Last December, with the winter chill descending rapidly upon Vancouver, I typed a new entry into my To Do list: “Buy photo gloves.” My fingers — aching from exposure to the cold, and from contact with the Leica’s metal body — were a gating factor in how long, and how comfortably, I could photograph on wintry streets. I reckoned that a pair of lightweight photography gloves were an essential purchase for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in February. But before I had a chance to buy them, December’s promise of a bitter winter faded, and January entered the record books as the warmest in the history of Vancouver.

With precipitation levels low and the temperatures high, Vancouver’s cherry trees welcomed February with a display of delicate pink blossoms that, in years past, remained hidden until April. In marked contrast to most of the Northern Hemisphere, winter never fully arrived here, and spring has already sprung. It’s a glorious time to be in Vancouver, save for one nagging little fact — we’re hosting the winter Olympics.

The tragedy and travails of these Olympics are already legendary, and we haven’t even reached the mid-way point. But if you ever want to see the disparity between journalistic sensationalism and reality, you need only come to Vancouver. There is joy, happiness, and enthusiasm all around me. Each day, tens of thousands of people converge upon Vancouver’s many Olympic party venues — bathing in the sun’s unseasonable warmth and the camaraderie of others. Vancouver, at this moment, is the happiest place on earth. Sorry, Mr. Disney.

The discrepancy between this reality and the vitriolic reports filed by the ever-acrimonious British press would be laughable, were it not so costly. When a community invests $6 billion dollars to host the Olympics, they don’t want to read headlines such as, “Vancouver Games Continue Downhill Slide from Disaster to Calamity.” Such exaggerated dogma is, of course, a fabrication of a British press desperate for the success of London’s 2012 Olympics. By filing such scathing articles now, the Brits create a “baseline” upon which to compare London’s games when their own inevitable glitches and bumps manifest. For proof of pre-meditation, one needs only to look at another headline from the UK’s Guardian paper: “Vancouver Olympics Head for Disaster.” How does that headline prove pre-meditation? Because it was written two weeks prior to the start of the Olympics! At the Olympics, there are many more games played than just those that award gold medals. It will be interesting to watch, over the next couple of years, the extent to which such negative press damages Vancouver’s stellar image in the international arena.

When it comes to photography (which, should you have forgotten, is the Raison d’être of this particular blog), truth has no meaning. Photography makes its own truth. Thumb through any issue of Vogue magazine, and just try to find a photograph in which “truth” has not been fabricated. For generations, photographers have found images of joy in a sea of misery, and images of misery in an outpouring of joy. Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour, when photographing the same war, could create two entirely different realities — where Capa found death, Chim found humanity. Life is full of nuances, to which we each respond differently. If everyone reacted to every moment and every story in the same way, the dullness would be insufferable.

Street Stories

As a photographer, I’m probably more emotionally wired with Chim’s view of the world, but it’s Robert Capa’s statement that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” that is my mantra. On the streets, my proximity to my subjects is much the same as if we were to engage in conversation. I’m close — earshot close. Which means I overhear some rather interesting discussions.

Case in point is a conversation I heard in the middle of Robson Square, site of British Columbia’s Olympic pavilion. The square, as always, was teeming with excitement. Bands played on two separate stages. People watched live coverage of sporting events on a giant outdoor screen. Daredevils, suspended by pulley from a wire high above the square, would zip from one tower to another. Skaters packed the ice rink and street performers were wowing audiences with all manner of spectacular feats. A pair of women, standing next to me, were engaged in conversation.

“This is the most exciting pavilion I’ve ever seen! I’m having so much fun.”

Her friend, nodding in agreement, said, “I hear British Columbia has a pavilion in some place called Robson Square.”

“British Columbia has a pavilion?” asked the first woman, wrinkling her nose, “That must really suck.”

On Monday, I was standing on some steps in a crowded plaza — hanging around in case an interesting shot materialized. I looked around me and noticed a couple of news crews. I fiddled with some settings on my camera, then looked up again — another couple of news crews had arrived. Like the birds in Bodega Bay, news crews kept flocking to where I stood. Cops began to converge, all conversing with unseen voices on their radios. Soon, I noticed undercover security personnel looking about and talking into their sleeves. More continued to come and, as they did, helicopters began to circle overhead. “Must be someone really big,” I thought to myself as the crowd continued to thicken.

A passerby, shuffling past, asked the news cameraman beside me, “Who’s coming? The Prime Minister?”

“No,” replied the cameraman, “Bilodeau!”

“Oh!” exclaimed the passerby, stopping on a dime, “Now THAT’S worth waiting for!”

Alexandre Bilodeau was a man who, 18 hours earlier, could have walked through this same plaza in a pink tutu and no one would have payed him any attention. That day, as the first Canadian to win a gold medal on home soil, he was a national hero. Fame is a curious thing.

My favorite conversational snippet occurred in one of the crowds, last Friday, as I waited for the Olympic torch to pass. I had my Leica at chin height, poised and ready to shoot. Beside me were two women — one holding up a small mauve-colored point-and-shoot camera; the other with a cell phone camera. The woman with the mauve camera nudged the woman to her left and, nodding her head in my direction, said “look at the crappy camera that guy has.” It made my day.

Perception and reality really are two different things… and that’s the moral of this story.

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©2010 grEGORy simpson

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