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Interview: SPAO’s Jonathan Hobin on the future of photographic arts in Ottawa

By Brenda Dunn on November 7, 2017

I sat down with Jonathan Hobin, Creative Director for the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO), also a photo-artist. In the days leading up to SPAO’s reopening, I asked him five questions about the school, the students, and the future of photographic arts in Ottawa. Below are some of the highlights.

Apt613: Why did SPAO choose this time for their big move?

Jonathan Hobin: The lease in the market was coming up for renewal and we realized if the school had any hope for the future, we needed a larger space to accommodate a recent resurgence in interest in the program. It was make or break time.

I managed to squeeze into the space [in Little Italy] at the right time, and it was a lot of right things at the right time. Also a lot of community support. My father’s architectural firm is on the same street and they support what they call “crazy community art projects” every year and again it was the right place right time. They were willing to throw their support to the school and give thousands and thousands in hours and design. The right place, the right time, the right supports, the right relationships.

The founding director, who is Italian, grew up and worked at the bakery down the street. It’s a full circle moment for him and his legacy. There are a lot of happy circles going on.

Why the resurgence in interest in photography?

Photography is more accessible than ever before, but when it’s so easily accessible, that also cheapens it. So people are looking for more ways to separate themselves from the pedestrian versions of photography. Just like the lovers of music are turning to vinyl, the lovers of photography are turning to the less attainable easy aspects of photography, looking to whittle down the fundamentals of photography: light, and chemistry and paper. Lens based work and cameras. They’re looking for the beauty that can exist in that. They’re people that have a real love of craft and the idea of turning back to this one-off idea, rather than things being replicated a million times.

I also joke that it’s how the 17 year old can learn what their Instagram apps are meant to replicate.

We really believe that if you’re going to go the digital route, which is inevitable, you’re going to have to understand the foundations of what these programs like Photoshop are trying to replicate. If you understand what’s going on in the darkroom, you understand better how to use the digital process.

Why did you choose photography as your main medium?

I can’t paint! (Laughs) No I used to say that all the time, but actually, I truly believe that you can communicate differently with photography. To identify true moments or identify a true person or place or object – photography becomes that much more real. It serves a different purpose… Photography can get to guttural places, the documentation of the most brutal aspects of the world. It can also communicate simple beauties that get captured when you look at things differently.
Photography is a tool that transcends language barriers. It’s an incredible tool for communication.

Who are your students?

People straight out of high school. People on their second or third career. Retired ambassadors, people who are lifetime career photography looking to enhance their skills. People who have had their single careers and want to finally give their jobs meaning and purpose. Ex military using this as a form of rehabilitation. For the first time ever we have a blind student who’s one of the best students for the first year. Where else does someone who’s blind and wants to study photography go besides a place like SPAO? A lot of these classes are eight students with the emphasis on mentorship and one on one contact. You can’t have someone who has a need like that work anywhere else. Different walks of life, but all with that similar interest.

What’s the future like for SPAO and photographic arts in Ottawa?

I’ve not known another art institution that has decided to build a school and move in within a year, and then hire additional staff and grow the program. I see us as being a key voice in the photographic arts both in Canada and abroad. I see us as being a true destination spot for people who have a love of photographic arts. I expect to be known nationally and internationally for our programming.

Ottawa’s always had an interesting relationship with photography. It’s the Karsh legacy, and now with the CPI at the national gallery, this idea of photography in Ottawa and SPAO coming up at the right time and giving exhibition space for lens based work. Especially people who think Ottawa’s a boring government town – I think those are just boring people. A lot of the international community here can find that photography is the tool that they need to express [themselves]. Ottawa could become recognized as an international center for photography. I really believe that.

SPAO’s grand opening in their new location at 77 Pamilla is November 10 from 5-11pm, with speeches at 7:30pm. The Peptides and LaVoix finalist Rebecca Noelle perform from 9-11pm. Featuring free food from Morning Owl, Raw Juice, Roberto’s pizza, and drinks from Tooth & Nail, they’re already over capacity in interest so get there early. For more from SPAO, visit their website or find them on YouTube.