(FLASH) “Right hand a bit lower on your bum Suzie.” (FLASH) “That’s it, head up, smile.” (FLASH) “Good now turn a little to your right and show us what you’ve got.” (FLASH) “Fantastic!”
The studio on the second floor of the Toronto Sun building is small, dark and cool. But the air is filled with energy that smells of coconut, sounds of mellow music and looks like Suzie. She is 19. Eventually she wants to be a model or an airline stewardess but today, through the practised eye of Sun photographer Michael Peake, she is transformed into a Sunshine Girl. The tropical smell comes from Suzie’s tanned body which is coated in a rich, shiny oil. The quiet music comes from a stereo receiver hidden in a cupboard near the door. “Mood music” Peake calls it.
Clad only in a string bikini, patterned after a leopard’s spotted skin, Suzie moves like a professional though she has never done any modelling before. She is the eighth Sunshine Girl Peake has shot this year. Half-an-hour and three rolls of film later it is all over. Suzie gets dressed and Peake takes the film across the hall to the photo department for developing.
It was a simple and fun shoot but a photojournalist’s days are not all filled with sunshine (or Sunshine Girls) even when he or she works for The Toronto Sun. Under the searing heat of the Colombian sun, the air filled with the stench of thousands of rotting corpses, Peake slogged through the mud that had buried the town of Armero after a nearby volcano erupted. His Nikon recorded images of a disaster-the frantic efforts of rescue workers, the bloated bodies of children, the shock-dulled survivors. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done.” It was also the only thing he could do, during those brutal aftermath days. But unlike many other photojournalists, Mike Peake does not separate himself from the reality he covers. He would never stand by and take pictures of someone in a life threatening situation, he insists, not if he could help.
But even then, sometimes, journalistic instincts take over and the journalist keeps taking pictures. A recent shoot in Toronto’s High Park had all the elements of a Sun production: a beautiful girl in a bathing suit and high-heeled shoes, walking through the snow towards a huge Siberian tiger that lounged in the foreground. No one knew, not even the trainer (who stood just out of camera range), that the tiger was in a playful mood. As the motor drive on Peake’s camera whined, the tiger sprang up and threw itself on the girl. The trainer threw himself on the tiger. Peake threw himself into his work and kept his finger on the shutter button. It was allover in a few seconds, the tiger calm, the girl cold and shaken, the trainer very embarrassed.
“It happened so fast there was no time to think,” Peake says, unsure that he had captured the action until the film was developed. “I don’t remember taking the pictures, just lowering my camera after it was allover because I felt self-conscious.” Peake will get about $2,500 out of the shots, which were picked up by papers around the world. “It was a slow news week,” he says. Like a great deal of photo journalism, the “lady and the tiger” had been a question of being in the right place at the right time which was also a factor in bringing Peake to the Sun 11 years ago.
In 1975 he was in his final year of the journalism program at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. As well as being the photo editor on the campus paper, he worked as a freelance photographer for the Sun. Though he did not graduate, (“never was scholastically inclined”) he was lucky enough to be home one day the following summer when the Sun called and offered him a job. “Since then I have only worked about four shifts that I have not had to take a picture.”
For the photojournalist the pictures not taken are often as important as the pictures taken. Peake recalls the time he was asked to photograph a woman as she answered the door of her home, what’s known in the trade as a “grab-shot” “But, when I got there and she came to the door, I asked if I could take a picture. She refused and I left. The editor tells me what he wants. But he gets what I give him.”
Still, Peake has had to make some compromises over the years. In the past, for instance, he would never “arrange” a photograph, preferring to shoot things as they were rather than how he or an editor would like them to be. Today, especially when shooting people, he has no problem with moving them around to make better pictures. “Knowing what you want and getting it tells the story much better than taking what you get, just as long as you tell the real story and not a new one.”
Peake loves his job. He loves the freedom and the adventure of iL He has photographed mountain climbers in Tibet, followed the Pope throughout his visit to Canada and covered the Barrie tornado disaster. When not working for the Sun he writes, publishes and illustrates Che-mun, the newsletter of Canadian Wilderness Canoeing. Peake is an avid canoeist and spends his vacations traversing the many rivers of Canada compiling stories for his newsletter. He took over Che-mun, which is Ojibwa for canoe, almost two years ago and uses the facilities at the Sun to produce the newsletter which goes out to more than 200 paid subscribers-including Pierre Trudeau. Last summer, Peake, his brothers Sean and Geoffrey, and three friends spent 55 days canoeing more than one thousand miles through the Northwest Territories. The trip resulted in a two page centre spread in the Sun and lots of interesting copy for Che-mun. Peake speaks with enthusiasm about his work. “Once you have lost that,” he says, “it is time to quit” And after II years, he’s still excited by the certainty that anything can happen. On a few hours notice he may find himself half-way around the world. The downside is that he’s probably there because a lot of people are suffering, or someone important has died. But then a photojournalist is just a journalist, the camera is his pen and the pictures are his words. And having to deal with the realities of the world “is just part of the job.”