I like surprises. I really do. Obviously, they have to be good surprises and some of my favourites are related to photography. Many of those are connected to this column. It will be hard to ever top my coincidental meeting with Margaret, the widow of the photographer and Officer of the Order of Canada Richard Harrington, which led to one of my favourite Look Closer articles, but close seconds were receiving positive responses from Nick Brandt and Alec Soth when I contacted them about working with FRAMES on articles and interviews. Another was working with Richard I’Anson, perhaps the biggest inspiration for me picking up a camera in the first place.
Happily, I had a similarly lovely surprise recently when hanging around the camera shop where I work part-time here in Ottawa. Generally, I very much enjoy preaching the gospel according to Saints Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Sony (my own patron saint), and if I am lucky, Leica, but this was an excruciating day. The weather was awful, and few customers had come in. Not long before closing, I heard a bang on the store window. Normally, a bang on the window would mean that one or more of the “colourful” characters that occupy the street outside the store was creating a fuss for some reason. However, on this occasion, I saw an older gentleman wearing a rather dapper coat and fedora hat wave at my colleague Ryan. I thought he could be a character from a 1960s spy movie.
“Who’s that?” I asked. Now Ryan takes great glee in introducing me to top-class photographers that I have previously not heard of, and this occasion was no different. He literally rubbed his hands together, grinned, and told me that I was “in for a treat”. He was right. How could I not be fascinated when I discovered the man has a photograph of himself with Fidel Castro where Castro has placed a hand on his shoulder, or who had once crawled into the fireplace in the Office Oval to get a better angle for a picture! This was how I came to be introduced to the work of Jean-Marc Carisse.
Carisse has lived quite the life in photography. He served as staff photographer for three Liberal Canadian Prime Ministers (as well as the beginnings of the premiership of that great office’s current incumbent Justin Trudeau), photographed many of the world’s most famous faces, was present at some of modern history’s critical moments, and dodged death on more than one occasion. Whilst this article does not have the space to do full justice to his scarcely believable life story, I am delighted to share some of its moments and most remarkable images here with you.
His first photograph to appear in a newspaper, in this case the Ottawa Citizen, was a picture of him rather than one made by him. In 1951, as a child of six, he made the news and appeared on the front page after plunging fifty feet down the stairwell of the building that housed his family’s apartment. Whilst the physiological wounds were soon stitched up and the bruises healed, Carisse admits that the psychological scars still remain all these years later. They have been what he describes as a “monkey on his back” ever since.
Almost thirty years later, when working as official photographer for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his caucus, He attended a 1980 Liberal Party convention in Winnipeg where he would endure another close call. The convention, attended by then Prime Minister, was targeted by an arsonist. The ensuing fire, which claimed the life of one conference delegate, filled the ninth floor of Holiday Inn, where Carisse was staying, with smoke. He escaped by crawling along the floor, and being a consummate professional photographer, he made sure he had his camera bag in hand.
In preparation for this article, Carisse kindly sent me a huge treasure trove of photographs made during his career. Looking through the archive was a genuine thrill for this particular news and photography junkie. I do not think that there are many photographers out there who have photographed the Dalai Lama, Fidel Casto, Frank Sinatra, Rihanna, Queen Elizabeth, George St. Pierre, Nelson Mandela, a host of NHL stars, and a laundry list of Prime Ministers, Presidents, and world leaders. Interestingly, as I browsed the archive, it was clear that the photographs that interested me the most were the ones that feature these famous figures in more personal moments. Do not get me wrong, the ‘regular’ news images are excellent, but there is something quite special about photographs that show moments like Canadian PM Jean Chrétien and President Bill Clinton jumping over a wall at a private meeting during 1998’s G8 meeting in Birmingham, England. Carisse notes that the much older Chrétien hopped over the wall like a “gazelle” and ended up waiting for the President to catch up. Playfulness is not normally a characteristic you would associate with world leaders, but this picture, which forms our banner, shows a side to them that marks them out as just as human as the rest of us. Carisse was the only photographer to capture the moment. When I asked him about the photograph, he pointed out to me that “boys will be boys” no matter who you are and that made a very good title for the picture.
Carisse also enjoyed a remarkable and unintentionally funny shoot with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and several players from the Montreal Canadiens. Carisse described this group of players as his “idols”, so he was understandably keen to be in place for the shoot early. Much to the Prime Minister’s surprise, he arrived at 24 Sussex Drive, the Canadian Prime Minister’s official residence, an hour before scheduled. After hearing the explanation for why he was so early, Trudeau invited Carisse inside and offered him a drink rather than having him wait in the lobby. As the staff were busy preparing for the official function, the Prime Minister brought the drink himself. Did he serve up a glass of water or cup of tea? Nope. The Prime Minister served a beer!
