The power of black and white photography – give me colour or give me soul


This week I went along to a rally outside Queen’s Park, the Ontario provincial legislature building in Toronto. I was there to support my niece and her husband and family in their struggle against the cruel and callous cuts that the Liberal government are making in the funding for autism programs. Of course I took my camera. This wasn’t an event where I was an outside observer simply looking for pictures, it was something in which I was, I am, emotionally invested and I wanted my pictures to reflect that involvement, to show the struggle that these parents and families are going through simply because the provincial government wants to save money.

You have to wonder about the thought process of politicians and how they reconcile their supposed duties of care and service with the intense harm they are doing. Families with autistic children? Not a problem, Premier. They’ll be too busy to protest. They’re ordinary joes so they won’t make a fuss. We can save some cash there and maybe spend it on defending ourselves from the fifth police investigation in recent years.

The rally had a colour theme, blue. There are so many causes that use colour to identify themselves, there always have been. Going back to the Blues, Greens, Reds and White in ancient Rome, through the development of military uniforms to sports teams, colour provides a unifying identity, a way of saying “that person is with us, we’re part of the same cause”. In this case it’s blue, blue shirts everywhere, blue flags waving in a slight breeze on a beautiful sunny lunchtime. Blue against the red stone backdrop of the provincial Parliament building where the Liberal politicians hid all day and from where they refused to come out to meet their victims.


I took my pictures, listened to the emotional and passionate speakers, spoke to the leader of the Ontario PC party myself and generally just tried to be there as support for the family (and families). I went home to process the pictures and put them up on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter as you do these days. Now, following a tip from the Canadian landscape photographer Darwin Wiggett, my LCD preview, the JPG shot, is always set to black and white. You can see the tones better that way.

But on my way home I had a sudden thought – had I changed the settings on my camera to shoot both RAW & JPG, which would give me 2 versions of the picture, one in colour and one in B&W? I checked. I had not. I had no record of the colour, the blue, the uniformity of the crowd, the impact that the colour made, the multi-coloured lapel stickers, I had only black and white. To be honest, that didn’t worry me too much because some of my best (I think) shots have been B&W, but I had hoped to show some of the colour of the day in my pictures.


So I processed the pictures without colour and I had no blue. But you know what I had instead? Pictures that had soul. Pictures that had feeling and emotion. There were no distractions and no artificial prettiness. The focus (pun intended) was on exactly what it should have been on in order to tell the story of the day. It was on the people, the families, the speakers and the children. The pictures showed their pain and tears, the viewer’s attention was not distracted by colours. not just blue but the many other colours in the signs people had made and carried.

Those signs presented their message in stark black and white. I took a picture which showed the family I was there to support walking together; I look at the picture and the first thing I see is the mother’s face looking at her child with such a blend of concern and love. You can read everything there. I snapped one mother wiping away a tear during one of the speeches. The picture is all the stronger because it doesn’t care what colour shirt she was wearing, it shows the person and the struggle that they go through every single day. I’m proud of what that whole set says and the message it conveys.


Colour is a wonderful medium and some of my favourite photographs have been taken in colour. I love some of the current film stock, Portra 400 and Ektar 100, but it has it’s place. As the Canadian photographer Ted Grant said, and yes, it’s become a bit of a cliche but it’s no less true for all that, “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls”. Yesterday wasn’t a day for colour, yesterday was for black and white.





For more information on this topic and campaign please go to The Ontario Autism Coalition and lend your voice!

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