Chris Donovan has accomplished a lot since graduating in 2017. The native New Brunswicker has put together a long string of accomplishments in a very short time, all the result of some very hard work and dedication, and is well deserving of this very nice recent piece in theeastmag.com edition.
Chris Donovan – Saint John Photographer Becomes Youngest to Win Canada’s Top Photojournalism Awards
For those who grew up in Saint John, the city’s industrial quality offers a certain Victorian-workhouse charm. With parts of the city suffering with more than its fair share of rundown buildings, smokestacks and, of course, the fog, residents both curse at and fall in love with the city’s unique character. Capturing this side of the city in all of its rawness and beauty is photojournalist Chris Donovan. The Saint John photographer recently became the youngest ever to win Canada’s top photojournalism awards: Photojournalist of the Year and Picture of the Year for 2017 from the News Photographers Association of Canada.
The News Photographers Association of Canada currently comprises 250 photojournalists from across the country, 85 of who submitted photos to win the 2017 awards.
Donovan’s winning portfolio contained picture stories from Saint John, including one called “Patricia’s Dolls,” which showcases a 45-year-old woman named Patricia Garnett who is known in the city as the “Doll Lady.” After suffering brain damage as an infant and assault leading to pregnancy as a teen, Garnett now cares for dolls as if they were real children and wanted to share her story.
Also in Donovan’s portfolio is a story called “The Cloud Factory,” which showcases how environmental classism is inherently tied to growing up in certain parts Saint John. These photos depict the disparity of Saint John being both home to the largest oil refinery in Canada and while also having the second-highest rate of child poverty in the country. Donovan captures how those two notions somehow seem inextricably linked to the identities of many who have grown up in Saint John.
His accomplishments have made him one of the few Maritimers to win these awards, but they have also made him the youngest person ever to win them and the first to win them both in the same year.
Donovan has also taken first place in the categories of Photograph of the Year (for a photo of a Haitian migrant crossing the border illegally into Quebec), Social Issues and Portrait/Personality, first and second place in Picture Story Feature, and second place in General News and Picture Story International. And, one of the photos from “Patricia’s Dolls” recently won an Atlantic Journalism Award.
Though having long ago earned a reputation in the industry as the “Humans of Saint John guy,” Donovan has simply had to accept his fate, saying, “I honestly hate being the ‘Humans of Saint John guy.’
“I never make magic happen. Magic happens and I happen to be there with the experience to know how to recognize when it’s happening. I took a lot of bad pictures for a long time. You have to do that if you ever want to take good pictures. That’s why I have a hard time identifying with Humans of Saint John. I think the interviews were good and it served a purpose and I’m proud of what it did to bring the community together in some small way, but they definitely are very far from my best pictures.”
All the more impressive, Donovan graduated from Photojournalism school just last year, but he explains that he got a head start by training in the field from a young age.
“I started photographing the deer in my backyard with my parents’ compact film camera. And I was also inspired by the architecture and people of Saint John since I was a kid. I maybe took my first street photos in Saint John when I was 13 or 14. It’s endlessly inspiring and I hope to document the city for as long as I live,” he says.
“I think it was in my blood. My grandfather, George Dubé, was a photographer working in Bathurst for most of his life. He died months before my birth and my grandmother always called me ‘George reincarnate.’ So I grew up around his paintings and photographs, sort of idolizing them. I actually have his artist signature tattooed on my chest. I really wish he could see what I do now, but for my grandmother (who passed two years ago) to see and and tell me how happy he would have been was pretty special.”
Donovan states that he takes a large amount of his inspiration from photojournalist John Stanmeyer, who has had his photographs published on the covers of such magazines as National Geographic and Time.
“I actually just spent last weekend with John Stanmeyer, an incredible photographer and incredible mind, who was in Toronto for the awards show and conference,” says Donovan of his idol. “He has shot more than 15 covers of Time Magazine and more than 10 covers of National Geographic over the years. When you look at his pictures you would think everything he sees is perfect, but it’s far from that.
“He photographs in crazy, hectic, sometimes very dangerous situations and creates beautiful, well-composed, colourful, enlightening images. And it’s because the rules of composition are beyond second nature to him. It becomes part of your subconscious. And I’m certainly nowhere near his level, but a lot of things have become second nature to me, and when I enter a space, I’m able to see what ‘the picture’ is going to be usually within the first 30 seconds. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s just a background and I have to wait for that ‘magic’ to happen in front of the beautiful background I’ve stumbled across.”
At only 22 years old, these accomplishments are a great feat for Donovan, and his photojournalism helps to keep the beautiful, but often overlooked, province of New Brunswick on the map, even if they do showcase of some of its rougher edges.