Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Wade Davis: Photographs

“Storytellers change the world,” claims Wade Davis, a man often regarded as one of Canada’s best. Whether he is writing about Haitian vodoun or George Mallory’s ill-fated expeditions of Everest and the Great War, Davis has spent his career telling us stories of the human spirit. His impressive body of work as an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer and author has earned him admittance to the Order of Canada. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of one of our country’s highest honours.


The crowd at the Christ Church Cathedral swelled to one of the largest I’ve seen for any Writer’s Festival event, populated by a healthy mix of young and old, all eager for Davis to take the stage and tell them a new story, this time through photographs. “Photography means to write with light,” a teacher at Harvard once told him. “So go out there and find something to say.” Obviously, Davis took the advice to heart. There’s no time to talk at length about any of the one hundred and fifty photos chosen for his new book ( Wade Davis: Photographs ) but through brief anecdotes and descriptions it becomes clear that they were selected with care from many thousands more.


In his position as Explorer-in-Residence for National Geographic (a happy oxymoron), Davis tells us he tried his best not to exoticize the other, acknowledging that every culture has something to say. “Other cultures aren’t failed attempts at being you,” he tells the crowd. He set out instead to create a relationship with his photographic subjects, and to listen. The pictures on display behind him are evidence of his success in that regard. They are often striking in their simplicity, and unlike the well-intentioned photographs plastered on social media of voluntourism, there is a sense of equality to them, between the subject and both the photographer and the viewer.


When the time came for audience questions, Wade was asked to explain his inherent optimism. He quickly told the crowd that despair is an insult to the imagination, adding that his Buddhist faith teaches that negative things are a part of life, and his focus has always been to help, not lose hope. Another audience member asked if Davis saw a way back from colonization, to which he responded that there is no way back, but there is a way forward.


The last question came from a reader of Davis’s book Into the Silence , who asked him how he had separated himself and his voice so successfully from the lengthy narrative. Davis thanked him for the compliment and told the audience that he never set out to be a writer. He received his first book deal on somewhat of a whim and had to teach himself along the way. He claims he didn’t realize it at the time, but he wrote Into the Silence for his grandfather and the men like him, men who went to war, who fought and died or lived and went on to climb mountains, real or imaginary. “We’ll never know men like our grandfathers again.” It was an answer so perfect you’d be forgiven for thinking it had been a set up, due to the proximity to Remembrance Day. But it was simply a display of Davis’s skill as a storyteller. A well-earned standing ovation followed, from an audience perhaps remembering the grandfathers and grandmothers they once knew.