Skip to main content

Photographing Canada helped me through a dark time. These photographs do not represent my loss – they are a reminder to love one another, and seek help wherever it may be found

Christopher Wahl is a pre-eminent Canadian portrait photographer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The Globe and Mail, and is part of the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

On March 21, 2022, I lost my mother to suicide. In her final year, she lived with and served as caretaker for my sister Heidi, who suffered horribly from a progressive neurological disorder.

On April 2, 2022, 12 days after being the sole witness to mother’s death, my sister chose to be free of her illness and took her life as well.

This is the sad narration of the end of their lives, and a prelude to the next chapter of my own. I knew nothing about loss or how it would affect me.

That same month I had a job that sent me across Canada to shoot portraits. The distraction that I thought work would provide was no benefit. I feared my subjects would see my invisible scars. I share my energy with subjects when I work, because portraits are collaborative – the final image is reflective of my time spent with the sitter, a moment capturing our time together. But I was hurting inside. I did the work functionally, but I needed to find peace in my mind.

I wanted to be present, alone in my thoughts, and to push myself. I dreamt of iconic images of Canada, inspired by vintage images of our country, seen in atlases or in the textbooks of my youth. The work was a departure for me, but it was a complement to my archive of notable Canadians.

Open this photo in gallery:

Mount Logan, Kluane National Park Reserve, Yukon. April, 2022.

The Yukon’s Mount Logan is the highest point in Canada. I didn’t know what it looked like, but it was my first thought of something I wanted to photograph. This was as close as I could get to the middle of nowhere, 19,550 feet in the sky, as far away as I could get from reality. Photographing a mountain was new to me, though it felt similar to my usual practice. I was making pictures, not taking them. I crossed the entire country from the west coast of Newfoundland to the east coast of Vancouver Island, putting pins on a map of places I had never been, envisioning the pictures I wanted to make before I set out. I took myself out of my comfort zone as I chased catharsis.

We all have our own story; this one is mine. Grief comes in many forms and in different severities, yet all equate to the same desire: to heal. Hiding behind a camera was the beginning of my healing process and the work has continued every day since. The pain of losing loved ones early really hurts.

I have been lucky to get to travel the planet throughout my career, and there is no place I would rather call home than Canada. These photographs do not represent my loss – they represent my ability to be resilient. They are portraits of my profound time on this Earth. May these pictures be a reminder to us all to love, to take care of one another and to seek help wherever it may be found.

Eagle and hare in Gros Morne, N.L. May, 2023.
Bear cubs in Lake Louise, Alta. May, 2022.
Low tides in the Bay of Fundy, Alma, N.B. May, 2022.
Killbear Park, Ont. August, 2022.
Big Lonely Doug in Port Renfrew, B.C. May, 2023.
Bay of Fundy National Park, N.B. May, 2022.
Elk in Jasper National Park, Alta. April, 2022.
Mountain goat in Banff, Alta. April, 2022.
Radium Hot Springs, B.C. April, 2022.
Peggys Cove, N.S. April, 2022.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe