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February 11, 2022

5 A.M.

Documenting the people, places and livelihoods of the night shift

Photography by Brian Douglas
Interview by Melanie Meggs

As the sun peeks over the horizon and the stars begin to slowly fade away, a new day begins. For some of us, it's time to roll out of bed and start the daily grind. But for photographer Brian Douglas, it's time to get to work. For Brian, the early morning, just before dawn, is the ideal time for capturing stories.

As a photographer, Brian has a goal to create captivating images that draw in the viewer, telling the story in its raw and honest form. Having traveled to various parts of the world, Mexico, Hawaii, Cuba as well as the East and West Coast of Canada, his camera is always ready to capture something special. But it was at his home in Ontario that Brian developed The 5 A.M. project - a passion project with an interest to step outside of his 9-to-5 world and document people, places and livelihoods at or as close to 5 a.m. as possible. While most of us are tucked away in bed or commuting to our workplaces, Brian is out there catching the moments the rest of us often miss. Join us as we explore Brian's journey and find out what inspires him to capture these stories during The 5 A.M. project.

“Every day 5 a.m. passes me by. While I am asleep there is a world that I am completely detached from. When I begin settling in for the evening there are countless others getting themselves ready to start their day. From bakers and farmers to gas station attendants and factory line workers, we live in a world that never truly sleeps. Productivity and services continue to be provided while many of us are asleep and dreaming. When I wake up in the morning I can, without a second thought, enjoy freshly made bread, produce picked hours earlier or even a newly paved road.”


THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Brian. In your project 5 A.M., your photographs bring together the worker and the workplace. How did bringing these together first manifest for you? Why was it important for you to incorporate both images together as a diptych for the presentation of the image as a whole?

BRIAN DOUGLAS: Presenting the worker and the workspace as a diptych in 5 a.m. was a way for me to try and tell a story in one image. Far too often, in my opinion, the people behind the work go unrecognized. We may know the name of a company and enjoy their projects and/or services but how often do we get to see the person who, in some way, helped create that experience for you? By pairing them as one piece my hope was to tell more of the story. This is Doug and he brews the beer you’re currently at home enjoying. Or this is Jesse and Kate and they support some of our most vulnerable people who, for whatever reason find themselves without a stable living environment but deserve as much as anyone else love and care.

TPL: What is the full story behind the project? What was the initial inspiration?

BD: When I first moved to Kitchener-Waterloo over ten years ago with my wife we lived in a Loft that was once home of the Kaufman Shoe Factory. We were downtown and surrounded by this amazing industrial landscape. Kitchener was built around heavy industry but when I arrived many of the old factory spaces sat empty. The industrial landscape was changing, and I quickly found myself exploring and documenting these buildings. I knew that many would be converted into new spaces (more lofts or office spaces) or they would be torn down. I wanted, in my own way, to create a record of these buildings. These factories employees, thousands of people through their lifetime and sustained a community. I felt that story deserved to be preserved.

Once I had pretty much exhausted the spaces I could access and as the work from this project was exhibited and shared within the region, I began looking for my next passion project. While reflecting on my time in those factories I would often think of how empty they were while also wondering about how alive they once were. I would imagine the connections, the conversations, the friendships, and relationships that were formed during the hours spent working within those four walls. As much as I loved creating this body of work, I knew it was missing one thing: the faces of those people.

The project has given me a newfound respect for the world of work and ignited a passion in me to further explore work and industry as a theme within my photography. One night I was brainstorming out loud with my wife about what my next project should be. I knew I wanted to give a face and voice to a segment of the working world and she said, “What about night shift workers?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she regretted it, but I was all in! The next day I started crafting my artist statement, was on Google researching shift work jobs and not long after that 5 A.M. was born!

TPL: How does 5 A.M. differ from your previous work? Is this type of visual storytelling something you would like to pursue again in future projects? What do you think is your next chapter in your exploration with future projects?

BD: 5 a.m. was different from previous work in that it included portraits. Before this project started, I had not taken a portrait since grade 10 photography. Never did I consider myself to be a portrait photographer. I was terrified! Buildings don’t move. They don’t talk. They are just there. But photographing people was the exact opposite! There was a reason I never photographed them. I was scared. Felt unqualified and was 100% second guessing myself for venturing down this road.

Jump forward almost 10 year (I started this project in 2013) and I cannot tell you how happy I am that I took this challenge on. Not only have a learned so much as a photographer but also personally. This was a project in which I truly leaned on my training and skills as a Social Worker: establishing connection, making people feel comfortable and at ease within our interactions together, asking questions and trying to, in my own way, get a sense of who these people are so that I could photograph them in a way that they would be proud of.

I plan to, as soon as it is safe to do so, add a few more portraits to this body of work. I have some ‘wish list’ jobs I want to add to this project; a worm picker being top of my list! After that I have considered maybe a book to bring this project to an end. Before that though I hope to exhibit it more. I do have one upcoming exhibit set to be hung sometime in February.

Currently I have a few new project ideas on my mind. One of those projects further expands on work and industry as a theme. The other project is purely portrait based but would incorporate some more purposeful interviews to tell stories differently, and a project I have had brewing for several years now would be a photo/video documentary titled “Anticipations: In life a death” and would very much blend my world of social work with my world of photography to tell, what I hope, would be a powerful story of what life teachers us about death and what death can teach us about life.

