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Martin Weinhold has embarked on a cross-country project to capture Canadians in the intimacy of their work environments. James Adams talks to the photographer about the journey so far

We reached Martin Weinhold by phone the other morning in Kindersley, a town, population 5,000, about 400 kilometres northwest of Regina. A few days before, he'd been in another Saskatchewan burg, La Ronge, located 400 km northeast of Saskatoon. If you'd wanted to find him in late April, say, or early May, you'd have had to call Baker Lake in Nunavut or Rankin Inlet.

Weinhold, 44, has been visiting places such as these (and points in between) across Canada on and off for the past 10 years. Hasselblad at the ready, he's been taking pictures, lots of them, on film, in lustrous black-and-white, of working Canadians of all stripes – capturing them in their work environments and close up and as they perform what he calls "gestures typical to their occupations." In essence, he explained, "it's like trying to condense, in a photographic series, something almost akin to a small documentary film."

On a more cosmic level, WorkSpace Canada, as Weinhold calls his largely self-financed project, represents nothing less than the attempt "to show the contemporary face of Canada, photographed in the very decade before the country's sesquicentennial." To date, he estimates he's completed what he terms "full portraits" of 500 individuals.

German-born, Berlin-based, educated at the University of the Arts there, Weinhold went with the WorkSpace moniker "because I'm really interested in the relation between the person and the respective work space. People are shaped by their environment, coined by the job they pursue," he said. Whether that surrounding space is a cubicle in a skyscraper, a supermarket or an expanse of prairie farmland, "I think I can read something of that in the faces. That's what I'm interested in when I take these photographs."

It hasn't been a point-and-shoot/grab-and-run job. "When people say, 'Oh, you can come in for an hour,' I don't go there; that doesn't do the trick for me." Weinhold, in fact, figures that, so far, he's spent an average of three and a half weeks in each of the communities he's visited – the Nunavut stay alone lasted almost a full month – "blending in," getting to know the space, the residents, making friends, finding the work peculiar to each region. Kindersley, Sask., for example, which he's now visited five times, is "good for agriculture, the oil industry, Hutterites." What's great about hanging out in Hutterite colonies is "they give me a chance to photograph crafts and trades that otherwise don't exist any more."

Weinhold originally thought he'd set the project in his native Germany. "But I seemed to be too close to my own society. There was always something in the way, perhaps my own biases." Germans tended to be suspicious, concerned about status, he said, "not as outgoing as Canadians or as easy to approach. Here, it's okay to be 'just' a truck driver." Germany also has the precedent of August Sander, the great Cologne photographer who, early in the 20th century, embarked on an encyclopedic documentary project, never completed, called People of the 20th Century. Noted Weinhold: "Canada is not as 'worked on' for a project like this; it's more like a pristine canvas."

"I think," he said with a laugh, "I'm partly Canadian now."

Weinhold plans on photographing in Alberta this summer, then, by the end of October, he'll have visited New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, thereby realizing his ambition to travel to every province for WorkSpace. (The only jurisdictions he'll not have visited will be Northwest Territories and Yukon.) Longer range, the plan – actually, the hope – is that this material eventually will be published in a large "portrait book," preferably in 2017. However, while Weinhold has had exhibitions here and abroad and earned the support of such well-known writers as Mark Kingwell and Sharon Butala, that publishing deal has remained stubbornly elusive. For the time being, he's concentrating on producing the photos and thinking maybe he may have to put them on an online platform before the book becomes a reality.

Ben Cleveland, truck driver

Truck terminal, Dixie Road, Mississauga. April, 2006

"Ben actually wanted to record his own country music but was working as a truck driver to get the necessary money for making a living. Eventually the side job became more and more important, as it required a lot of his time. Ben was working at the time from one of the huge truck terminals close to Pearson Airport, serving Ontario and Ontario/U.S. routes. His photographs are the ones according to the aesthetics that pursued in all the years later. WorkSpace Canada didn't exist as a project yet when I took his pictures. Ben was a test for an idea – without me knowing at this very moment that it would be a test. His positive attitude to his job made it easy for me to approach him with my idea. In fact he suggested that I would come to his workplace when we were meeting in the elevator of the apartment building where we both were living at this time."

