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Oration honouring Ben Arne Hansen

May 15 Corner Brook

The word “photography” is derived from the Greek, meaning “drawing with light.” Our honorary graduate today is a master in drawing with light. I’d safely assume that all of us here today have seen his work. So emblematic are his photos that I would say he has played a central role in (to use a crude term from marketing) the “branding” of this province.

Ben Hansen immigrated to Canada in 1953. He started off as a sleeping car porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Two years later, he trained at the Creative School of Photography in Toronto. He went on to become a photographer for Canadian Pacific, and later for Canadair. In 1968, he took a job at MUN as manager of Photographic Services, and he was with the university for 20 years. With his wife Joyce and his eight children, Ben Hansen has made St. J­­ohn’s, and all of Newfoundland and Labrador, his home for the last 40 years. He has spent half his life documenting this place. And what a testament it is.

He was a pioneer of Newfoundland cultural photography. Many of the images he captured were seemingly insignificant. But like a good wine, Ben Hansen’s photos grow in value over time, as they preserve a cultural landscape which is being altered.

Since 1976, he has published 10 books of photographs. Some of the photos have won Professional Photographers of Canada awards. Some have ended up on UNICEF greeting cards. Some are likely on your coffee tables at home.

Cyril Poole, a former principal of Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, in the forward to Ben Hansen’s book One Hundred Outports, wrote that the photos “show us huddled in a hundred little clusters on a band of rock between forbidding hills and the threatening sea.” But the landscape and the communities in which we huddle are represented by Hansen as awe-inspiring, seductive, gentle, and oft-times right peculiar:

  • The fiery orange sunsets (although they could be sunrises, as Ben liked to get up at 3 in the morning to take advantage of the magical light of the early sun)
  • The sheds resting awkwardly on rocks
  • The mix of shadows and sun on mountains
  • Cod drying on a line
  • Boats floating on a mirrored harbour
  • Old wooden fences tracing a line across the spine of a hill
  • Softly-rounded fog-draped hills
  • Meandering tracks through snow
  • A stiff breeze bringing a clothesline to life
  • The hand-hewn doors on a stage

In his photos, the tools of the fishery are shown as objects of beauty as well as utility: floats, anchors, nets, rubber boots, gloves.

These photos have the ability to depict the soul of this province, to allow us to reflect and marvel at all that has been built upon these rocks. To look anew at the ordinary, the material culture, of Newfoundland and Labrador.

In 2003, Ben Hansen began working with Jean-Claude Roy, a painter. They produced a book of photos and paintings, called Two Visions of Newfoundland & Labrador. I asked Jean-Claude of this experience, and he reflected: “[Ben] did what no one else was doing at the time. He would stop in an outport, wander around taking pictures of things that no one in the outp­ort thought interesting, such as a pile of rusting cans under a wharf, and inevitably someone would come to talk to him. He was soft-spoken and unpretentious ... the result is a body of photographs not only of the landscape but the changes the people have made to the landscape, and of course the people themselves.”
Chancellor, for his role in recording and celebrating the old and the new, and in reminding us of the relationship between those two, I present for the degree doctor of laws, honoris causa, a man who was able to open our eyes to the beauty of not only the grand and spectacular, but also the seemingly commonplace and mundane, Ben Arne Hansen.

Ivan Emke
University orator