Roberta Bondar on Photography, Finding Luck and Dangerous Sandstorms



You would be hard pressed to find a Canadian better acquainted with the planet earth than Dr. Roberta Bondar.

She was the first neurologist and the first Canadian woman in space. In 1992, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, Bondar circled the earth 129 times for a total flight distance of 5,407 million kilometres. Her travel on-land might be just as impressive. When she came back to earth, she began using fine art photography to capture our natural environment. She has photographed all of Canada's national parks, the Sahara Desert and is about to embark on a photography quest to capture the migratory patterns of whooping cranes.

51 of Bondar's large format photographs are on display at Telus Spark for Within the Landscape — Art Respecting Life. There is also video and interactive education elements. The exhibit (curated by The Roberta Bondar Foundation and the Art Gallery of Algoma) uses art and science to teach us about the seven biomes including the wetlands, grasslands and waterways. 

"I want people to look at the environment with a new eye and become engaged with the photography," says Bondar.

Here are a few other things she has to say:

Seeing the earth from space

“Seeing the earth from space is like meeting somebody that you have only seen on TV. They become 3-dimensional and you become engaged with them. That’s what I am trying to do through the foundation and my camera lens. I want to try and get people to understand that the world is very real and to engage with it.“

Seeing earth upside down

“One of my goals as the earth observation team was to photograph the planets. I made sure before I went up that I could recognize the planets upside down and at different angles. I could recognize patterns without having to go to the computer and figure out where on the map I was.” 

Making travel plans from space

“The patterns I saw in space made me want to come back to the planet and look at some of them to see how the patterns were created.  Some of them I haven’t been able to get at yet. Earth, when you get down to it, is a very big place. I was successful in photographing all of Canada’s national parks, much like Ansel Adams had done for the Americans back in the 1930s and 40s. Some of the works in this exhibition derive from that project.” 

National parks and seeing the moon from earth

"Looking at the national parks it became a very wonderful moment, especially seeing our highest mountain, Mount Logan. I flew around it on the 30th anniversary of the Apollo landing on the moon. To be able to see the moon from the vantage point of circling Mount Logan in a helicopter at sunset was an amazing moment." 

The photo shown at Telus Spark that was taken closest to Calgary

“The one that I have that people would really identify with I call hoodoo gorge. It’s at Dinosaur Provincial Park. I have printed it in my own dining area. 

“There is a video of me going into the park and photographing with my large format cameras. There’s an explanation of the artistic elements of the photographs and the science behind it. I put a GoPro camera on the front of the Jeep last September and drove through the area. The video on that biome starts with that video. On the video, there is an image of the park from space.”

Art and science

“Art makes you want to think about things differently than you did before and science tries to give you a path to help you with your thoughts.” 

Her most dangerous photo quest on land

“I have one image in this collection from the border of Algeria and Libya. I went on my own and the government provided me with six bodyguards and bulletproof vehicles because tourists had been kidnapped the month before by a drug cartel. There were also six other men to put up the tents and do the cooking. I was the only woman and going to places where women hadn’t gone. I didn’t know any of these men and they had AK47s and knives. 

“One night, I was in the middle of the sandstorm with my tent tied to the SUV. Sand was coming through the seams. I was listening to my radio and it was saying that President Bush was about to invade Iraq and Air Canada was declaring bankruptcy (I had Air Canada tickets to get me back home). That was probably the most dangerous. I recently showed the video to a friend and she said, ‘The good news is you didn’t die.’”

Being underneath a cheetah

“There is a photo of a cheetah at Telus Spark that is life size. It was taken from below when it jumped on the vehicle. The roof was open. I couldn’t get it in full frame. I changed the lens out very quietly to take this very heroic shot of this cheetah. We tried to put more animals in there in the exhibit because the trees are beautiful, but you also need to have something with eyes. People relate to that.”

Finding luck

“We as a life form can create luck. It is around us all the time. We have to recognize it and we have to seize on it. It is about the prepared mind. Seeing the opportunity is the difference between someone who is lucky enough see a $50 bill and pick it up instead of walking by without noticing it.” 

Finding opportunity

“In photography you want opportunity. You have to be prepared and when the opportunity comes you have to be there. I spent eight hours in Dinosaur Provincial Park waiting for the sun. I knew what angle the sun was going to be at. I knew whether I needed clouds or not, rain or no rain. If I don’t get what I want, I keep going back until I do. In the old days when we used film, I always said the best photographer is the one that has the biggest wastebasket.” 

Within the Landscape — Art Respecting Life will be at Telus Spark until June 15. It is included with general admission to the museum. 220 St. George's Dr. N.E., 403-817-6800, sparkscience.ca

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