Society

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Photographer David Kawai blogs about shooting local hero Gérard Étienne

Photos and text by David Kawai. Kawai shot portraits of Haitian-Canadian Gérard Étienne, as well as Shad Benoit and Scheida Prince, for “Agent of Change” in the December 2010 issue of Ottawa Magazine. See more of Kawai’s work at

When I first started taking pictures (not really that long ago), I doubted the power of ambient light. But then I started to believe it was the only way a journalistic photo should be shot, unless I was sure I could do a better job at representing a given subject with my own lighting ideas, or when a given lighting situation is inappropriate for the subject. Heck, sometimes we make our own lighting just to suit the style of a magazine, something I see less and less value in. Ottawa Magazine is very good about trusting their writers and photogs when it comes to telling a story.

In terms of shooting natural light, I started thinking this way after working with the Toronto Star for one summer, where I saw how the best photogs in the business do it. Mind you, I also started wishing for a team of image quality technicians who would work behind the scenes on my every published photo.

I’m always pleased to make the content page, especially with a touching story like this one. The gentleman in the photo below, Gérard Étienne, is Haitian by blood, works as a director in a government job, and helps Haitians escape the current situation back home, even if they can only come to Canada for a six-month visit, just to see how things work in a place not of the third world. But usually, as with the lucky case of Scheida and her son Shad (first picture), the situation is resolved permanently. Éthienne helped to reunite Shad, stuck in Haiti with no caretaker after the earthquake, with his mother Scheida, who was living in Canada but was unable to return to Haiti after fleeing the country to survive. Please, do pick up the magazine. This story, and others in it, are always quality, local, and original.

This guy, Mr. Étienne, is one of the more intelligent (and it shows) people I have ever met. I was lucky to have a chance to chat with him, and even see the way he interacts with his son. Seems like a family with a great outlook on life. I snapped a picture of them both after he casually called him over for a quick portrait. (His son was on his way out the door with his girlfriend and some other friends, who all watched as I quickly snapped a few frames).

As for the photoshoot with Scheida and Shad. At one point, despite how quickly and efficiently I was shooting on this particular day, Shad’s patience and enthusiasm was starting to fade. This entire photoshoot, by the way, was the product of four words arranged in question form: “do you speak French?” — my editor asks me. My answer was something overly complicated, but in any case I was sent on this picture assignment. The entire shoot, I was trying to make casual chit chat, but was a little bit clumsy with my French grammar and vocab. At one point, Shad tells me and Scheida that he doesn’t want to smile. I’m thrilled about this. I tell him, “Do whatever you want,” and he pulls this! (left)

This dude is amazing. We chatted a bit while Scheida was changing her outfit, and after the shoot. I’m happy he’s now safe in Canada. This boy has a bright future and seems to have his head screwed quite correctly on his shoulders. Seems like a creative type, but who knows. He’s lucky enough to have his basic needs taken care of now, unlike so many others back in Haiti.

The next two pics are of me and were taken by Shad. (It was hard to teach him how to focus in such a short time.) The first picture is taken in Shad’s room. The second is of me doing my best impression of him being grumpy. 🙂

And finally, the last photo is of Shad lounging on his mom’s bed! Great being a kid.