This photoessay first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
Official Ottawa by Tony Fouhse is on view at the OAG Annex July 18 to Oct. 11. More details here.
Words by RON CORBETT
What you see is what you get.
Or is it? The political machinations meet the daily mundane when photographer Tony Fouhse turns his lens on the structures and subtext of our capital.
It is not so much that appearance can be deceiving. That explanation would be too simple for how award-winning photographer Tony Fouhse sees his hometown (plus, let’s remember, sometimes things are exactly as they appear). Fouhse’s perspective comes from working on the periphery, a spot from which he sees the entire arc of a story rather than the narrative points reporters tend to lead with and photographers file to their employers. From here, he can see what happens before the national news conference, before the limousine has a passenger, before the ambassador speaks.
Official Ottawa is about more than having an eye for contradictions, juxtapositions, or dichotomies. Were it merely this, there would be something disjointed in the images of Tony Fouhse, something of a Two Solitudes oeuvre rather than the sensation, time and again, of looking at one of his photos and feeling you are looking at — to borrow a phrase Hemingway used to describe an honest sentence — the true gen.
I think it helps that Ottawa is his hometown. Fouhse understands, as only a native-born can, that the prime minister’s limo has people inside who work for a living, knows that before a giant portrait of the Queen hung in the foyer of Foreign Affairs, there was something else.
He can also accept, at the end of a photo shoot with the Kazakhstan ambassador, an inexpensive pen with the portentous inscription Kazakhstan: Land of Interracial Peace and Harmony — accept it without a smirk or even without surprise that the gift is being offered by a sincere man. If you’re looking for hipster irony, you’ve come to the wrong place.
What follow are Tony Fouhse’s photos of Official Ottawa. The images are not another side of Ottawa. They are the true gen, captured by a photographer who stumbles upon such things with surprising frequency.
The SymbolsKonstantin V. Zhigalov, ambassador of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Canada. Photo by Tony Fouhse
This is a town that welcomes interpretation, that depends upon it. Buildings are official residences, and people are their jobs. Nothing is quite what it seems, and symbols are a way of understanding the world around us.
Is it any surprise that the Bank of Canada needs the new $20 polymer bill highlighted on the glass exterior of its headquarters?
Can the main campus of the Canada Revenue Agency be anything other than a grey Cold War-style office building?
Will the Kazakhstan Embassy retain that Soviet vibe?
In Ottawa, symbols are not flitting and ephemeral. They are bone and marrow.The Bank of Canada building on Sparks Street becomes a billboard to announce the new $20 polymer bank note. Photo by Tony Fouhse
Power is not brash. It does not swagger. It has no need to impress or draw attention to itself.
Power exists not for form, but for function. It is the diamond-pointed tool of utility.
It is certainly not money (although the two are often confused), and to find the loci of true power,
one must go off the beaten path to places that are both unobserved and unattained — the limousine parked alone, the gated embassy, the lighted office (the solitary one) on Parliament Hill.
The SpinJournalists gather at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor streets across from Parliament Hill. Photo by Tony Fouhse
Spin is: Talking points. Messaging. Narrative lines. Best practices. Redacted. Expunged.
Off record. Scrum. Accreditation. Mr. Minister, over here! Over here!
It is Jean Chrétien playing with golf balls and Stephen Harper posing in a parka. It is pausing a movie, keeping it on that one frame while everyone fights for the remote. It is staying on point. It is the opposite of spinning.
It is the man in the coonskin hat still wanting 11 dollar bills when you only got 10.
In a political town, there is no such thing as deceit. Change is a constant; transmigration is the pursuit not merely of souls but of mandarins and politicians, the ADM, and the spin doctor —
how can one deceive when nothing is a constant and there is no such thing as starting point or end game?
Even the weather here is a chameleon — winter hiding as fall, summer hiding as spring — and what might, in other cities, be called a disguise is, in Ottawa, more often than not work-in-progress.