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Heather Saitz's photographs don't just capture moments in time, they inhabit them, provoking reactions both intellectual and aesthetic. A Calgarian by way of Toronto, her work examines the odd beauties of the past, as understood through the lens of the wisened present.

Saitz's Room for Tourists — currently on display at the CONTACT Photography Festival — documents the mid-century motels of small-town Canada. It's a haunting exhibition that speaks to the country's cultural evolution and the limits of nostalgia.

TORO recently spoke with Saitz about participating in CONTACT, why Calgary is great, and the importance of telling the truth in photography.

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You’re back in Toronto for CONTACT. Do you have time to see the festival?

First, I’m looking forward to seeing my parents. Other than that, I want to see Martin Parr and his installations. He’s one of my favourites and I’ve never actually seen any of his work in person. CONTACT is the biggest photography festival in the world, so I’m super excited to come and take it all in.

What was the impetus behind moving from Toronto to Calgary?

I needed a change. When I moved to Calgary in 2003, the city was really booming. I saw a lot of opportunity there; I got offered a job right away. Calgary has been very good to me in terms of establishing myself as a young photographer. I was given a grant from the city, funded partially by the province for a book project that I did a few years ago. There’s a desire within the artist community to push against the stereotype of Calgary being a Western, conservative city.

With Rooms for Tourists, did speaking to the people inside the hotels inform the way you shot the exteriors?

I actually started the project thinking I would photograph a lot of people. But as I got into it, I realized that most people didn’t want anything to do with the project.

Why’s that?

I think they were worried I’d portray them in a negative light. Some were concerned over the privacy of their clients. And sometimes — not always — there was no pride taken in maintaining the establishments.

There’s a certain sadness in the work.

And I think that comes directly from not having any people or cars in the photos. This one hotel in Quebec was so awesome, yet there wasn’t a single person staying there. Those feelings of isolation come through in the pictures.

There’s a saying: "Photographers photograph who they are." Is this true of you?

Yes, there’s a correlation between myself and my style and the subjects that I choose. Architecture, vintage culture, and history — almost my entire body of work covers those things. I photograph things that I love.

Is there any subject matter that you consider boring?

No, as long as I’m able to take pictures, I don’t find that boring at all. I could photograph anything and be happy with it.

When you’re doing commercial work, how much direction from the client is too much direction?

That’s a tricky question. Ultimately, it depends on the client that you’re working with. Being a photographer, you have to be open to some kind of collaborative process. And usually that collaboration makes a better end product. I’m not very happy when people come to me with a crazy idea and they want it photographed in an exact manner, with no room for my input. At that point, I become a technical monkey.

As a photographer, is it your responsibility to tell the truth or to create something that is aesthetically pleasing?

It’s a combination of both. Richard Avedon said, “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” It’s hard to answer that question now, given the digital realm of photography. Who knows what’s truth anymore? Anything can be manipulated into something beautiful. I’d like to think that all photographs are true, but it’s for the viewer to decide how they will interpret that truth. I want to provoke viewers to think differently. That’s the best part about art.


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