Canadian Geographic Photo Club - Interview with Don MacKinnon

Interview with Don MacKinnon


Don MacKinnon is a successful freelance photojournalist based in Richmond, B.C., who has been working in the Vancouver area and on Vancouver Island since 1990. A graduate of the photographic technician course at Algonquin College in Ottawa, MacKinnon's photos have been published in numerous publications, ranging from from daily newspapers, such as The Globe and Mail, to international wire services and magazines, including TIME and Maclean's.

Don MacKinnon

Never without his camera, MacKinnon is passionate about documenting life and is now exploring video as a new medium to capture moments in time.

Read more about the trainees at the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue in the January/February 2009 issue of Canadian Geographic.

To view more of Don MacKinnon's work, visit:

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Q How did you get started in the industry?

A When I was in my teens, I got a hold of a camera. I always liked looking at pictures, the idea of being able to keep a segment of time on a single frame. I always enjoyed Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's posters because they were like photojournalism in a way: a second in time captured by an artist. But since stick men are as good as I can draw, I figured a camera would do a better job.

I worked for national museums before I became a photographer. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was swinging the axe, I was laid off. After that, I went to Ottawa's Algonquin College for their photography course, which dealt with the more scientific aspects of photography, and graduated in 1988. I figured if I was going to be unemployed, I might as well be unemployed at something I liked. So I started trying to get jobs and sell my photos, and it's been fun ever since. It's not always easy, but always fun.

Q Did you start off as a photojournalist?

A When I first got started, I thought I'd like to get into photojournalism. But you just have to grab at anything you can. I enjoy photojournalism and documentary photography the most right now; when I'm not doing that, I like to photograph wildlife.

Q The Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue is known for its rigorous and diverse training to prepare students to save lives. Can you tell the Photo Club a bit about your shoot?

A This was a project that I went out and shot on my own. It wasn't an assignment from Canadian Geographic. I just thought that the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue is something Canadians should probably know about. So I went to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, from where I live in Richmond, once or twice a month to document what they were doing, whether it was medical or dive training, getting hoisted in helicopters or jumping out of Buffalo airplanes.

Q How long did this shoot take you to complete?

A I started it in September 2006 and finished the following September. The students graduated in June 2007, but I followed up after that because three trainees had been stationed at the Canadian Forces Base in Comox. I followed them and did some of the helicopter stuff with them at the base.

Q So you were right there with the students while they were doing some of their most extreme training, like jumping out of these aircrafts?

A Oh yeah. Of course, for these guys, safety is their first name, so I never felt in any danger whatsoever. They put me on something called a "monkey tail," which is a harness with a long strap attached to it that's hooked onto a part of the aircraft. I was standing on a bench off to the side so I could sort of look down over the instructor's shoulder as the students were getting hoisted up into a Cormorant helicopter or jumping out the back of a Buffalo aircraft.

Q That sounds like it would be a difficult situation to get a good photograph. What were the challenges to get that shot?

A You just need to steady yourself wherever you are and stay out of the way. Research is the key to take any photograph. You just talk to the instructor and the student and ask them what they're going to do. Then I place myself in the right position to document whatever they're about to do.

Physical preparation is also good to do for this kind of shoot. This shoot has inspired me to be more physically aware and stronger. It inspired me to take a CPR course.

QIt seems like you had it all figured out. Have you photographed anything like that before?

A Yeah, I've done some similar stuff before. When I heard that the Labrador helicopters were going to be replaced by the Cormorant helicopters, I wanted to document a flight in a Labrador helicopter before they were retired. I managed to go up and take pictures of the students doing their thing in Labrador helicopters instead of Cormorant helicopters. After that, I heard about the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue school and thought it would make for an interesting story.

Q Students must go through vigorous training in order to prepare for the physical stresses of the job. Since you were there to document their training, was the shoot physically demanding for you?

A At first when I saw what these guys were doing, like eight chin-ups before they went into or came out of the building, it made me a little bit more aware of what's happening. That's what they have to do any time they come into or out of the building: Eight chin-ups. Everything is in preparation. Now I wasn't doing eight chin-ups, but I was thinking, "I'm going to have to be able to run ahead of these guys sometimes or keep up to them at least." So I sort of upped my physical endurance and got a little more physically fit because of the shoot. So it had a positive outcome.

Q What equipment did you use?

AFor the most part I used a D200. I also used a Nikon D2H.

For times when I would be closer to the subject, like the shot where the fellow is jumping out of the aircraft, I used a Tamron 14 mm lens and a Nikkor 17 to 35mm F2.8 zoom lens. The other lens that I use a lot is the Nikkor 80 to 200mm F 2.8.

QYou mentioned research as being an important part of preparing for a shoot. Did you plan to capture any specific shots or did you snap them on the fly?

A A lot of times, I find it useful to ask people what steps they're going to go through to do what they're doing. Since I'm not a skydiver, I wanted to know what physical steps they have to go through to jump out of a plane. Of course, when you've got 12 students doing the same thing, it's easier to figure out what to do. If the first student jumped off one way and the picture wasn't what I wanted, I'd get into a different position.

Maybe you go up a few different times or you spend the whole day doing this sort of stuff. Some of it is hit and miss, and other times you get it right away because somebody gave you an accurate description ahead of time.

Q Students had to do some extreme things for their training. What was the most exciting thing that you did on the shoot?

A The stuff I liked the most was being up in the Cormorant helicopter or in the Buffalo aircraft. I really enjoy doing that sort of stuff. In the Cormorant, as these guys were being hoisted up, I was in the monkey tail that I described to you earlier the harness with the strap on the back. So I was right by the door and could sort of lean out and shoot down as these guys were coming out.

Q If you weren't a photographer, what would you be?

A Well, as I said before, I probably wouldn't be an artist (laughs). Lately, I've been getting interested in video. It's a different form of photography, just a different box. Also, video guys get to have sound.

Q What drives you to get up and take pictures everyday?

A I enjoy documenting. I just love doing it all the time and I almost always have a camera with me. It doesn't matter whether I'm photographing news or birds or kids playing I just enjoy capturing those little segments of time.


1 comment

naturelor1970 posted 2016-11-03 10:11pm

Wow! I know this guy as a bird photographer, but never knew he documented things like this! Way to go Don! Sounds very exciting.


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