Things took a slightly comedic turn when the Canadiens began to arrive, and the photoshoot began. The players arrived somewhat sporadically, so Carisse waited in the Prime Minister’s study until they had all entered the living room and formed a semi-circle. He then discreetly followed a waiter and tiptoed to his chosen vantage point. Despite the spot being perfect for the pictures he wanted, it was only about one foot in front of a roaring wood fire. Carisse, wearing a wool suit, was stuck in this sauna-like spot for some fifteen minutes! By the time he had finished making images of this scene, Carisse was drenched in sweat and feeling extremely uncomfortable. However, by this point he had the images he wanted, one of which I am delighted to include here. The job though was not yet finished. Carisse would go on to take a group photo as well as some candid shots of the everyone at the dining table. One can only wonder how he felt for the rest of the shoot.
I have chosen to include two more shots that feature Chrétien because of their very personal nature. The first features the former Prime Minister with Canadian actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd. The picture recalls one of Aykroyd’s most famous role as Elwood Blues, most notably from the 1980 musical comedy classic, The Blues Brothers. Like the photograph of Chrétien with Bill Clinton, this fun and charming photograph shows a side of a politician that we normally would not see. Think about many of the world’s recent political leaders. How many would allow themselves to be photographed in this way? The answer is probably not many. Rishi Sunak? Nope. Donald Trump? Nope. Emmanuel Macron? Nope. Boris Johnson? Possibly, but then he would likely “accidentally” whack a small child around the head with the trombone.
The other image featuring the former Prime Minister deals with much more serious subject matter, and on this occasion, Chrétien is a peripheral figure. It shows Mordechai Ronen, an Auschwitz survivor, on his return to the concentration camp. Ronen clasps his hands together and shouts, “I am alive!”. Ronen’s emotions infuse the image, and remind the viewer of the strength, courage, and just plain luck that must have been required for someone to have survived the horrors of the place. The emotion in the image is heightened further by his son’s arm on his shoulder, the concerned gaze of Aline Chrétien, and the expressions on the faces of everyone else around him.
I thought this image of Fidel Castro would be a fine one to include in this article as it seems to capture the essence and profile of the man perfectly. Castro is, of course, one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. Whatever your thoughts about his politics, you cannot help but be impressed by his bloody mindedness, political longevity, and ability to stay in the spotlight. This photograph captures that and more. Carisse himself had a remarkable encounter with the man. Castro had been on hand to greet Chrétien at Havana airport when the latter arrived for an official visit. Carisse cheekily hitched a ride with the two men in Castro’s official car. The resulting “in car” photograph, which is not included here, was featured in Macleans Magazine and Chrétien’s two autobiographies.
I also could not resist including the photograph of Nelson Mandela greeting children. This image captures the extraordinarily humane Mandela that occupies a particular space in my mind. His commitment to forgiveness, reconciliation, and plain decency should never be lost on us, but so often is. Carisse describes Mandela as one of the “most charismatic and genuine historical figures” that he has ever met. On one occasion, he was photographing the great man with the Prime Minister’s family at 24 Sussex Drive. After concluding the shoot, Mandela was invited into the dinning room, but before departing he asked the Prime Minister if he could have a photograph with Carisse! The kindness and humility were clearly genuine.
Our final image also includes Carisse himself. Not only did he go out and take wonderful images of both Canadian and global history, he also enjoyed being photographed with the people that he documented. As well as the image with Castro, I could have included photographs of him with sports stars, pop stars, actors, and even Pope John Paul II. However, as the focus of the article’s featured images has been politicians, I thought it only right to include Carisse, along with his trusty Leica, with the three Canadian Prime Ministers with whom he worked most closely: Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, and Jean Chrétien.
If I am honest, a short article such as this one can do little justice to Jean-Marc Carisse’s photography career. Whilst I have discussed the photographs of some of the people who I consider to be the most interesting and important figures that he has encountered, I have, in all honesty, really only scratched the surface of a remarkable life in the craft. He has, without a shadow of doubt, enough material for multiple books. He has already published one called Privileged Access with Trudeau, Turner, and Chrétien, and when discussing this article with him, he revealed that he is working on another. It is certain that I will be in the queue to purchase it when it hits the stores.
Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>