Naomi Harris travels many roads in pursuit of her work as an environmental portrait photographer, seeking curious and thought-provoking cultural perspectives. Her ongoing project OH CANADA! began with a four-month-long journey in 2011, photographing Canadians from coast to coast. Harris grew up in North York, is currently based in Los Angeles, and has lived in the U.S. for 20 years. Her expat experience revealed both Canada’s misrepresentation by outsiders, and her own unfamiliarity with the country as a whole. Following in the tradition of the photographic road trip—most iconically undertaken by Walker Evans and Robert Frank, among others — Harris drove over 35,000 kilometres to immerse herself within Canadian communities and gain a fuller understanding of her homeland. She notes, “This form of photography has long been a practice undertaken by men … I was only too eager to buck the trend.”
Using portable lighting techniques, Harris documents her subjects interacting with their environment. Her images are characteristically lighthearted yet empathetic in approach, evidenced in her posed scene of Sikh motorcyclists in Vancouver—a city that permits turbans as a legally accepted form of head protection. Many photographs capture small-town settings and distinctive cultural traditions, including her image taken at a powwow in Sioux Valley, Manitoba, which shows a young couple taking a break from competition and wearing a contrast of traditional and modern dress. Relationships often take centre stage, as in her photograph shot in Alberta of a family of newly arrived refugees from Sudan, and in her portrait of a young couple embracing on the Quebec/ Vermont border—a setting that takes on deeper significance at the present moment, when discussions regarding U.S. border control are in a heightened state.
Populating the central corridor of North York Centre, a location dense with surrounding community facilities and federal agencies, Harris’ life-size portraits touch on issues of immigration, cultural tradition, and evolving identities. They celebrate the distinctive lives of Canadians and the qualities that make Canada a complex and multilayered nation.
Supported by North York Centre
Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein