Paul Colangelo Features

Paul Colangelo

This Toronto-based photographer’s insightful work brings environmental issues to light.

Dzana   Tsomondo

I meet documentary photographer Paul Colangelo for breakfast in Toronto, and despite having driven in from three hours away, he is bright-eyed and talkative. Early mornings are a given in wildlife photography, a profession that requires forbearance and self-reliance in equal measure. In order to shoot Surviving Todagin, his series about a herd of rare sheep in northern British Columbia, he spent three two-month stretches on Todagin Mountain.

© Paul Colangelo

“A helicopter drops you off, and then it’s just you and the sheep and the bears and the wolves,” he says. Even the wind was a problem. “It was like trying to sleep in a paint shaker,” he explains. “The next day, your tent and all your clothes are down in the valley.”

Undaunted, he learned to pack more efficiently, stepped up his camp-cooking abilities and took solace in his lone indulgence, a French press. In the end, he would propose to his now-wife on that mountain, when she hiked up to spend a long weekend. Before she arrived, Colangelo had driven six hours to a gift store at the regional airport and bought two rings—one wood and one antler—just in case. Perhaps it’s telling that when I ask what his most demanding field assignment was, the story ended with a heartwarming anecdote about proposing to his wife. Colangelo genuinely loves what he does, and it shows.

Time comes up a lot when you talk to Colangelo about his work: The patience it takes to wait for the right shot, weather be damned. The time it takes to make connections with people—who are rightly suspicious of outsiders. The time you have to invest to do their stories justice. I heard a similar refrain when I talked to his clients and collaborators. Colangelo had told me about a rigorous travel-intensive story he worked on for World Wildlife Fund; Alex MacLennan, editorial director at the World Wildlife Fund, detailed a key to the photographer’s success. 

“The team he was with had a rigorous and not always photography-friendly schedule,” MacLennan explains. “He found ways to elicit people’s emotions and stories, to make the light work regardless of time of day, and to roll with the punches [to get] those great shots. I think patience and that magical eye take him a long way.” 

Colangelo grew up near Toronto, in Markham, Ontario, a sprawling suburb. His mother was a homemaker who left her job as an X-ray technician to care for her three sons. His father worked his way up from the IBM Canada mailroom to become the division’s chief accountant. Colangelo’s love for the outdoors was nurtured at the family’s vacation cottage in Haliburton, where he would explore the woods and canoe on a nearby lake. He was also an avid Boy Scout, part of a local troop that camped once a month throughout the year, often in extreme conditions. “I hated it at the beginning, believe me,” Colangelo says. “But eventually, being out in those environments started to feel right.”

By his own admission, Colangelo’s path to a career in photography has been unlikely. He wasn’t an artistic child and never owned a camera. He went to Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario for his business degree. When graduation rolled around four years later, Colangelo’s future seemed neatly laid out with a job offer from an insurance company he had interned at. But, in a bit of Shakespearean irony, his parents gave him a Nikon F55 as a graduation present.

“I don’t know what happened, but I was immediately obsessed with it,” Colangelo remembers with a chuckle. “Within months of receiving that camera, I had quit my job, moved to British Columbia and enrolled in a photography program.”

Even now, reminiscing in a cozy diner over generous platters of Eggs Benedict and cups of strong coffee, Colangelo can’t quite put a finger on what it was about photography that captivated him all those years ago. “It’s like asking why you love your partner,” he explains. “You could point to some specific things, but it’s really just a gut feeling.” 

Unsurprisingly, his friends and family were stunned. After all, Colangelo had never even owned a camera before, and here he was throwing everything away to be a photographer. For his part, even he didn’t really have an idea of how he could build a career from his newfound passion, until he discovered the work of celebrated nature photographer Frans Lanting. “As soon as I saw what he was doing, something just clicked. I knew that was it—that was what I was going to do.”

Within months of receiving that camera, I had quit my job, moved to British Columbia and enrolled in a photography program.”

Ever the pragmatist, Colangelo knew he had a lot of catching up to do if he wanted to compete with peers who had been taking photos their whole lives. He began looking seriously at Langara College in Vancouver, intrigued by its well-regarded photography program and the natural beauty of greater British Columbia. “I contacted an alumni of the program, Adam Gibbs, a landscape photographer who works out of British Columbia, and he sent me this long e-mail assessment of the industry,” Colangelo says with a laugh. “Basically, [he said], if you don’t mind eating crap dinners and being broke for years, it’s the perfect job for you.’”

