Marlin Olynyk has done everything from treeplanting and fruit picking to line cutting and firefighting. He surfs, snowboards and enjoys mountain biking. In between all these things, he’s managed to develop a career in photography.
First camera Kodak Star 435 35 mm plastic point and shoot. I broke it when I was skateboarding and fell on it. I was pretty frazzled.
Won’t go anywhere without toothpicks.
Instagram is too advanced for my phone.
Tell us about your shoot for The spell of the Yukon (Canadian Geographic, October 2012)
I shot this story from May until September in 2011. I was a line cutter in the Yukon for a gold exploration company called Prosperity Goldfields.
My job was to clear areas with my chainsaw and my partner would excavate. We would go around in a helicopter. I had a lot of down time so I had a lot of time to take pictures and document everything around me.
Not many people would consider the resource industry as their niche in photography. How do you make it work?
For a decade I would spend half a year working in the resource industry—whether it was cutting down trees, planting trees, putting out forest fires or running a chainsaw—so I could spend six months taking pictures and travelling. It’s good if you can stay focused. I’ve now gone into full time photography, and it’s good not to be distracted, especially when you’re an emerging photographer. I can always go back to working in the resource industry; that’s not going anywhere. Your artistic career will not always be there for you.
What does it feel like to take photos on the job?
I see it as documentary photography. It's no different to me than covering something else. I'm not involved with what people do; I'm not directing people or staging shots of people smiling with their work equipment to promote the company. I simply spend as much time as I can with people I work with until they’re comfortable with me. It can be uncomfortable for people who aren't excited to have photographers follow them. At the same time, you can't be a robot and sit there and not say a word and take pictures. Sometimes you only have a few minutes before you have to take a picture. In those scenarios I'll go to the camp and meet the employees at lunch or dinner so they get used to me. I'm just trying to make their work seem real to me. I want to show what people are doing and hopefully find an interesting moment in that.
How do you relate with your subjects?
I remember once taking pictures of drillers, and at one point they were putting cream and sugar in their coffee and stirring it with a wrench. At other times they'll take breaks and joke and laugh with each other. To catch those moments between the work, between the doing—that I think is the interesting part. The details like duct tape on a piece of clothing or a torn boot: those are the little things that make up the whole picture. Those are the fun things I look for.
I try to look for in-between details that I feel can tell you about what's going on, but are not a literal representation of what's going on. I do a lot of watching, a lot of observing.
It's hard sometimes to not feel excluded in documentary work because you're trying to take pictures and you're watching people have interactions, and you're a fly on the wall.
When is it time to put down the camera and just observe?
That's hard. I used to think that I always have to have a camera with me. I had some really good guidance from other photographers, and their advice is that sometimes you just don't take out your camera. It might be a day or two days, or it might just be a few hours. I find that I've never been concerned about missing out on an experience when I put away the camera. I don't carry a camera in my pocket all the time; I have a point and shoot that I never use.
What’s your biggest photography blooper and what did you learn from it?
I was once an assistant photographer at a wedding. We were both just out of school. This was before digital was really popular. We shot for an hour and a half before we realized that we hadn’t replaced the roll of film. So we had taken about 36 photos and then snapped 150 more without any film in the camera.
This comes from being nervous and not paying attention to the details. Taking pictures is one thing. Handling the camera, batteries and memory cards is another. You have to be prepared and take extra batteries, memory cards and even bring an extra camera. There’s nothing like taking pictures of what you think are magical moments at a wedding and then realizing you never actually got them on film.