If you’ve been following the Tina Fontaine story, you’ve likely seen the work of photojournalist Lyle Stafford.

By Mark Taylor, Photojournalism Editor

If you’ve been following the Tina Fontaine story, you’ve likely seen the work of photojournalist Lyle Stafford. Following stints as a staffer at the National Post and Victoria’s Times Colonist—where he contributed to a 2011 Michener-Award-winning story about reduced support for people with development disabilities—Stafford is back in his hometown of Winnipeg, working as a freelancer. J-Source caught up with him outside a Winnipeg courthouse, moments before he snapped a photo of Tina Fontaine’s aunt, Lana Fontaine. The photo wound up on the front page of next day’s Globe and Mail.

J-Source: You’ve been doing a lot of work on an important story, the murder of Tina Fontaine and the issue of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. What have the past few months been like for you? 

yle Stafford: The Globe’s doing a nice job of devoting resources to this issue. Anytime I can be a part of it, it’s good. I love the work. I love what I do. It’s a really tough subject. The camera helps to deflect some of that. I think at the end of the day, you sit down and go, wow, this is really quite the two solitudes, and we have a lot to work to do to address these issues. But it’s good work. I’m happy to be part of it.

J-Source: The shot with Fontaine’s casket and her grieving family members—can you walk us through how you got that one?

LS: That’s just good journalism on the reporter’s part. Kathryn Blaze Carlson (a Globe reporter) is completely committed to this. We just paid our respects to the family, went to the house. You know you’re either going to get turned away or you’re not. We approached, and they welcomed us in. We’ve been out at the reserve probably half a dozen times. We just became comfortable with the family, or rather they with us. They’ve trusted us. There’s a lot of mistrust in this community, for obvious reasons. But they had no problem. If you’re respectful and keep out of the way, it’s not a big deal, and that’s basically what I did. Just try to be a fly on the wall. You want to exude respect. You’re not just somebody there to grab some art. You actually give a shit, and I think they felt that. It’s just a matter of going and asking and being respectful and it worked out. The thing about what newspapers do on a daily basis is that quite often we don’t have enough time. And we come across as uncaring and cold and unkind when in fact that’s not the case at all. You really don’t have a lot of time to make that connection. It’s really all about time, getting people comfortable. I’ve always been of the mind that you go early and stay late.    

J-Source: Have you gotten feedback from the family? 

LS: Yes. It’s very positive. They’re happy with what we’re doing. They’re not like us, they’re not news junkies. They don’t devour story after story, even if it pertains to them. But I think overall they’ve expressed a fairness in the work. I was the only one allowed in at the funeral, to stay in during the service. That’s an honour, and you treat it as such. I believe they’ve been pleased with the work so far.

J-Source: What do you hope your work on this story accomplishes? 

LS: We’ve got a lot of work to do. Winnipeg has the largest urban Aboriginal population in the country. There is stuff here that you really shouldn’t see in 2014. I hope it can help get two sides to sit down and look at each other. It’s a really difficult situation. I’m just trying to scratch the surface. A poll came out not too long ago: 50 per cent of people are afraid to come downtown. That’s a really scary number. I’m hoping that it shows we’re just human beings on this planet.

-Source: When and where did you get your start as a photojournalist?

LS: Right here in Winnipeg. I started at the Winnipeg Free Press weekly, which was a great addition to the daily. Then, just as I was getting into it, in the early 1990s, that was closed down, so I moved to B.C. and really got my feet wet. It was a great experience with the likes of Chuck Stoody, Nick Didlick, Jeff Vinnick, Mike Blake, Andy Clark. I started here. I travelled. I had a little Pentax and shot a bunch. Signed up for Red River College … they have a good two-year program. It was basically all technical. But I’m basically self-taught.

J-Source: You’ve worked as a staffer at the Times Colonist in Victoria and also at the National Post. Can you compare and contrast a staff job versus freelancing? What are some of the pros and cons of each?

LS: When you freelance, you’re the one in charge. There’s not a reporter with the lay of the land. You don’t have to deal with editors or funky personalities in the office. At the same time, there’s nothing better than working with a team. I liked being in the newsroom. But I’ve got to say, I prefer freelance. It seems as though I had more jingle in my pocket when freelancing than when I had a staff job. The downside of freelance is you’re mortified to take a break because you’re worried they (editors) are never going to call you again. You never exhale. You never relax. You’re afraid to say no. You may have three jobs on the go and a doctor’s appointment but you don’t turn down work.

J-Source: What else are you working on? 

LS: Photo-wise I’ve been doing quirky street photography in and around Winnipeg. I’m in the process of starting a coffee shop. It was born out of necessity. We moved right into the core. Unlike a lot of Canadian cities, there are no amenities downtown. That’s taken quite a bit of planning. I’ve been talking with Getty in New York. So I’m staying in the mix. The nice thing about a staff job is that you don’t have to worry about saying no. You can relax a little bit. But it takes the hunger out of a little bit. So it’s nice to be back in a bit of a meat grinder.