Eve Egoyan, concert pianist

Toronto, 2006

"The photos are taken in her studio at the Darling Building, on Spadina Avenue. The studio space doesn't exist any more, as the building was sold a couple of years ago and all the artists had to leave for the rents they couldn't pay any more. She is actually rehearsing. She didn't know whether that would be possible, considering the distraction through my photography – the noise from the tungsten light fan, the mechanical shutter noise of the camera, me moving in the room. We both were happy and surprised that it worked, as neither of us wanted the situation as a fake."

Sam Zammito and Michael Premus, mechanics

Toronto Transit Commission, 2009

"Mike and Sam are working in the TTC maintenance store Harvey Shops. They are fixing an undercarriage of a streetcar. Mike is tightening the bolts with a torque handle. About 350 people are working in the Harvey Shops and take care of streetcar and bus repair and maintenance."

Eric Blok, motor hand

Champion Drilling Rig 01, Kindersley, Sask., 2010

"Eric is photographed after we spent about 10 hours on shift. There were no breaks for taking a portrait and he and his fellow workers on the rig told me that they would leave right after the 12-hour shift. The only chance for a portrait was when short breaks occurred during drills that went through more solid ground and therefore it took somewhat longer until the piping had to be changed. Eric started working on oil rigs right after high school in 2009. In 2010 he was 21 years of age."

Kanani André, teacher of traditional crafts

Sheshatshiu Innu School, Sheshatshiu, Nfld., 2010

"Kanani is teaching traditional crafts on a regular basis to various grades at the Sheshatshiu Innu School. She originally came from Sept-Îles to Sheshatshiu. French is her first foreign language, she is bilingual in French and Innu-aimun. It was her wish to wear the traditional clothing for the photos. She does wear them eventually during teaching days but not always. The picture of Kanani is taken right after class, in the course room for craft work."

Duncan Stewart, owner/operator,
Tweedsmuir Air Services

Nimpo Lake, B.C., 2011

"Duncan is operating a float-plane airline from Nimpo Lake. He is providing hunting camps with provisions and flying sports hunters in and out of these camps. The planes have to be completely changed inside for varying freight or passengers, sometimes even for every single flight. In the photograph he is actually debating whether they should first fly in beams of wood or keep the inside ready for flying out the meat and the moose heads from a particular hunting camp."

Elizabeth Shepherd, singer/pianist/composer

Toronto, 2011

"Elizabeth Shepherd is photographed after composing and rehearsing at her Toronto home. She had to do this quite a bit at this time as she had a baby daughter recently and was partly working with the baby on her lap."

Robert (Rob) Diether, community farmer

Horse Lake Community Farm Co-op, Lone Butte, B.C., 2011

"Rob is part of a group of people that founded a community farm. They were harvesting together, partly bringing kids and family along as it is an important event for everybody. The main crop during the two days when I took pictures were beets and carrots."

Zinnia Naqvi, photographer/student

Loblaws Photo Studio, Pickering, Ont., 2011

"Zinnia was a student of photography at Ryerson University at the time that picture was taken. She was in need of another income to finance her studies and found the job with a Loblaws family photo studio, right in a supermarket in Pickering, where she lives. Animating a lot of children for the photos became sometimes strenuous, but apart from that she didn't mind the job and was glad to have something close to her home."

John Roberts, hunter/fisherman

Ice-fishing on Mountain Lake near Stanley Mission, Sask., 2014

"John belongs to the Woodland Cree Indian First Nation in Stanley Mission. He went out with his fellow fisherman Phillip MacKenzie to check the nets that are placed underneath the ice. It is mainly whitefish that they catch. Only a small portion is for themselves, most of the fish is given to the elders of the community who can't go out fishing any more. The place where they fish is about half an hour by snowmobile from Stanley Mission."

Leana Kleinsasser, household and kitchen helper

Springfield Hutterite Colony, Saskatchewan, 2014

"Leana is 19 years of age and has not yet specialized in any particular work in the colony. Though she is doing various kinds of household jobs already, as all young women in the colony do. The picture is taken at her favourite spot, right by the window, where she usually sits for reading and observing what's happening outside in the colony."

Theresa McLeod, moose hide-maker

Stanley Mission, Sask., 2014

"Theresa still grew up on a trapline – her parents were living all-year round in the bush. Her portrait is taken outside, when it was about -20 C, which she didn't consider cold. Beforehand she had prepared a moose hide for further work on it outside. The tool she still holds in her hand is a bone-scraper for scraping the hide. Theresa is very skilled in all kinds of crafts, may it be sawing, beading or skinning animals."