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Crombie's People: Photo exhibit gives focus to those without homes

Crombie McNeill is in his happy place, behind his Nikon film camera, peering through the viewfinder.

The seasoned, grinning photographer is coaxing a smile from his subject.

“Give me a big smile, George. That’s beautiful.”

Crombie is savouring this moment.

“I love it. Photography’s taken me around the world a couple of times,” says the 82-year-old.

“It’s just been a wonderful experience.”

McNeill was a long-time photojournalist. He worked at the former Ottawa Journal. For years, he captured images for the Canadian Press.

He’s worked in Vietnam, flown with Canada’s Snowbirds, and covered countless Olympic games.

“It was marvellous,” he says.

But for Crombie McNeill, the job is more than cameras and photos.

“It’s a gift.”

The gold is in the stories.

“It’s a thing I just respond to. And most importantly, it’s people I respond to,” he says.

Among Crombie’s favourite people are those who live in shelters or those making their homes on the street.

Chris. (Crombie McNeill)

“As a junior photographer with the Ottawa Journal, I went down to the Ottawa Mission fully expecting to be rejected. I went in there with preconceived ideas,” he says.

“Instead, they received me very warmly, and I realized the terrible error in my thinking. I realized that I’m not the only who makes this mistake,” he says.

That’s when Crombie, with the permission of his subjects, began taking photos of men and women going through tough times. He shared poignant conversations with them about where they had been, and where they had hoped to go.

“The motivation is to show that these beautiful people are receptive, they’re resilient, they’ve got a good sense of humour, and they’re open people. Wonderful folks.”

David. (Crombie McNeill)

Crombie has not experienced resistance from those he encounters, but acceptance. They are willing subjects for a compassionate photographer.

“They do not perceive that I am looking down at them and am going to do a negative photograph, but rather they feel I am complimenting them.”

They’re people like George. He’s a fan of Crombie’s photography and the messaging behind it.

“Crombie’s work is amazing. I think what he’s trying to do is raise awareness that everyone is different, that everyone has their own problems and their own accomplishments,” George says.

George. (Crombie McNeill)

Crombie’s photographs are now on display in a gallery space at Vistek, a highly regarded camera and video store at 499 Bank St. in Ottawa.

A series of black and white images, shot on film, are showcased until the end of June. They are also for sale. The proceeds will be donated to an Ottawa shelter to support those without homes.

Crombie is the humble custodian of their stories.

“There’s a photograph of hands, just hands. And you can see they’re very textured and worn. And yet, the man is wearing a wedding ring. He’s not pawned it. There has to be some interesting story behind him retaining that ring when it's worth money.

One of the many colourful people captured on film by long-time photographer, Crombie McNeill.

The images will also become a book. Proceeds from its sale will fund initiatives to help those living in shelters or on the street. Crombie is hopeful a sponsor will come forward to support printing costs.

“I hope the book begins to change the preconceived ideas we have about people on the street,” he says.

“I’m not going to make a penny at this. I’m doing this from my heart. These are wonderful, wonderful people. And I feel I am, in some small way, contributing to their welfare.” Top Stories

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