, displays submission, or when a bond of trust has been formed between two companions, a horse will naturally follow behind the shoulder of its partner (be it horse or human). In the end, it was this social connectivity that drew me to photograph them and what makes the photographs so successful.
I remember saying aloud: This is what I’m going to do. This is it. I’m going to be a Photographer.”
GFM. Which are the biggest challenges in working with animals?
AMC. There are always a wide variety of challenges to overcome when working with animals. I believe the best way to work through those challenges is to immerse yourself in behavioral and environmental studies of the species with which you are working. As I prepared for Among the Horses, I spent a great deal of time learning about horse behavior from a variety of perspectives. Given that the project began with a trip to Little Book Cliff’s Wildlife Reserve in Colorado, USA, I also took the time to absorb as much information as I could about orienteering and wilderness survival. The natural environment is often fifty percent of the challenge when shooting with animals. Snow storms, power shortages, and heavy rain are just some of the circumstances for which you must be prepared.
With horses especially, the main challenge I faced was my own habits. As I mentioned earlier, understanding the unique characteristics of an animal is crucial. Due to the fact that horses are prey animals, they interact and react in ways that are very different from predators. To put it bluntly, human instincts are often the worst things to rely on when it comes to approaching a vulnerable animal. For example, when approaching a horse, one would think that the best strategy would be to move toward it slowly in a quiet and direct fashion. In reality, this is the behaviour of their natural predators and would immediately put them on edge. Instead, I needed to act like prey by making constant noise and walking casually in an arc-like path. Once I learned how to change over to the prey mindset and appeared to pose no threat to them, this was when the magic happened.
GFM. Can you tell me about “All the Queen’s Horses”
AMC. “All the Queen’s Horses” was a video piece I completed while interning at Canadian Geographic Magazine. It came about when the Web Editor mentioned that they had considered doing a highlight on the Musical Ride of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), which is a part of Canada’s cultural heritage. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. Given that I was working as an intern at the time, I was fortunate enough to have the resources and connections available to help the project flourish. I was permitted two days of access to Rockcliffe Stables in Ottawa (the training facilities for the RCMP’s Musical Ride Program) in order to photograph the daily operational activities. I was also approved to photograph Packenham Stables, the breeding facility for the horses used in the event. The project came to conclusion a public performance by the Musical Ride at Rockcliffe Stables. “All the Queen’s Horses” was the second video piece I made for Canadian Geographic. As I had only basic knowledge in video production, it took me a great deal of time to move from my first shot in the field to the final video sequence. It was the interview audio was the most difficult aspect of the project for me to work with, but thankfully I had already learned the basics of partnering sound and video from assembling an earlier video piece for Canadian Geographic titled “River Runners“ (2010).
GFM. About the Living History images. It seems you can go back 400 years with a DSLR camera, and show how it looked like. Do you consider it photojournalism, documental/historical photography, artistic portrait, both?
AMC. This is a brilliant question. The ability to ‘go back 400 years’ is what brought me to re-enactments (i.e. Living History) in the first place several years ago, but I never really thought very critically about what I was actually doing. I attempt to photograph in a way that is fluid, where each shot is a direct response to what I see and feel in front of me. Behind these images, I am also a participant in the event, capturing the unique moments as they occur and exploring the visual dynamic as it unfolds before me. I move within the space and do not “set-up” shots. In post-production, I try my best to adhere to the integrity of experience, which I believe is a crucial component of photojournalism. At the same time, however, I also focus in on individual re-enactors – their facial features, gestures, and dynamic in the space – which situates my work somewhere between photojournalism and artistic portrait. I am very inspired by the work of Yousuf Karsh, one of my first photographic loves, and I think I will always subconsciously gravitate toward his style of artistic portrait.
I try my best to adhere to the integrity of experience, which I believe is a crucial component of photojournalism”
GFM. What equipment do you use?
AMC. I try to stay minimal when I pack for a shoot. My standard kit includes the following: a Canon 7D, four SD cards, a wide angle 12-24mm Sigma lens, a 24-70mm Sigma portrait lens, a lens wipe, a spare battery, a rain sleeve (OptTech makes one that I love and it’s a lifesaver), and a tripod. Occasionally, I will also pack my Canon 580 EXII Flash and/or a telephoto lens depending on the site/situation in which I find myself. Alternatively, if I want to have the weekend “off” I will pack my Hasselblad 500C and a few rolls of 120mm film to play with new shots or perspectives.
GFM. Future projects?
AMC. On the cusp of this year’s re-enacting season, I am in the process of photographing and developing my Living History portfolios. This is an ongoing project that I intend to work on for some time to come. In the coming season, I will continue to focus on events throughout New York State, USA.
Moving forward, I plan to venture deeper into the world of wildlife photography. Entering its research phase, I am beginning a new project that focuses on wild wolves and I am very excited to get this promising (and long-term) project underway.
All images and text © Amanda McNaughton