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BBC Publishes NPU photos on web site

The vehicle dug deep tracks in the grass and mud before it hit an electric pole, ending its wild off-road ride. The driver was unhurt despite narrowly avoiding an accident with incoming traffic and could be seen engaging in a calm exchange with the driver of another vehicle close to the scene of the incident. That it happened right across from the press office made it news, that the NPU decided to run its own photo on its cover made it historic.

The March 1984 cover photo was the launching pad for over 20 years of NPU photography which has included everything from world leaders to sport event, cultural manifestations to scenes of disaster, from tens of different countries across all continents.

The following year the NPU was proud enough to publish photos in next day editions of newspapers. Soon it was featuring colour photos in weekly issues. By then a magazine, Le Nouveau Regard, was running regular photo essays.

Today, the digital age well-embraced, photos minutes old can be uploaded on web pages to illustrate a story, whether its Mario Lemieux taking practice shots in the World Cup of hockey or tradesmen crossing the border from Spanish-owned areas of Northern Morocco, Parisians celebrating their Soccer World Cup win or veiled Muslim girls cycling across an Indonesian village.

The NPU has been on a mission to get as much of its own "art" as it can, one rekindled in the digital age which has simply eliminated the need for traditional photo processing, now reduced to a few clicks in Photoshop. The library of NPU pictures has taken years, creatvity and patience to become what it is.

In 1990 during his historic post-Berlin wall visit to Ottawa, that meant waiting some hours on top of a lamp pole to capture Mikhail Gorbachev coming out of his Zlin limo. Surprised himself, the leader smiled and waved at the daring and a little off-balanced photog before plunging into crowds of well-wishers. On the night of December 26 1993, it meant clicking away with borrowed camera while sustaining the cold splash coming from the fire hoses on the frigid night the NPU office went up in flames.

That was a sad day for the NPU, especially its photography department, which lost hundreds of photos, including the original car accident that started it all. Miraculously, it rescued many as well, some glued to the plastic of partly melted photo albums caked in ice by the gushing water used to extinguish the flames.

Today photos would more likely be stored in hard disks, CDs and web sites than albums, considering only a few pictures ever get published from the hundreds collected regularly. That many print originals had been preserved inside plaques of NPU original publications instead of being bunched with photos and negatives saved some images from being lost. For others, it was pure luck.

The NPU had entered, weeks before the tragedy, a few dozen pictures in a local photography contest, submitting a number of originals. Luckily the publication which organized the contest, Le Devoir, kept all submissions, including the precious photos. As the NPU marked the 10th anniversary of the inferno last Winter, it was no irony that it chose to run pictures of the incident taken by a local photographer specialized in fire incidents. In the chaos of the moment, the NPU had chosen photography to express itself as well, so natural had the reflex of photography become by then. Eleven years on, this is more true than ever.

Endurance and perseverance became other prerequisites of photography since photo essays of trips or events meant carrying a lot of equipment, sometimes heavy, to get the work done. It also meant wearing vests in rather warm locales, from Egypt to Indonesia, or freezing hands and camera batteries in the cold of the Canadian winter, a little-mentioned side-effect of the ice storm which furnished the cover of the NPU's 1998 year-end issue.

Apart from scaling scaffoldings, which gave the NPU its best pictures of the massive 1989 Greek election rallies, other risks involved ducking falling bottles from druken rioters after the 1993 Stanley cup win in Montreal, and tear-gas volleys during the Summit of the Americas protests in Quebec city in 2001. Getting the shot sometimes meant ducking border guards in Northern Morocco not keen on anyone publicizing flee-infested refugee camps, and overzealous officials at various cultural and sports events.

In time, using hidden cameras or not, the NPU came to embrace photography as a means to practice its freedom of expression.  Words printed at the Vancouver exhibition of design sensation Bruce Mau resonate significantly here. "As cost approaches zero and access to image production and dissemination becomes universal, new possibilities begin to emerge. Our insatiable embrace of the image knows no bounds."

