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Vanessa Tignanelli

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Interview by: Jessa Laframboise | 2022

Vanessa Tignanelli is a Canadian documentary photographer and videographer currently based in North Bay, Ontario. Her work celebrates resiliency and individuality, looks for hope in hardship, takes us to people living on the fringes of society, and calls for us to be comfortable there. Vanessa's work has been recognized by the Royal Family, NPAC National Photographs of the Year Awards, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, and InFocus Photo Exhibit and Award. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg, VICE, Photographers Without Borders, CBC, National Post, Toronto Star, PhotoEd Magazine, and The Waterloo Region Record. And it’s just the beginning!

Jessa Laframboise: Tell me about yourself. How did you get into photography?

Vanessa Tignanelli: I started as a painter, often using National Geographic photographs as reference for paintings I was doing in high school. I used a lot of photography as inspiration for my paintings. I went on to complete a BA in Studio Art and Art History at the University of Guelph. All of my paintings were very political and spoke about human connection and conceptual portraiture. It wasn’t until I took a film and photography course in university that I realized I could continue to explore the concepts I cared about while not having to be isolated as a painter, working alone in a studio. I could be an artist and be out in the community. And I was far more interested in telling others’ stories than my own. The camera became a tool that I used to learn and experience the world while still maintaining an art practice.

JL: How did you become a photojournalist?

VT: Following university, I remained in Guelph for about six years, and began my own event photography business. I loved having a front row seat to every event: festivals, symposiums, weddings, rallies… It just clicked for me one day that those people whose work I had idolized in my youth in National Geographic seemed to share the same curiosities as I did. Even at a small local event, I was interested in telling a story with my photographs. I realized that the way I approached photography carried the same ethics and journalistic aspects as the documentary photographers I admired. And so, I started working for newspapers, finding stories in my own neighbourhood, traveling the world documenting nonprofits, and finally went on to complete a diploma in photojournalism at Loyalist College, before moving back to North Bay in 2018.

JL: How has being a photojournalist affected you?

VT: It has been amazing to be a student of the world. The thing about being a photojournalist is that we are called to be chameleon-like people; I naturally soak everything in and closely observe people with an eagerness to learn from them. I believe that we cannot truly understand the world unless we take the time to listen to others’ experiences. We can hear stories about devastation in the world, and we can hear about the dehumanization that people experience, but to get so intimately close to the people that have lived these experiences first-hand is truly unique. I’ve seen the world as the most beautiful place…and I’ve seen the world as the most heartbreaking place. There are times when I have returned from an assignment completely broken and I’ve had to rebuild myself. As a photojournalist, you constantly have to be aware of the lines between another person’s story and your own biases, and do whatever you can to bring justice to their story in a way that promotes healing and education. People are vulnerable with me - and that builds the strongest bonds - but it’s also a great responsibility.

JL: Are there particular stories you are drawn to?

VT: Every artist asks themselves, “What is my voice? What is my ‘thing’?” It’s only after looking back on 20 years of work that I start to see inherent themes. I look at classicism, racism, sexism, ageism... I suppose you could say I’m interested in the “isms” and fucking them up! Spanning photography, poetry, painting, and filmmaking, it’s clear that I enjoy stories of people that deny stereotypes…people that refuse to be classified. The real leaders in our world are the ones that change the way we think life on Earth is meant to be lived. Lately I have been gravitating more towards stories about women’s personal and professional lives. As someone who recently got engaged and moved back to their hometown, I’ve been struggling with how to continue to do this work, to remain an anonymous person in the world, while committing myself to creating a family and being there for my partner. I’m learning a lot from these women on how to balance these two sides of myself, and am realizing they’re not as conflicting as I thought.

JL: What has it been like working in North Bay?

