Political platforms

John van der Woude’s photos of the homes of politicians gives them new, human dimensions. Sue Carter Flinn peeks in.

Premier location Rodney MacDonald’s home is on display in Power Houses.
photo John van der Woude

In recent years, Canadian domestic politics have been dominated by accountability and corruption scandals. That’s why John van der Woude’s exhibition, Power Houses: Canada’s First Ministers, at Anna Leonowens Gallery, a series of 14 photos documenting the homes of every provincial premier and the prime minister, is so captivating: these guys live mostly in relatively modest abodes.

The project germinated after van der Woude, a fourth-year NSCAD student, watched a documentary about the end of oil and its impact on suburbia.

“I became interested in the idea of documenting suburban homes as a means of archiving them, because who knows where they’ll be in 20 years,” he says. “But I wanted to give it more resonance and interest for the general public. So I came up with the idea of photographing the homes of Halifax city councillors and the mayor.”

Motivated by success, the photographer took the project a step further. After receiving a $5,000 photography travel scholarship, van der Woude drove to Ottawa, then flew to British Columbia to shoot premier Gordon Campbell’s high-rise condo, and moving back east, took shots across Canada. Beforehand, he contacted all the premiers’ offices and checked in with the RCMP. Although Campbell’s office (and several others, including the angry wife of PEI premier Pat Binns) told him that his request wasn’t possible, technically, van der Woude didn’t need anyone’s permission. He found all the addresses legally, either through Land Title offices, local media or ol’ fashioned detective work.

“I’m not trying to exploit these people or where they live, I’m just trying to show people where they live. For that reason, there’s no street addresses or signs that would identify exactly where they are,” van der Woude says. “I’m not peeking in the back lawn or looking in windows. I wanted it from the street, to give a view that anyone on the street could see.”

From Campbell’s streamlined condo to Nunavut premier Paul Okalik’s modest but practical trailer, van der Woude observed that “a lot of the architectural vernacular of each place comes out.” Most surprisingly, Alberta’s Ralph Klein lives in an understated ranch home (van der Woude had to make two trips to Calgary to find it), adorned with a giant provincial flag. There is something disturbing about this project though—van der Woude’s play with spectator gaze feels creepily voyeuristic.

“I think that taking a picture of someone’s private dwelling is more intimate than taking a picture of them personally. When you’re out in the public having your picture taken, you’ll dress a certain way that you want people to perceive you, whereas a house is static—it doesn’t change from day to day.”

Perhaps the most striking photo in the collection is Nova Scotian premier Rodney MacDonald’s home in Mabou. Set back against a long, treeless front yard, the only flowers a couple of carefully placed pots outside the front door. The photo, taken shortly after the announcement of MacDonald’s marital separation, is one of van der Woude’s favourites. “The sterility of it was shocking,” he says. “I went and knocked on the door to see if they were home, and there wasn’t even a pathway leading up to the front door. It was just this slab of concrete right in front of it.”

Van der Woude speculates that given the town’s size and MacDonald’s popularity in the close-knit community, there’s less emphasis on landscaping as a privacy shield. It’s definitely one of the biggest—after the prime minister’s home and Newfoundlander Danny Williams’ picturesque mini-mansion—but according to one neighbour’s gossip, the top floor of the MacDonald home is an empty shell, built for show.

It’s difficult to walk away without judging all these leaders’ personal values, and van der Woude understands. “My goal was to be as theoretically as objective as possible. To let viewers make their own judgment about these people and how they live, but I don’t think that complete objectivity is ever possible. I tried, as much as possible, to leave it up to you.”

Power Houses: Canada’s First Ministers runs until December 16 at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, 1891 Granville.

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