Peter Bregg arrives on his motorcycle to the Canadian Press (CP) office in Ottawa. Something about this particular morning is different. The photo editor is anxiously waiting for Bregg on the steps of the building. “Bregg, quick, get down to the Cuban Embassy!” the editor yells. “They’ve just exploded a bomb.” Bregg is the first CP photographer to arrive at the Embassy. But he’s also the last. A police officer finds the seventeen-year-old copy boy perched behind a pile of rubble and yells, “Hey you, get out of there! [The bomb is] still live!”
Bregg arrives back to work with his camera as a hero. “The other guys never got to go close enough. So the only pictures they had of this bombing were mine,” Bregg says. “I was the hero of the day – as a copy boy.”
Bregg, now an internationally renowned photographer of 45 years, teaches photojournalism at Ryerson University. He sits at the front of his class, hiding behind a Macbook Pro, wearing moon-shaped glasses. When he smiles at his students, his unmistakable mustache seems to curl even more than it does on its own. The BBC’s interview with The Beatles is playing. He says that when the music stops, the students know that the lesson is beginning.
The dark classroom is filled with light from the projector. On the screen at the front of the room is a grid of photographs. They belong to the students sitting in front of Bregg, who are waiting for their instructor’s critique.
“Again, I’ll be brutal,” he tells the class. “As brutal as I can be.” He goes through each photo submitted for a recent feature photography assignment and pauses to note the good and bad aspects of them. “This one has potential,” he says of one photograph. “It just didn’t go all the way.”
Bregg worked as the chief photographer for Maclean’s for 17 years before becoming photo editor at HELLO! Magazine. Bregg retired from HELLO! Magazine three years ago to do freelance work. In the same week he retired, he received a phone call from a friend. “By the way, they’re looking for somebody at Ryerson,” the friend said. “There’s a new program they want to start where they’re going to teach journalists how to take pictures.” Bregg submitted his application to Paul Knox, an associate professor for Ryerson’s School of Journalism. The photographer received yet another promising phone call. “Well obviously you’ve got the job,” Knox told Bregg.
Bregg finishes his lesson by showing his students a slideshow of his photo essay from Africa. He pulls up a photo of a nurse looking after a patient in Mozambique. The photo is just one moment captured from the 12 trips to Africa he has made in the last 10 years.
As a photojournalist for organizations like CARE Canada, WaterCan, ORBIS Canada, and PhotoSensitive, Bregg has documented international crises with his camera. “There are some times when you use your camera to expose – no pun intended there – to expose issues that need airing,” he says of photography. Bregg documented the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. He stood in the doorway of a hospital room in Banda Aceh, photographing a mother mourning the loss of her child.
“The picture itself, when you look at it, it’s not graphic. It’s very tame,” Bregg says. “But knowing the lump under the blanket is a child and the woman’s head is in her hands grieving, that’s a very sensitive moment. But it’s not graphic.”
Peter Bregg centre – official photographer to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (1984-85), left, with former US President Ronald Reagan at Quebec City Shamrock Summit 1985.
(White House/Michael Evans with permission from Peter Bregg)
Bregg says that photographing these tragedies isn’t the hardest part of his job. It’s the idea of reliving the moments he captures. He remembers a striking image he saw on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. Bregg watched his friend Charlie Martin, a war veteran, crying near the tombstone of his best friend. He was killed instantly during battle.
“[Martin] was feeling it. What he couldn’t feel that day. Because that day, he was running for his life,” Bregg says, choking back tears. “50 years later, he was reliving that moment in his mind. I find that’s what gets to me sometimes when I’m showing my pictures.”
Bregg says that when he dies, what’s going to continue is the use of his photography. He has been to more than 75 countries and has taken his camera to each of them. “There’s a sense of accomplishment in knowing that your work will live on as historical document,” Bregg says of his long career.
Sitting at the front of his classroom at Ryerson, Bregg tells his students that their feature photography assignments can be resubmitted for a better grade. He wants them to get out and practice. “It’s not something that comes natural to everybody,” he says of photography. “But it’s something that you can learn if you have the desire. The desire to push the envelope and improve your photography.”
As a copy boy in 1967, Bregg learned to develop prints after becoming friends with a photographer at CP. He had never picked up a camera in his life. He asked the photographer, “How do you do that?” Bregg bought his first camera from his photographer friend – a Topcon for $50. He says that the rest is history.