VT: There is a lot of talent in our city that falls under the radar. Part of my goal coming back was to use my media connections to put North Bay on the national stage where it belongs. I think the first story I did was a video of Ice Follies for The Globe & Mail, and I went on to do a few short documentaries on some amazing local artists for CBC Arts. The struggle has been with publications that say they want to represent Northern Ontario more, yet bypass us for bigger stories happening in urban centers. I continue to pitch stories of the awesome things happening in our community, and encourage folks to let me know of cool events happening or of someone with an interesting story, so I can tell the story; you never know where it might get published.

JL: What do you hope to accomplish as a photojournalist?

VT: I hope to empower people to be their full authentic selves, without letting stereotypes dictate who they should be. I want to bring a little bit more love into this world, and some more curiosity too. Not enough people ask questions of each other. Empathy is very important, and injustice happens when we stop seeing each other as fellow human beings…when we dehumanize each other. Storytelling aims to rehumanize people, and that’s what being a photojournalist is all about.

JL: What is something you want people to know about you and your work?

VT: That I care so much. My whole being goes into my work. My practice is all about encouraging people to communicate with each other. The entire pursuit has been to learn as much as I can about the world before I leave it.

Recently, Vanessa had her first solo exhibition at the WKP Kennedy Gallery. To Be Both was inspired by Vanessa’s exploration and discovery of herself entering the next chapter of her life. With the new body of work, she sought to ask, “Who am I after years of telling everyone else’s stories?” At the root of these questions was her pursuit in understanding her anxieties and navigating her identity as a woman, photojournalist, and soon-to-be wife. Through art-making and the development of To Be Both, Vanessa has experienced a lot of healing and has reached an exciting point in her career where she believes it is time to start telling her own story.

In November 2021, directly following the exhibition, Vanessa had plans to travel to Kyrgyzstan with Photographers Without Borders. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing global pandemic, Vanessa had to postpone her upcoming trip until July 2022. This is not the first time Vanessa has worked with Photographers Without Borders. In 2017, Vanessa traveled to The Gambia and did a story for Aging with a Smile Initiative (ASI). ASI was looking to bring PSWs and medical resources to elderly people in rural communities in The Gambia. Vanessa assisted in creating a book that helped ASI receive funding for their mission and eventually gain charity status.

While in Kyrgyzstan, Vanessa will be working with the Sunterra Community Foundation, a group of parents who have come together to support families who have children with Down Syndrome. Their mission is to bring visibility to the community and show people in Kyrgyzstan that parents who have children with Down Syndrome can live a fulfilled life; that their children love them and deserve love in return. Through this, their aim is to ensure that services become available in the country that will help children with Down Syndrome thrive. As a brand new organization, Vanessa will document the Sunterra Community Foundation’s journey and shine a light on these initiatives. With the help of Vanessa and Photographers Without Borders, Sunterra Community Foundation’s goal is to gain access to funding and eventually open more resource centers where families can bring their children to meet, play, and support one another.

This past December, Vanessa began working with Canadore College as the Technologist of Graphic Design and Media, working with students pursuing careers as digital creators and using the knowledge she has gained in the field to pass on to future storytellers. She has since moved up to a role in Recruitment and Marketing, representing North Bay and Canadore College at events across the province as a Liaison Officer. Returning to her hometown has helped her follow a calling, by helping students on their journeys through school, finding their careers, and discovering their own purpose in life. Everyone has a unique voice to offer the world - and Vanessa sees it as an honour to help people discover just what that voice is.

Photo Credits

Cover Image - Ed Regan
Image 1 - "Fantasy", Paper Collage, 2021
Image 2 - "Mano-a-Mano", 3D printed sculptures, 2021
Image 3 - The Gambia, May 2017
Image 4 - Julian and his pigeon Ffögeli, Guelph, Ont., June 2016
Image 5 - Lila Marie Bruyere, Waterloo, Ont., August 2017
Image 6 - "Illuminated Lace" Series, 3D Printed Lithophane and LED Light Panel, 2021
Image 7 - "They Named Us Witches", Paper Collage, 2021
Image 8 - "Growing Up to Hollywood", Paper Collage, 2021

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