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Toronto Photo laureate Geoffrey James on his new title, selfie sticks and a dark world

Geoffrey James: ‘I think we’re drowning in images.’

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Last week, City Council approved Geoffrey James as Toronto's first photo laureate. We spoke to the Welsh-born, Toronto-based photographer about his new post, selfie sticks and an ominously dark world.

You're Toronto's first photo laureate. Are there duties attached to the title?

It's very broad. You're an ambassador for the medium. They'd like me to spend 15 per cent of my time doing something, but what that something is is not specified. I'm not there to promote tourism – they can get much better people for that. Really, what this does is to allow me to rethink Toronto.

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You've described the city as a 'wonderful subject.' What do mean by that?

What I like about Toronto is that it's a work in progress. I can't photograph in places like Venice. It's conventionally beautiful. There's nothing to be done with it. Just admire it. I did a book on Paris in 2000. It was extremely hard to avoid clichés, you know?

You share the same monogram as Toronto's poet laureate, Anne Michaels. Do you know her?

Oh yes. I know Anne. I'm a huge fan of hers.

I picture the two of you at a bar, arguing over the whole "a picture is worth a thousand words" thing.

[Laughs.] I was at the farewell party for Descant magazine. It was in a rock club, and people were talking in the back. And then she stood up and she didn't even face the audience. She showed her profile and read a long poem about Lawren Harris and Lake Superior. You could have heard a pin drop. She was amazing.

What are your thoughts on smartphone cameras and Instagram and the ubiquity of photos these days?

Excess, by definition, is not good. I think we're drowning in images. The digital age, it's a way of getting things out there, but everything becomes ephemeral. And it's rewiring our brain. I don't know about you, but my attention span is getting shorter.

But we've seen what a video can do. Things are getting caught on camera, and society is better for it, isn't it?

Oh, yes. I should have said that. Citizen journalists, which is what an iPhone can turn someone into, is enormously important. This is healthy.

Pride Toronto recently banned the use of selfie sticks at the annual Pride Parade. Any thoughts on that?

I'm not going to go there. I'm completely unqualified to comment.

You don't have one in your camera bag?

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No. I loathe them. It's completely out of hand. I see people going around Venice with their tablets on selfie sticks. It's grotesque and meaningless. And it's changing the way people react. It's a Pavlovian thing. You need a hit, a stimulus.

At a point in your career, you turned to less optimistic themes in your work. Where are you now?

I did a book, Inside Kingston Penitentiary, in 2013 and 2014. It was the darkest thing I've ever done. I can't have enough buffers. I tend to absorb things. It was a painful experience for me.

Are you optimistic these days?

Kingston Penitentiary was a very dark place. And I think the world is a very dark place at the moment. Look at Africa. Look at the Middle East. We're in a very strange period of time. I'm an observer, and I do not see things going well at the moment.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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