Tom Hanson, award-winning photographer, dead at 41
The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, March 11, 2009 7:26PM EDT
Award-winning Canadian Press photojournalist Tom Hanson, a fierce champion of journalistic rights whose sometimes brusque manner belied a devoted husband with a gentle soul, died suddenly Tuesday after collapsing while playing hockey.
He was 41.
Hanson lived and worked in Ottawa, though he travelled the world several times over for Canada's national news agency, in pursuit of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, the 2006 evacuation of Lebanon, the humanitarian crisis in Haiti and many other stories.
One of his most celebrated photos, of a kilt-wearing bagpiper in a gas mask emerging from the protests at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, was named Picture of the Year in 2001 and nominated for a National Newspaper Award.
"To be the guy facing the opposite way and shooting the pictures as the crowd's streaming past you and the riot police are coming, that takes a certain kind of individual," said Graeme Roy, director of news photography for The Canadian Press.
"Most people turn around and run the other way. Not Tom."
That stubborn streak manifested itself in many ways, say those who knew Hanson -- not least those instances when he defended the rights of reporters and journalists on Parliament Hill.
"He had a gruff exterior and would utter the occasional four-letter word," Roy acknowledged.
"But he was very kind and generous and helpful to anybody. He would set things up on the Hill that seemed to be impossible, and he'd bust through the red tape and he'd make things happen.
"He totally believed in the cause and the need for us to be there, to be present, to have the access we needed to record history."
Hanson was born May 1, 1967, in Rochester, N.Y., but his family later moved to Montreal. He attended Vanier College in 1985 and spent two years at Concordia University before freelancing for The Canadian Press in 1989.
Breaking into news photography is far from easy, and to join the elite stable of national photographers at The Canadian Press was and remains a high calling. Hanson was added to Ottawa's small roster of full-time staff in 1992.
"Tom was a talented photojournalist who distinguished himself both by the quality of his work and his character," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons in a statement Wednesday.
"Through his photos, Tom helped to chronicle our story as Canadians. Whether it was a defining moment on the campaign trail, the shy smile of an Afghan child or the triumph of a Grey Cup victory, Tom had a unique ability to capture the essence of whatever he was photographing."
Harper's comments were greeted with a thunderous ovation in the Commons.
Hanson's last foreign assignment was, in fact, with the prime minister during Harper's visit two weeks ago to New York -- a trip that yielded yet another iconic Hanson image, a worm's eye view of the prime minister strolling among the billboards of Times Square.
Moments before the photo was snapped, Harper apparently warned Hanson he was about to topple into an open manhole. Conservative staffers later joked that while other members of the news media might not have gotten the warning, Hanson wasn't among them.
It was clear from the outset that Hanson's skills as a photographer -- coupled with a fearlessness and unique perspective on the world -- would propel him to the uppermost tier of Canadian photojournalism.
"In his first year as a CP staffer, Tom has demonstrated the skill, news judgment and artistic eye that should lead him to the top of his profession," his supervisor noted during his first performance assessment in 1994.
"He is heading in the right direction and is on his way to the top."
In 2002, Hanson was named Photographer of the Year by a jury of his peers -- editors and photographers from across the spectrum of media outlets who contributed to The Canadian Press picture service.
Over a career laden with professional accolades, the one from his colleagues was among his most cherished.
"This award means more to me than a lot of other awards because it's voted on by people who really know what they're doing."
It's an opinion of Hanson that has never faded.
"It's safe to say Tom Hanson was our best photographer, period," said Frank Gunn, a Canadian Press photographer based in Toronto. "I've been asked that question before, and that's how I answered it."
Canadian Press colleagues across the country were shattered by the news Wednesday, none more so than in the Ottawa bureau, where Hanson forged his reputation as one of the country's best political photographers.
Those who knew him best say the tight-lipped scowl Hanson sometimes wore in a particularly brutal media scrum would melt away in the company of his wife, Catherine.
"Tom was a rapid-fire, cursing cowboy who became a kitten in oven mitts when he was home with the love of his life," Ottawa reporter Sue Bailey wrote in an email.
"He was as devoted to her halfway around the world as he was when they were side by side. I loved that about him."
Hanson's other passions in life included hockey, playing the guitar and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but none surpassed his love for his wife.
Hanson wrote and recorded a song about the challenges of a life lived on the road, said Bailey.
"It was a beautiful testament, almost a lullaby, to a bond that neither long distance nor the stress of so much time on the road could weaken."
Alexander Panetta, also a Canadian Press reporter in Ottawa and a veteran of several international assignments with Hanson, recalled the time in 2006 when they were in Cyprus to document the evacuation of Canadian citizens from war-torn Lebanon.
Hanson persistently urged Panetta to keep hydrated, but failed to take his own advice and became seriously ill the same night that the first boatload of Canadians sailed into port.
"He not only got the picture, but he actually got to that boat in the middle of the night faster than Canadian officials did," said Panetta.
"Between trips to the bathroom, he managed to take some beautiful pictures of people coming in from Lebanon."
On a recent trip to Haiti with Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, Panetta said he noticed a cheerful Hanson -- particularly while he was helping a gathering of local children open the toys they'd been given by Canadian embassy officials.
"The more you got to know this guy, the more you got to like him," Panetta said.
"He had a really big presence, but an even bigger heart. There was a genuine soul beneath that scowl."
When he wasn't documenting world events, Hanson was taking the mundane day-to-day of Parliament Hill and turning it into high art, usually by way of his eye for detail and unique perspectives.
"Not everybody has that gift, has that eye to make something magical out of what a bystander might see as a pretty routine-looking situation," Roy said.
"There was a running joke that Tom could put a reflection of the Peace Tower in any photo, regardless of what city he was in."
An online slide show of Hanson's best work can be viewed at www.thecanadianpress.com/hanson.