Father and son
Provide a brief general introduction about yourself.
My name is Brent Wesley. I am a photographer. I live in Sioux Lookout, but I was born and raised in Thunder Bay. I am a member of Constance Lake First Nation.
What does your daily job entail?
As a photographer, I own a business that I attend to on a part-time basis because I also work full-time. Ten percent of my time as a photographer is spent actually using a camera, taking portrait, commercial, and editorial photos for organizations and individuals. That is the fun part and what most people think all there is to photography. But the reality is, ninety percent of the time, I am operating the business. It is kept functional through marketing, editing photos, dealing with clients, and administrative responsibilities.
My full-time position is with Kwayaciiwin Education Resource Center (KERC) as the Communications Coordinator, where I handle things such as marketing and promotion of the organization.
What got you interested in your chosen career?
I went to school for journalism because I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write stories about the experiences and issues affecting Indigenous People because it was extremely lacking in mainstream media or it wasn’t done well. It was during my time at school that I started to learn about photography because we were required to buy a camera and take a photography course. I just fell in love with the art and science of it. When I was eventually hired to work at Wawatay News in Sioux Lookout as a reporter, my focus slowly shifted toward photography. My intent to become a writer morphed into becoming a photographer instead.
What has motivated you?
I’m motivated by and still focus my attention on working with Indigenous organizations and individuals. Not exclusively, but it’s a natural gravitation to work with other Indigenous people. Because it’s still very important to me that we have proper representation of ourselves and that we have images and media that reflect who we are. I’ve always worked to the break stereotypes and misconceptions that exist about First Nation people.
Is there anyone in particular who has inspired you?
I have to mention my mom out of all the people who have inspired me. She was a single mother of three boys who worked full-time. When I think about it, I know it wasn’t easy for her. But she always worked hard at her various jobs and always provided us the best she could. And I never heard her complain. She never gave up even though I am sure she wanted to so many times. It was her hard work and perseverance that still inspires me today.
How did you get to where you are today?
It took a while to get where I am today. I left home when I was 19 years old to attend college for Electronic Engineering in Sudbury. And I failed. I crashed and burned, which made me feel depressed for years. But it shaped me into who I am today because I learned from it. In my mid-20s, I knew I wanted to be a writer because it was always something I wanted to do. I wanted to share stories of Indigenous People and I felt journalism would be a good way to do that.
I was determined to do it right this time. I knew what failure was like and I did not want to go through that again. So, I took the journalism program at the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, which was a school located just outside of Belleville in Southern Ontario. It was a three-year Aboriginal specific program and accredited through Humber College. Before I even graduated, Wawatay News called me up to inform me of a position that was open. I applied, got the job and moved to Sioux Lookout. That is where I grew as a photographer. Despite the challenge of living in a small town without easy access to photography resources, I did what I could to hone my craft. I learned a lot about photography from my coworkers and friends. But for the most part, I’m self-taught. I read books, read articles online, and watched online tutorials. I basically soaked up everything I could and made sure I was shooting photos daily. It was a lot of self-learning, but I was determined to get better.
How do you keep developing your skills in your career?
I still read and watch tutorials online. I follow other photographers for inspiration, always being careful never to compare myself. Rather, I look to other creatives for inspiration and ideas. As a photographer, I’m always trying to challenge myself. I don’t want to be comfortable doing the same thing. And that’s hard. It’s easy to do what you know. So, I push myself to try new things and develop my skills. For example, a few years ago, I wanted to learn how to use studio lights, so I borrowed some and started learning how to use them. Studio light is different from natural lighting, it’s a whole different game. It took a lot of time and patience to become comfortable using studio lights.
I’ve also come to learn that if I want to push myself creatively, I can’t be afraid to take chances. If there’s a bit of fear about exploring and trying new things, then I know I should do it. It’s a bit of a cliche but, it’s true. That’s how you push yourself to become better.
Any health or physical requirements in your career?
You have to be in decent shape, especially if you don’t have help during a photo shoot and you have a lot of gear and equipment. There is a lot of heavy lifting.
I remember photographing a wedding by myself once. I was running around with my camera bag, studio lights, portable batteries, and other accessories. And it was extremely hot out. It was exhausting and draining. Really pushed me physically. And at that time, I wasn’t in shape. I knew I had to change that going forward.
Also, for my creativity, I have to make sure my mental wellbeing is in the right place. Otherwise, I struggle creatively. I don’t think we talk about our mental wellbeing enough. It’s important to take care of yourself; eat well, exercise, and all that contributes to your physical and mental wellbeing.
What are some things you like about your career?
I like the creative side of it; I like to express myself creatively. I can’t draw or paint, so that’s why I take pictures. For me it’s not just simply snapping a photo, there is a process to it. It’s about creating something. You have an image in mind, and you make that image happen. That is something I always stress when I am teaching a photography workshop. It’s more than just taking a photo of something. You have to put creativity into it and make sure you are creating an image that stands out.
I also like that balance between art and science. Since I’m also a bit of a geek, I enjoy the technical side of photography, the science of it, such as understanding the mechanics of the camera, the physics of light and how it works, and just having fun with the gear and equipment.
But most importantly, I like the reaction I get from the people I photograph. My favourite type of photography is portraiture. Which is weird because I’m so quiet and introverted. I probably should be taking landscape photos, but I prefer taking photos of people because if that photo turns out well and the client likes it and feels good, that makes me feel good. As Indigenous People, we need to build ourselves up like that and see ourselves differently than the way we were conditioned to see ourselves.
Outside of work, what kind of things do you do to take care of yourself?
I learned how to step back and do other things besides photography. I have a young son, and he keeps me grounded. My down time is with him. And that’s important because he helps me not to take things too seriously.
As I have mentioned, I try to take care of my body and mind by exercising and eating healthy. I am not always good at doing that, but I keep trying and I’m getting better at.
Lastly, the geek in me likes to read graphic novels (especially ones about Batman) and indulge in comic book and science fiction movies. It helps me to escape and relax.
What financial opportunities did you use and what was the process?
My band would not fund me because I failed the programs I took in previous years. So, I had to prove I was going to take school seriously. I applied for grants and scholarships and I got the Much Music Aboriginal Youth Scholarship, which helped me with my tuition and books for my first year of journalism school. I also had to get a part-time job to pay for rent and buy food. After completing my first year, my band helped fund my education from there.
As a photographer, I have accessed grants from the Ontario Arts Council for various projects. One of those projects was one that Adrienne Fox and I worked on called “I am Indigenous.” Later, we formed a photography business (Blue Earth Photography), and we receive an equity assistance grant from the Nishnawbe-Aski Development Fund that we used to update a lot of our old gear.
What do you still hope to achieve?
I would like to do more commercial photography work. My focus has always been on the social side of things, like working for non-profit organizations. I want to expand that by going beyond the Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay region. I want to extend my client base and keep getting better at photography. I am not looking for fame or fortune. I just like doing the work. For me, photography is about satisfying my creative urge and honing my craft.
What would you like to share with the youth reading this?
Don’t be afraid to fail. And if you do fail don’t be too hard on yourself. That is something that I have to tell myself as well, because I still fail and still make mistakes. But failure is how we learn and how we grow. We just have to keep moving forward and keep pursuing our goals. Like I said before, I failed college. And it was tough to handle at the time. But when I decided to go back to school, I had learned from my mistakes and I was determined to succeed. So, that’s my advice. Keep at it. Keep pursuing goals, even in the face of failure. You’ll get to where you want to be.