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Q&A: Tom Sandler, photographer to the literary stars

Tonight, while all eyes are on the five Scotiabank Giller Prize finalists, Toronto photographer Tom Sandler will be planning his next shot.

Since the inaugural Giller Prize gala in 1994, Sandler has been documenting the night’s wins, losses, and candid moments. In addition to his Giller duties and other society-page gigs, Sandler is photographer for the Honorable Hilary Weston, the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and members of the royal family.

Sandler spoke to Q&Q about his experiences shooting 20 years of the Giller Prize.

Margaret Atwood and Giller founder Jack Rabinovitch, 1998 (photo: Tom Sandler)

How did you get your start shooting the major literary prizes? I spent 10 years as official photographer for Harbourfront at the very beginning of the authors’ festival with director Greg Gatenby. That’s really where I got started with all my clients and most of the things I do now. It opened up so many worlds. I wasn’t the greatest student in school, but the education that I’ve received ““ you can’t put a value on it.

How would you describe the early days of the Giller? They were really intimate ““ it was a family kind of situation. It’s much bigger now and there are more players now that television is involved. They tend to almost run the show, as it all has to be done according to the broadcast schedule.

Giller winner Alice Munro with jurors Peter Gzowski and Margaret Atwood, 1998 (photo: Tom Sandler)

How do you approach an event? I really document everything. I see myself not just as a guy taking photographs or as paparazzo, but as an archivist with a real mission to document the cultural and social life of the city. I am on a mission. You have to cover the event for whomever your client is, where you shoot everything from the napkins to core shots of the room. And there’s shooting for the media. But I also purposely take photos because I think they’re historic.

Giller winners Austin Clarke (2002) and Vincent Lam (2006) (photo: Tom Sandler)

I take it really seriously. I have an enormous archive that’s well organized, but it takes a lot of time to pull stuff. Half of it is on film or negatives. For each Giller, I used to shoot eight to 10 rolls of film. Now it’s 700 to 1,200 digital shots.

Research is a really good thing to do, but then you have to stay open for the spontaneous moments that happen. Margaret Atwood tortures me because, inevitably, I don’t have my camera up to my face ready to fire, but she’ll walk in, see me, and do a little dance or put her finger on her head and twirl like a ballerina, and I don’t get the shot.

Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding (photo: Tom Sandler)

Who else did you develop a rapport with over the years? I’ve developed relationships with incredible people like Tim Findley, Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, and Morley Callaghan. Austin Clarke is a terrific friend.

I’m always teasing people like Michael Ondaatje. He’s a great guy, but he thinks that I can only take one picture of him, and then says, “That’s enough.” He doesn’t realize that he could look like a real dork or his eyes could be closed. A lot of times he’s just not ready for the shot, so I use my favourite line on him saying, “Michael, if someone asked you to write a book with one word, could you do that?” And he knows I’ve got him beat.

Mordecai Richler, 1994 (photo: Tom Sandler)

Mordecai Richler was an amazing person to shoot and talk to and be with. I have some really great shots of him. Sometimes you just know photos are very valuable ““ they might not work right then and there, but at some point they will surface.

 This interview has been edited and condensed.