The Story of a Photograph

Last week, as I was getting ready to go to work I was listening, as usual, to Markus Schwabe on CBC Morning North, when I was struck by one of the topics of the day. Vale’s recent decision to take down the Superstack, Sudbury’s iconic landmark, reminded me of a treasured photograph of my father sitting atop the completed chimney. So, later that day I shared the picture through Facebook.

The result of that quick and simple action led to a radio interview on CBC, an interview with my dad with CBC Radio Canada, and another with Northern Life newspaper. Although I’ve always loved the photograph, a copy of which has been stuck to my fridge by a magnet for many years, I was surprised by the attention it received. It made me wonder what it was about this picture that engaged its viewers and led to thousands of views, over a thousand shares and almost two hundred comments.

Of course, timing is everything. The fact that Vale is going to remove the smokestack sometime in the next few years has the Superstack on everyone’s minds. Many remember when the chimney was built, or even worked as a member of the crew, and can attest to the importance of the stack for Sudbury’s economy. Sudburians remember what the city looked like before the stack was built, a time when the rock was black and the trees stunted. Regreening efforts would have been in vain were it not for the Superstack. It is of course, a daily reminder of the mining town that our now more diversified city has grown out of over the past decades.

Perhaps some viewers, like me, had questions when they heard the news or saw the photograph. What will our skyline look like without that giant cigarette shaped structure spewing smoke into the air? As we travel down the highway after being out of town, what will we search for on the horizon to tell us we are finally home?

Many people commented on my father himself: the way he tucked his steel-toed boots under the beam, the casualness of his arms leaning on his knees, his broad smile as he looked into the camera. Some viewers noted the lack of a safety harness, making the hard hat look almost comical. Several shared photographs of their own taken from the smokestack, or remembered what it was like up there when the tornado struck. Others noted the frightening height from which the photo was taken, a view of Copper Cliff spread out below.  Some commented on his lack of fear as he perched high above the ground. In fact, my father looks delighted to be there.

It was strange to me that one family photo could reach such a wide audience, but the more I think about it, the more I understand. This one timely shot tells a story about our town and the hardy people who live here. It resonates with us in a variety of ways, like any good story should. The photograph will continue to be one of my personal favourites, but now, after being shared, it holds so much more meaning.