TPL: Brian please tell us about yourself.

BD: I am a father, husband, social worker and photographer. I grew up in Holland Landing, Ontario about an hour and a half North of Toronto where my parents owned a 14-acre forest. Being able to just go outside and ‘get lost’ in the woods for hours on end was an amazing sense of freedom as a kid! At the very back of the property (the ‘neighbours' so to speak) was a small scrapyard. I would often find myself with my siblings or friends exploring the old cars and school buses and it was the first place I went when I was given a disposable camera as an elementary student for a class project. I was probably 8 or 9 years old and already an urban exploring photographer! That was like 30+ years ago but urban exploring was truly my first love as a photographer and shaped my perspective as a photographer and many of the themes of my work.

I currently I live in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, where I work full-time as a social worker. I take on freelance photography/video opportunities when they present themselves, but tend to put a lot of my time and energy in to passion projects such as 5 A.M.

TPL: What draws you to photography and art? How did your journey into photography begin?

BD: I touched a bit on what drew me to photography in the previous question, but that first disposable camera really did give me this amazing, eye opening opportunity to capture the world around me. I do not remember much about growing up or school as a kid but this has always stood out. I still have some of those 4x6 prints kicking around somewhere!

My next venture into photography was high school when I had the chance to truly learn the art of photography; rolling my own film, shooting film, developing it in the darkroom and just loving the ability to create. Although I don’t shoot film anymore, there really is nothing like watching your photograph start to slowly appear on the paper.

After high school, I still did a bit of photography but lost touch with it for a bit. I didn’t have a darkroom, I was busy in University and it wasn’t until graduated and decided to purchase my first DSLR that I reconnected with my love of creating images and I haven’t stopped since!

What I love about photography is the idea that we all see things in a slightly different way. I also love the challenge, especially with some of my older work, of making something that typically could be viewed as an ‘eyesore’, mundane or not worth a second glance beautiful and relevant and worth a closer look.

With my more recent work such as 5 a.m. and some of the street photography I have been doing, trying to capture the essence of a person in a portrait or to make what could be seen as an otherwise ordinary moment on the streets captivating is incredibly rewarding and enjoyable! It also challenges me to grow, learn and adapt as a photographer.

One of the things I enjoy about looking at the work of others is the inspiration that it gives me to push myself. There are some other local photographers who shoot the same streets I do, or who create portraits and it drives me to experiment, to look at their photographs and figure out what they are doing that draws me in to their work and how I can, in my own way and with my own style, apply some of those elements.

The project has given me a newfound respect for the world of work and ignited a passion in me to further explore work and industry as a theme within my photography.

TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?

BD: A few of my favorite local photographer would be Wayne Simpson (@waynesimpsonphoto), Dan Dunlop (@the__stash) as well as Karl Kessler who is not on any social media. I am also really inspired by Harvey Wang (@harveywang_ny) who my friend Karl introduced me too.

I also really love the work of Ben Thouard (@benthouard), Clark Little (@clarklittle) and Ray Collins (@raycollinsphoto) all of whom have a focus on the ocean!

TPL: If you could just choose one photographer to shoot alongside for a day...who would you choose? And why?

BD: Hmm…this is a really tough question. I’d probably want to shoot with Clark Little for a couple of reasons. The first reason is because I do love his work! But the second reason is that he is based on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Growing up I had the privilege of travelling to Hawaii with my family on several occasions. We would frequent the North Shore to watch surf competitions, to have the waves crash on us at the beach or to sit back in awe on the days the waves were just too big to go anywhere near the water. A chance to go back AND to learn to photograph those waves from someone like him would be priceless!

TPL: Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? How much post-processing do you do?

BD: My gear for sure helps but I would say the lenses more so than the camera body itself although the camera itself has been important to in order to produce high quality images for print. For this project, to date, the camera body has been exclusively the Canon 5d Mark III although I have recently upgraded to the r6 as I explore more video.

For the setting shots I used the Canon 16-35mm. About half the portraits were shot with a Zeiss planar 50mm, f1.4 that a close friend lent me. When he moved, I purchased a Sigma 50mm f1.4 art lens. These two lens tend to be my go to lenses for work like this. If I am on the street I do enjoy the Sigma 50mm but I also really enjoy my Canon 24-70 f2. For street photography I love my Fuji X 100V although I have been wandering with the r6 lately. But I do still reach for the Fuji when I am going out to shoot the streets!

In terms of my post-processing, it is minimal. It is rare for me to longer of on an edit and if I do, I tend not to spend more than 10-15 minutes.

TPL: Is there any advice that you would give yourself if you started photography all over again?

BD: Challenge yourself more to step outside of your comfort zones. I think I would also tell myself to create a network of other photographers who you could connect with, learn from and support each other. I probably also would tell myself to embrace social media. I think back to the urban exploring I was doing (and continued to do) long before and after Youtube, Instagram, etc. and to some of the success photographers have had on those platforms with that work. I feel like I was ahead of the game as a photographer but behind the 8-ball in my uptake of the new formats to share work.

TPL: When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…

BD: When I am not out photographing (or working) I tend to be home (or out and about) with my family; you may also find me playing guitar or playing something on the PS4.

Although the early morning is a time when most of us are still asleep, with Brian's guidance we can open our eyes to the world and appreciate the stories that are waiting to be told. We invite you to join Brian on his journey of discovery and explore what inspires him to capture these stories.

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