Andrew Stawicki: PhotoSensitive

Andrew Stawicki was introduced by fellow photographer and friend Wayne Gilbert. Andrew began his photographic career in his native Poland. In 1982 he brought his family to Canada, where he joined the staff of the Toronto Star. His photographs have appeared in  various “A Day In The Life Of…”, books on Canada, Japan, USA, Spain and the old Soviet Union. He has won many awards for his photographic work including a gold medal in the Society of Newspaper Design Awards and in the CAPIC Awards. He was the National Newspaper Award (Features category) winner in 1993 and 1999. His 10-year photographic study of the Mennonites was published in his book, “A People Apart” in 1995.

PhotoSensitive, the brainchild of Andrew and former Toronto Star graphics editor Peter Robertson, was founded in 1990 as a non-profit collective of photographers determined to explore how photography can contribute to social justice. The idea was to bring together the photographic talents of a number of Toronto-based (now Canada-wide)  professional photographers to achieve social goals through the power of the camera.

The founders anticipated each photographer would bring his or her own vision to a project and the sum of these visions would provide a compelling social comment. The first decision the nascent group faced was choosing a topic and sourcing a sponsor. Their ideas were debated in a process to winnow down to a single theme. As the theme images came in, they were edited to select and organize the final shots. This first project tackled hunger in Toronto, helping to promote the Toronto Food Bank which was headed by Gerard Kennedy at the time. It was an ideal project to demonstrate how the lives of others could be improved through photography.

These photos courtesy of PhotoSensitive. Click the above image to see a slide show and visit www.photosensitive.com to see much more.

Andrew opened his presentation with a video. It described what PhotoSensitive does and who its volunteer photographers are. And showed highlights from its projects and accomplishments. Almost all the group’s images are black and white photographs. For each project PhotoSensitive pulls together volunteers to tackle just how they can illustrate a need. While charities usually hire photographers at considerable expense, with PhotoSensitive, the time and images are donated and all returns go to the sponsored group or cause. Once the photographers have taken their images Andrew does the rest – approaching the candidate organization, printing and editing the prints, etc.

PhotoSensitive now has projects scheduled into 2015. Its work is defined by the following characteristics:
1. Social Issues. The projects focus on realities familiar to North Americans including poverty, hunger, illness, racism, ignorance, and injustice. And they concentrate on the antidotes too – hope found in the face of adversity; laughter and love making the difficulties of life tolerable; and the simple pleasures that lighten dark lives.
2. Black and White Images. Still photographs in black and white have a unique way of touching people. They force the viewer to concentrate on the meaning of the photograph with no distractions.
3. Volunteers. The photographers contribute to the projects as volunteers – giving their time to photography that falls outside of their professional work. 

In the beginning, it was difficult for the team, but today the challenge is easier – 2,000 photographers have joined. Each project is set for one year duration. The volunteers can spend an hour, a week, or more. It is up to them. Not everyone is involved in every project as travel can be a cost factor, and there is a limit to the number of images that can be used and displayed.

Andrew’s lens of choice is a medium wide-angle (35mm focal length) He emphasized the importance of knowing how to use it effectively. Taking a portrait with the traditional  medium telephoto isolates the subject from the scene whereas a medium wide-angle captures both. Andrew told his audience “you are taking a portrait, not a landscape – get in close to the person but include enough background to place the person in context”.

Shooting photographs of people, you have to talk to the subject; get his feelings. For example, when Tony Hauser photographed a ballet star, instead getting only a moment’s frozen pose, he got many relaxed shots that brought out the star’s inner person. Similarly, in capturing a banking CEO’s portrait for the annual report, Andrew chose to ignore the suggested frozen formal shot and instead take his subject sitting behind his desk leaning close to his family’s photograph. This decision captured his subject’s importance and his human side as a family man.

Andrew Stawicki in action. Click the above image to see a slide show.

The PhotoSensitive team often works differently than the sponsors expect. For example, at Toronto Sick Kids, hospital staff offered to set aside a day for pictures. They were surprised when Andrew said “no”. Instead, he wanted to have twenty-four hour access to all the hospital for three months. Once accepted by the staff, this approach allowed the team to capture images the hospital “never dreamed about” and PhotoSensitive ended up with a very successful story – a story that opened the door to  every hospital in the city for photo essays.

A constant effort is so important – the best pictures often occur at the beginning or the end of a project. Andrew spent long hours and odd hours with a family of twelve capturing their story. When one family member was scheduled for surgery, Andrew went with the couple and photographed everything including a very tender kiss the husband gave his wife moments before she entered the operating room. Sadly and unexpectedly she didn’t survive the procedure and Andrew’s picture was of her last kiss.

The PhotoSensitive approach can be taken by a group of any size. Andrew offered to  advise PHSC if it takes on a project. He suggested we must be open; call for a single print from each member; then do a project for the society. He personally likes to do something for the benefit of someone else, but our membership is spread all over the place without a neighbourhood focus.

Wayne Gilbert summarized Andrew’s talk by giving the keys to a winning photograph: “the relevance of the  image; making the image memorable; and establishing a relationship with the subject to get that relevance”. Andrew donated a copy of his latest book to the PHSC along with some DVDs to show at future meetings.


This page was designed in WordPress on an iMac running OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard). I prepared this report from Andrew’s presentation plus some words and photos (used with permission) from his excellent PhotoSensitive web site. Unless otherwise noted, all other images were taken directly with a Sony NEX-5 digital still camera. The images were subsequently adjusted in Adobe Lightroom V3.3 and Photoshop CS5. Presentation images are ©2011 by PhotoSensitive and may used only with their permission. Contents and all other images are ©2011 by the Photographic Historical Society of Canada and may be used freely provided the source is clearly indicated. Copies of photographs displayed during this presentation may not be used without the copyright holder’s permission. Contact PHSC at info@phsc.ca if you would like more information on the items discussed in this post.

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