What is good for the cultural world is good for photojournalism as well, two worlds thinly separated by convention. If journalism is the first draft of history, then surely photojournalism is the first sketch of that painting masterpiece.
From top to bottom:
Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro observe a moment of silence at Pierre E. Trudeau funeral (2000)
Pope John Paul II on two Canadian visits: Toronto (2002) Ottawa (1984)
Canada love-in days before Quebec referendum vote (1995)
Smouldering World Trade Center footsteps (2001)
Jean Chretien salutes the crowds on Canada Day
Memorial to Lady Di on site of deadly accident in Paris (1997)
Wayne Gretzky launches line of clothing at the Bay
Toronto comes out for SARS fest (2003)
Frozen landscape after the NPU office fire (1993)
Queen Elizabeth II salutes crowd next to Governor general in Ottawa (1990)
Canadian skaters make public appearance after Salt Lake Olympics medal controversy (2002)  
Young Muslim girls bike in Indonesian country-side (2002)
Anti-riot squad watches over protesters at Quebec Summit of the Americas (2001)
Wall erected in Quebec old town for Summit of the Americas (2001)
Vintage automobile races through Havana (2003)
Site of car-bombing a few miles from NPU Athens office (1989)
Vigil following massacre of 14 students at Montreal's Polytechnique (1989)
Huge crowd attends political rally in Athens (1989)
Nelson Mandela on tour after his release from prison (1990)
Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin on separate Canada visits (1990, 1991)
France celebrates world cup win (1998)
Donovan Bailey wins last warm-up ahead of crowning Atlanta Games (1996)
Memorial to the Velvet revolution in Wenceslas square, Prague (1990)
Riot scenes after Montreal Canadiens win Stanley Cup (1993)


After twenty years of collecting negatives and scanning printed photos, the NPU said goodbye to shoe boxes and photo albums and wholly embrace the digital age, a bold move that doesn't come without its risks. A risk not only shared by news organizations but every day digital snappers as well.

Digital cameras have gone from fad to necessity and covenience, no longer being pricy, and may leave film cameras going the way of the eight-track and Beta. The photo business has anticipated the move, offering printing, scanning, and CD burning services that will make holding negatives belonging to the silent era.

For cost and speed purposes, media organizations are going the same way. Last year an NPU request to digitize a stringer's photo for the wires nearly baffled Canadian Press technicians. At the NPU, that was the last straw. Months later the NPU would go digital, in time for the 20th anniversary of its photo department.

In the months since the transition, one during which film cameras have admittedly remained as back-up, the number of stored photos have soared, and so have their use on NPU web sites, while their numbers appearing in print editions have remained stable.

The photo evolution has meant uncramped shelves, but also less tangible results, with risks that anybody with a digital camera will appreciate. While the digital format has been embraced at the NPU in large part to prevent the destruction of images which occurred in the 1993 office fire, it may not do away with all threats of destruction, despite the many storage formats available.

First photos are stored on Compact Flash discs located inside the camera. Because of the volume of photos taken and often immediate use for them, they are quickly copied onto computer hard disc. This makes them available to be printed (rare at the NPU), burned onto discs (a backup made after long periods), but more immediately, processed for editing, before they are forwarded to be uploaded on a news site.

An amazing array of choices leading to an amazing number of copies of the same, at times slightly modified, version of the picture. But like the printed copy facing the test of time, none are guaranteed to survive.

First the hard disk could crash, a common occurrence which sometimes means the loss of hundreds of frames, potentially thousands. If that doesn't do it, a virus or obsolescence eventually will. But of all the described forms, hard disk storage offers one of the safest solutions.

Though Memory sticks contained in the cameras, including Compact Flash and other formats, have been proven to be nearly indestructible, new photos may replace old ones when space disappears, a problem only postponed by larger and larger memory sticks (the latest carrying 1 GB of data).

Web sites can crash, or be removed from service by bankrupt service providers, and compact discs have been proven to suffer loss of data after time, especially cheaper brands now flooding the market. It doesn't take a cataclysmic event, it just happens. This all makes the need for frequent, and multiple backups, necessary.

Then there is the long-term consideration of evolving storage formats, which have gone from tape, to large floppy disks, to smaller disks, to compact discs, and the format of the hour, flash drives. The latter can offer a measure of security, but what of the problem of accessing photos?

Palm pilots, digital photo frames and tablet computers sometimes the size of a hardcover book are changing habits too but are hardly commonplace. Only the most committed fotogs it seems will even systematically download their photos from camera discs, and few will go much further beyond the home PC, one that is usually replaced every few years.

It's a brave new photo world out there and suddenly the old photo album seems quite convenient, but really, who has the ink or the time? No wonder super-markets have been getting us to scan our own groceries...