Meet Henry VanderSpek: A True Photographer Without Borders

By: Safa Zaki

Passion can often be incubated in odd places. For worldly photographer Henry VanderSpek of Culture Snap Photography, a bathroom in his childhood home in Mississauga served as that place. “My father inspired me with his photography and his use of a small washroom as a darkroom for developing images. I am still amazed at the waterproof housing he created for his Canon AE-1 film SLR, that he used to capture images when scuba diving.” Although VanderSpek shot various types of film cameras for several years, it wasn’t until he purchased a Nikon D40 digital SLR eight years ago that his love for photography grew. At the same time, VanderSpek, who had been fascinated with cross cultural experiences since studying Humanities at McMaster University, found himself traveling for work across Canada and to East Africa, presenting the perfect opportunity to explore creative imaging. PWB sat down with VanderSpek to talk cultural nuances, travel tales, and of course, his washroom-ignited passion: photography.

Henry Vanderspek pictured with children from the Raising Voices project in Uganda.  

Henry Vanderspek pictured with children from the Raising Voices project in Uganda.  

PWB: It’s clear that you love exploring other cultures. I'm curious about where you grew up (e.g. a diverse neighborhood or a more homogeneous community?) and when your interest in learning about and experiencing other cultures began?

HV: I grew up in south Mississauga in the 1970s, which I recall as not being very diverse at the time. With time I benefited from greater exposure to Canada’s expanding mosaic. While studying at McMaster University my cross-cultural interests really grew. Courses in Middle Eastern history, participation in various cultural clubs, and friendships with students of different backgrounds really opened my eyes to the wide world beyond.

PWB: I read that you lived in Tunisia and studied Arabic. Why Tunisia and how did you find Arabic as a language to learn (I ask because I took an  course at UofT and found the language incredibly difficult to pick up!)  

HV: My fascination with the Middle East may have been based on stories that captured my imagination as a child, but studying the history of the region kept me interested as a young adult. After graduating from McMaster, I joined a summer travel opportunity to Tunisia and found a way to stay and study Arabic there for a year. Learning Arabic was extremely challenging. I recall wondering how on earth I’d ever get through it, but it was a great way to get to learn more about that region. Tunisia is a beautiful country with great history and culture. I met many very hospitable and kind people while there.

PWB: What gems of wisdom have you taken back with you from the various cultures that you have had the opportunity to immerse yourself in?

HV: There are many aspects of any culture to explore and understand, but two points have stayed with me:

1)    Be a student

The best approach to entering a new culture is that of a student – being humble and open to learn. Our attitude and level of openness to new things significantly affects our travel experience and outcome. There will always be frustrations when encountering difference, but if we have a good approach from the start we can work through challenges to reach a positive outcome (such as greater knowledge, deeper friendships, and adjusted and improved goals).

2)    Learn the language

If you want to learn more about a culture, you should study and use the local language. Even if you are only visiting for a short time, it is worthwhile. Cultural concepts or values are often embedded in words, phrases, and expressions so by learning their meaning you can gain insight into the culture. Even more so, by learning some local language, you are telling those you meet that “your language and culture is of equal value to mine”. Learning language and phrases also opens doors, especially as people laugh at your mispronunciations!

PWB: Based on your own travel and experiences, what do you find are the most unifying qualities among people across cultures?

HV: Every culture loves their children and wants the best for them. Every culture finds unique ways to celebrate and to express beauty and joy. This must be remembered when news programs show us the tragic and the broken events from a given country. There is so much more love and beauty to be discovered.

PWB: What inspires you to take the photos that you do on a daily basis?

HV: My motivation varies depending on the context. Often it is artistic – a desire to capture the beauty of light and shadows, or the alignment of unique objects, which may only exist in a particular way for a very short time. At other times my motivation is more journalistic, such as documenting a unique event, whether the Toronto G20 protests, or a wedding celebration. In either case photos allow those moments to last and be remembered. I think longing for beauty and for permanence, when so much is constantly changing, must be behind what I do.

PWB: What was your biggest take away from your journey with Raising Voices?

 HV: It’s hard to distill my experience with Raising Voices to one or two things. On one level it is about how much good is always going in the world, but which we rarely hear about. I didn’t know about Raising Voices before I applied for the assignment, but when learned about their work preventing violence against women and children I was overwhelmed at their incredible reach and impact.

One point that I often reflected on during my visit to Uganda, and on previous trips to East Africa, is how much we have to learn and gain from true cross-cultural exchange. This rings especially true to me when recalling the depth of laughter and joy that I have encountered and experienced in East Africa. That quality seems rare, or less attainable, in North America, but I am encouraged to know that it is has not been extinguished overseas.

PWB: Your charity work is overwhelmingly impressive. How do you pick the causes that you lend your time to and why are they important to you?

HV: The importance of social action really clicked for me during high school, while participating in a week long project in inner-city Detroit with my church youth group. Suddenly, while helping to paint some homes in a very rough area, I recognized that there was a world of need way bigger than my teenage issues, and that doing something about it was exciting and meaningful. That was the first stepping stone of a journey of service that I am still on today.

I choose which charities I get involved with based on what I am passionate about. Joining those that really move me helps me stay involved longer and be more creative with my involvement. Working with others towards a shared goal, and seeing the results in the lives of those who benefit, is a real joy.

Rapid Fire round:

# of languages spoken: 3 (English and very basic French and Arabic)

Dream place to travel to: Central Asia

If I could have a superpower it would be: Upgrade (My friends claim I have the power of getting upgrades and deals!)

My absolute favourite meal is: Butter chicken and fresh Naan bread

Biggest culture shock moment: Sorting through the levels of bureaucratic red-tape in order to pick up a Christmas package that my parents sent me while I was in Tunisia. Not my best moment. J


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