conversation with whitney lewis-smith, LNFB’S first photographer
Whitney and Rachel worked together at Play Food & Wine in Ottawa’s Byward Market almost ten years ago. While they’ve both since pursued very different careers, they were thrilled that their paths converged to produce the first 33 LNFB portraits in March 2016.
LNFB is grateful to Whitney for laying the founation of our portraits, which have now reached almost 1000 in number, and setting the honest and relevatory tone of the campaign. We are truly lucky to have benefited from Whitney’s talent and genius. It is no wonder her work sits in prominent private collections in Canada, the US, England, Spain, Mexico, and Chile, as well as the private collection of Sophie and Justin Trudeau, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery of New Brunswick, Maison Simons colelction, SUMMA contemporary Art Fair’s premanent acquisitions, and Ottawa City’s Public Art collections.
To get things rolling, can you tell us a bit about yourself, Whit?
I’m a Canadian photo-based artist and college instructor at The School Of Photographic Arts Ottawa. I studied drawing and sculpture at Concordia University which has also become a large part of my practice. The last few years have had me travelling frequently to source props and long term project opportunities. I was working at the Museum of Natural History in Puebla, Mexico building sets and photographing their vast collection of specimens which ultimately became the catalyst for my most recent series discussing consumerism and humanity’s relationship with the environment.
How did you become involved with the first 33 portraits?
Looking back now it’s incredible how serendipitous life can be. Rachel and I worked together a decade ago at a part time job during our university years. We were forging very different career paths but our frequent late night phone calls ranting our individual challenges (and how often they overlapped) had always ended with us racking our brains at how we could collaborate in some way. When LNFB was born and Rachel asked me to participate it was an obvious yes.
What inspired you to become involved in the first place? And to take the initial portraits the way you did?
Every person deserves equal opportunity, pay, and respect in the workplace. Until those upholding the law are living by these standards then there is obvious work to be done. I’m grateful for the people around me that have provided me with a strong foundation and the fire to fight when I feel undervalued. To be part of LNFB, a growing voice that can be that foundation where it’s needed… I can’t imagine anything more important.
Those first portraits were shot with the hope that we’d have many more to come. I created an undramatic lighting scenario to keep the focus on the words and participants. No false smiles or dramatic poses, I wanted everyone involved to feel empowered and that they could emote in an honest way. I treat portraits like collaborations between myself and the person in front of my lens. I certainly hope that comes through in the final images.
How have you been involved in LNFB since?
Since the first 33 portraits I’ve been back again to do a second shoot at Mcgill. We did two full days of portraits and the participation was incredible, I think we photographed about 70 people. I continued portraits with the LNFB team at the University of Ottawa.
When the portraits launched, did you have any idea the campaign would grow as much as it has?
I could never never have pictured the impact and reach it would have. Obviously there is a need for LNFB and the conversations it has started. I can’t imagine it slowing down any time soon.
What are you up to now? Any other feminist projects on the horizon?
Yes! I’m currently shooting my upcoming solo show, Biophilia, in Mexico City. My team and I have just created the largest heliogravure photo etching on copper in photographic history, which I still can’t believe. I’m also finishing up shooting for a group show opening in Ottawa in June about transgender awareness. A close friend of mine has transitioned from female to male and a small group of artists have photographed him over the last two years through all stages of the transition.