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Ryerson professor named Toronto’s Photo Laureate

Michèle Pearson Clarke focuses on engaging Torontonians through photography
By: Deborah Smyth
May 07, 2019
Michèle Pearson Clarke stands against a stucco wall, arms folded, looking downward

“We can’t be what we can’t see,” said Michèle Pearson Clarke, who will explore issues of representation, and other themes, in her new role as Toronto’s Photo Laureate. Photo: Zahra Siddiqui.

“Don’t you have to be 70 to be a laureate?” This is how Michèle Pearson Clarke’s father jokingly reacted to her news that she’d been named official Photo Laureate, external link by the City of Toronto.

“And I thought, yes, it’s true,” Clarke, 46, said, laughing. “We are more familiar with a poet laureate – but I think one of the differences between being a poet laureate and a photo laureate is that very few people write poetry, but we all take photographs.”

We do take photographs, however, Clarke’s images have been celebrated in exhibitions and festivals around the world, and have garnered her a Ryerson Gold Medal from the Faculty of Communication and Design and the Board of Governors Leadership Award and Medal (both received upon her graduation from the Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media program in 2015), among other accolades.

“It’s a tremendous honour to be selected by a committee that was made up of a group of people whose work I admire. It feels like both a recognition of what I have contributed so far but also an investment in me as an artist,” said Clarke. “I think it’s very progressive of the city to create a position to engage Torontonians in thinking about the role of photographs and visual imagery.”

Toronto is the only city in Canada with a photo laureate and Clarke is only the second artist to hold the position – the first being former Ryerson professor Geoffrey James. The three-year appointment honours a photographer recognized for exceptional photography whose work focuses on subjects relevant to Torontonians.

“I’m really interested, over my three years, to look at different ways of engaging in conversation and understanding around Torontonians’ own relationship to photography,” explained Clarke. “Not just how I see the city, not just my relationship to photography, but trying to support and engage people to think about their relationship to photography.”

Clarke and her team are currently planning which projects and events she will undertake as photo laureate for Toronto. Explorations of representation, the emotional health of the city, and grief and loss are themes that will likely run through her tenure, said Clarke.

“To me, this is a civic role – what I’m interested in is, 'How can I truly be an ambassador and an advocate for photography?'” she said. “Visual imagery is such a key part of how humans communicate and how we make sense of the world and now that we are inundated with images, developing visual literacy and understanding the role of photography is so important for contemporary life.”

These themes are also explored in the course Clarke teaches at Ryerson, called “Documentary as Oppositional Practice: Identity, Power, Difference and Representation.”

“I did my master of fine arts degree in the Ryerson Documentary Media Program and I graduated in 2015, and it was such a gift to be invited back to teach in that program and to develop my own course,” said Clarke. “As a documentarian, you’re telling other people’s stories, so there’s a lot to grapple with in thinking about what representations are we creating, and how are we treating people as we work with them to tell their stories?”

To learn more about upcoming events and activities, visit Clarke’s Toronto Photo Laureate Instagram, external link and Twitter, external link pages. Watch the videos below to see Clarke in the studio, and the correlation between her art and football.

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