9 June

Turning the Lens to the Present to Build the Future — Wayne Simpson Photographs Phoenix of Sarnia Reserve

Wayne Simpson is a professional wedding, portrait and landscape photographer based out of Owen Sound, Ontario. Wayne’s creative work graces our home, and we feel privileged to consider Wayne our friend. When we saw his most recent project, we knew we couldn’t keep Wayne’s work to ourselves — we had to share this original series with oopoomoo readers. Wayne’s project has deeply touched us as we are about to embark on our own creative journey. Read on to discover Wayne’s personal connection to a disturbing reality for Sarnia Reserve First Nation residents in Ontario.

Phoenix Sky Cottrell at the refinery

©Wayne Simpson

Q: You are known for your landscape, wedding and family portrait shots, but this series is a little different from some of your work. Where did the idea for the project originate?

A: I’ve actually been thinking about this project for over a year and was only recently able to pull it together. There are several factors that play into why I wanted to do this shoot:

I grew up visiting my Mom on the reserve as a small kid (about 8 or 9 years old). I still remember driving through there at night and seeing all the lights and flare stacks with flames burning – it felt like we were driving through hell and it scared me as a kid. Part of me wanted to make an image that got some of that feeling across.

I still have lots of family living in the middle of all these refineries and I fear for their health and the future of the youth. Just google “Sarnia Reserve” and you will find all kinds of troubling information.

It also really hurts to see the land/water turned toxic. There are small rivers that the kids used to swim in that are now marked as toxic with signage… it’s just so sad.

Phoenix Sky Cottrell photographed at Sarnia refinery

©Wayne Simpson


Q: How did you visualize this scene/story in your mind?

A: This shot was taken on a concrete island between a major 4 lane intersection and an off-ramp. If you were to look in the opposite direction, the reserve starts about 15 meters from here.

I’ve always been amazed by the close proximity of several of the refineries, but I chose this particular spot because I liked the busy hydro lines and old cracked asphalt and also knew that the sun would be rising in exactly the right spot. Knowing the location well and figuring out the direction of light allowed me to communicate the mood I wanted with the introduction of supplemental lighting. It’s not often that I can say a shoot went exactly as planned, but in this case it did!

Q: Tell us a bit about the girl in the picture. Who is she?

A: This little girl’s name is Phoenix Sky Cottrell. Phoenix is 6 years old… but I think her soul is much older! She has a certain mature and quiet manner about her which really draws you in. We left it up to Phoenix to decide if she wanted to do the shoot at 5:30 am to use the best light and she was all in! She was actually excited about the idea! I’m 100 percent certain that she is destined for great things!

Phoenix and her mother have taken part in several Idle No More demonstrations and care deeply about the environment and health of the people, so they have given me permission to share these images.

First Nations resident Phoenix Sky Cottrell photographed near Sarnia Reserve, Ontario.

©Wayne Simpson

Q: What kind of lighting set up are you using? Why?

A: In this shoot I wanted to keep the lighting very simple and practical. I used my elinchrom Ranger with a deep octa as a modifier. I wanted to keep things simple, fast and easy so I didn’t waste any time messing around with gear and risk loosing the interest of Phoenix.

I wanted to show the refinery as a dark and ominous presence behind her and utilize some of the early morning colour in the sky. To accomplish what I visualized the shoot looking like, lighting was a must in this particular case.

First Nations resident Phoenix Sky Cottrell photographed near Sarnia Reserve, Ontario.

©Wayne Simpson

Q: Describe the morning of the shoot. How did you decide to place your model?

A: The morning of the shoot was quite chilly and very calm. It was very refreshing to not have to deal with harsh light and high winds blowing my light over! I wanted to showcase the great natural light behind Phoenix but also keep my light at least a little bit natural looking. I made a conscious decision to put my light on the same side of her as the sun to keep things as natural looking as possible.

Q:Any tips you want to share about working with ‘real’ people (as opposed to models) in shooting a personal portrait project?

A: I believe that if your personal project is meant to communicate a specific idea which is affecting actual people, it’s best to use those affected people in the images to make it authentic. The images will lack depth if the subject is not personally invested in your project as well. If the project is meant more as a creative release then models are great!

Phoenix Sky Cottrell photographed near Sarnia Reserve

©Wayne Simpson

Q: Where do you hope to see this project going?

A: I’m hoping to come up with a series of images depicting environmental challenges facing local reserves, but who knows… it could turn into more than that! After seeing the attention that this work has already received, I’m really hoping to use my vision to bring awareness on more of an emotional level. I could be wrong, but I feel that pulling at people’s emotions with images would garner more long-lasting attention than numbers on a page.

©Wayne Simpson

©Wayne Simpson

Stay tuned to Wayne’s website for further work in this inspiring series!

13 January

The Little Viking – A Very Personal Tattoo


As I’ve set up portrait session after portrait session over the past couple years in the creation of my Framed Ink project, I’ve encountered tattoos covering a multitude of colours, designs, and personal reasons behind the getting, or creation, of the tattoo.  For most of my sessions, it’s a pretty quick process.  I’ve always shot this as a project, and as such I’ve gone into each portrait session looking for pretty much that single image or two that will best represent the ink, the person, and their story.  This means that most sessions have gone fairly quickly:  30 or so minutes, I have something I like, and pack up.

Every so often, however, I’ve come across a tattoo, or a story, that stops me dead in my tracks – usually because of the story.  This was one of them.  This is Niel’s.

“I got my tattoo in memory of my third son, who passed away. He was known as the “Little Viking” around town – he put up quite the fight as he was going through his surgeries. It’s in memory of him.

Jonas was born with a congenital heart disease. Basically, he had one side of his heart that didn’t form – so only one pump. There are surgeries they can do to make it work so he went through some surgeries when he was a baby. When he was just about three he went in for the next round of surgeries; his heart was so weak that when he did the one surgery his heart basically fell apart. They actually removed his heart…and he was the first child in medical history they’ve actually done that to.

So he went on the Berlin Heart – which is a mechanical heart – as the first child in the world who ever had his heart removed completely (the mechanical heart was doing all the work). He was on the Berlin for ten weeks while we hoped and prayed for a transplant. Unfortunately, during those ten weeks… any time you do anything for the first time you never really know what the outcomes are. His other organs started shutting down so at ten weeks he fought what he could do and his other organs were shutting down so we made the decision, as a family, that that was Jonas’ time. He missed his third birthday by five days.

This isn’t my first tattoo. My first tattoo, it took me two years to figure out what I wanted and another year to get exactly what I wanted done. This one here was literally an hour. It was right. I went to my uncle’s 60th birthday party in Manitoba…I phoned up this guy who was fully booked for 4 months but he rearranged his schedule and went in and got it done. It’s important—to have something all the time to remember Jonas by. We have our memories, but for me it’s important to have this tattoo, to remember my son – this awesome little guy – and he only made it to just about three, and it’s in his memory. I’m proud of it.” – Niels Konge

This image, “Little Viking”, was photographed as part of my “Framed Ink” project – a collection of portraits spanning three years of various people’s tattoos and the stories behind them. This project will be released as an eBook by the  oopoomoo team early this year.