Colangelo’s hustle didn’t stop there. After completing the two-year program at Langara, he moved to Santa Cruz, California, in order to intern for none other than Lanting, the very photographer who inspired him to enter the field. He cites his six months assisting Lanting as a crucial step not just in honing his skills, but in learning the business. “It was a real window into the whole National Geographic world and the inner workings [of being a professional photographer].”

Once his internship ended, Colangelo returned to Vancouver itching to work on a project of his own. That opportunity would arrive in 2009 when he heard about Ali Howard, a woman who intended to swim the 355-mile length of the Skeena River in northern BC to bring attention to regional conservation issues—in particular, a Royal Dutch Shell proposal for a coal bed methane development at the source of Canada’s three great salmon rivers, known to native peoples as the Sacred Headwaters. 

Fascinated by the story, Colangelo finagled an assignment photographing Howard and, paying out of his own pocket, set off for the Headwaters. It would prove a life-changing decision. “Meeting and speaking with the Tahltan First Nation and smaller communities downriver that were fighting this development, hearing the passion in their voices while standing in this amazing pristine wilderness, and imagining this massive development coming in,” Colangelo says. “Most Canadians don’t even realize how lucky we are to have places like that.”

As he dug into the Headwaters story and talked to the local people, everything snowballed. The next summer, he used a grant from the North American Nature Photography Association to return to the Headwaters for two months. Eventually he connected with National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis, who had a cabin in the area; together, they networked with members of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) to bring what Colangelo calls a “SWAT team of photographers” to the region. Their collaboration yielded a book, The Sacred Headwaters: The Fight to Save the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass, and accompanying exhibitions at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado; Banff Mountain Film Festival; and the Vancouver International Film Festival. Their advocacy was only one part of a much wider movement, but it helped amplify the voices of local activists and ultimately was successful—the Canadian government permanently banned fossil fuel exploration in the region. 

As soon as I saw what [Frans Lanting] was doing, something just clicked. I knew that was it—that was what I was going to do.”

“From that, I joined the ILCP, and projects spun off of that,” Colangelo says. “My next one was with National Geographic in the same area. That was the beginning of establishing my career.” 

The editor of Canadian Geographic, Aaron Kylie, has worked with Colangelo several times, most recently for a feature on Wood Buffalo National Park, a piece that would be nominated for a 2015 National Magazine Award in the photojournalism and photo essay category. “A big part of his success can be attributed to his thoroughness and dedication,” Kylie offers. “He seems very willing to go the extra mile to get ‘that shot.’ And he’s very willing to put in the time. I suspect there are few, if any, photographic pursuits where having a great deal of patience and willingness to spend extra time in the field pays off as much as when it comes to wildlife and environmental photography.”

This past year, Colangelo traveled to Northern Ireland to shoot an Orange walk: an annual parade by Protestant partisans on July 12th that contentiously travels through Catholic areas of the balkanized province. It’s the sort of thing he wouldn’t have considered earlier in his career, but now it’s an example of something he wants to do more. “Pretty pictures of nature get old really quickly,” he explains. “I prefer a less-Disney look at nature, just trying to look at the lives of people who live in wilderness areas—more towards social documentary.”

When we talk about influences, Colangelo cites artists whose work has a darker bent: Jonas Bendiksen, Marcus Bleasdale, Nick Nichols, Brent Stirton. Colangelo’s appreciation for unvarnished realism is reflected in his work; he doesn’t seek out gore, but makes no attempt to buff away nature’s harsh edges. The searing beauty of his series like Salvation Fish is not just the tundra, suspended dreamlike at dusk, or a school of colorful fish shot from below, dull silver bellies and red plumed fins. It’s also the dead seals lashed to boats and towed to shore, eyes lolling, mouths yawning with blood scarlet, then ochre in the water. Or a gutted bear carcass lying in humanesque repose, like an abandoned Halloween costume.

There is so much that goes into this sort of work, beyond the obvious. The grant writing, the travel, the logistics, the politics—both local and global—but when I ask Colangelo his greatest asset, his answer is unsurprising. “Passion. Passion for the subject matter. People underestimate how much of a role that plays, and the time spent to get access and how much all of that comes out in the imagery.” ca

Dzana Tsomondo (dzanatsomondo@gmail.com) is a freelance writer living and working in New York City. Passionate about music, art and politics, his work has appeared in publications from Photo District News to Cool’eh Magazine.

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