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Lake People
Photographers document Toronto's enigmatic harbour and the people who populate it for Harbourfront Centre's 'Uncharted Waters'

 Photo by Clare Samuel. Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre

With the summer weather, Torontonians flock to the waterfront to enjoy the lake. Adventurous souls paddle across the harbour in canoes and kayaks while the masses board island-bound ferries. Our beaches — natural or artificial — offer respite from the city stank and a chance to dip our feet in the water. This idyllic pilgrimage is how most of us fair-weather fans interact with Lake Ontario.

But there are a select few who live, work and play in Toronto’s harbour year round that see the lake in a different light, people who have a deeper connection to the water. They rely on it for their livelihood. They sleep by the water. They are not like us land people.

They are the Lake People.

Or Water Folk. Maybe Harbourites. I don’t know. Names are hard. Especially when the people you’re trying to lump into a convenient (albeit abstract) stereotype turn out to be so diverse. Sailors who bring goods from around the world, boat repairmen covered in grease, environmental conservationists mucking about in seagull shit. There’s no obvious shared quality. But there’s something.

Uncharted Waters: Toronto’s Enigmatic Harbour, a new outdoor exhibit of photography on display at Harbourfront Centre, offers the public a glimpse into corners of our waterfront that we don’t generally see; The nooks and crannies reserved for the ones dedicated to maintaining the space for the rest of us. It’s a look behind the curtain that offers a more holistic perspective of a great resource we often take for granted.

Jesse Loutit spent time with different Toronto Port Authority workers including Billy Bishop Airport employees and bird conservationists working at the Leslie Street Spit. Despite the differences in their occupations, he found most people who work in the Harbour have a special relationship with the place.

Photos by Jesse Loutit. Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre

“The people I actually photographed, most of them had a different perspective with the lake, they didn’t look at it as the average person from the city looks at the lake. They either own boats, or they wanted to live further away from the city in rural areas,” he told me. “They enjoy the nature. They wouldn’t want to work in a big building or work three blocks away in the city.”

During the time he spent with the harbour workers, Loutit was compelled by how content they were simply to be working on the water. “You love driving your boat and it becomes your job. ‘Okay that’s a great job. I get to be by the lake all the time.’” There’s a certain serendipity involved in building a livelihood from being a Lake Person. “One person that I photographed,” Loutit explained, “loved the water and he loved being on the boat. And that’s how he got his job [at the Port Authority]. He was just on the harbour and said, ‘Do you guys have any openings?’ And then shortly later he got a job.” Despite the hard labour involved, it’s a lifestyle that probably invented the phrase “go with the flow.”

The easy-going attitude even translates in the more industrial parts of the harbour. Johan Hallberg-Campbell spent four days and night aboard a Ukrainian tanker docked at the Redpath Sugar Factory, documenting the lives of sailors who spend half the year on a ship. “I thought it would be an interesting dynamic to look at something you don’t see. You walk past these boats at the sugar factory and you think, “What the hell’s going on in there.”

Life on the sugar ship turned out to be quite peaceful, unlike the boisterous fishing boats and blue-collar coastal villages Hallberg-Campbell had visited and photographed in the past. “I expected a bit more, you know, smoking cigarettes and drinking a bit more, what you see in movies I guess. But it was nice. It was very quiet. They were very respectful, beautiful people. It was quite quiet actually and lonely because they were in port. Basically you’d go into the common room, there would be no one around.” The ship was quiet in part because the crew had recently been cut down from thirty to eighteen people. Hallberg-Campbell’s photos reveal an isolated refuge for the few remaining crew members. The only woman on board was the Russian cook who dressed in immaculate white outfit. The food and knick knacks on the ships walls seem exotic yet familiar at the same time. It’s a world completely removed from the bustle of the city just blocks away.

Photo by Johan Hallberg-Campbell. Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre

But this isn’t a local phenomenon restricted to Toronto’s harbour. You can find Water Folk with the same sensibilities all over the globe. Hallberg-Campbell described his experiences photographing fishermen in the Hebrides islands in Scotland, where his family is from, and coastal towns in Newfoundland. There were more similarities than differences. “It’s a certain way of life, it’s really honest, the people are really decent. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a big tanker boat or a fishing boat with people catching some prawns, it’s the same honesty in a sense,” he said. “They’re a very respectful people.”

Despite the consistency, it’s of a way of life that Hallberg-Campbell fears may be disappearing. Citing the condo-fication of urban ports and the dwindling supply of wild fish in our oceans, Hallberg-Campbell feels he is documenting an endangered species. Speaking about the fishing communities in Newfoundland he said, “The last generation of people are leaving, their children can’t survive there anymore. They’re going off to Alberta to get jobs, or wherever else. They can’t follow their fathers’ generation on the boat because the fish are gone… I feel like my photographs are going to be an archive for the future for people to see what it was like to live off the coast and live off the water.”

Uncharted Waters serves as celebration of our harbour and the the people that inhabit it, but it can also be seen as a warning about the things we stand to lose that we didn’t know we had. As more people move into waterfront condos and the space is opened for more people to live near the lake, it seems that there will be fewer of the type of people captured in this photo series living off the lake. Though this transformation isn’t inherently wrong, it’s worth it to take a closer look.


Michael Kolberg is The Sprawl Editor at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter for jokes @mikeykolberg

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