Calgary photographer Sarah Murdoch aims to create a safe space in front of the camera lens.

Q&A: Scottish ceilidhs and safe spaces with Sarah Murdoch (Calgary, AB)

October 22, 2020

A Calgary-based photographer, Sarah Murdoch has been photographing weddings since 2006. A product of the film era, Murdoch cut her teeth in the darkrooms at the Alberta College of Art and Design. It's that same handcrafted approach she carries into her shoots—"the biggest goal in my business is to create photos that are timeless," she says. "I want realness, I want authenticity, and I want to tell people's stories."

That yearning for realness has manifested itself in different ways for Murdoch. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, inspired by Kristin Collins and Cara Soulia's #TheFrontStepsProject, she canvassed the city, photographing free "doortraits" of her neighbours. In 2018, Murdoch's "Hello Lovely" exhibit—a project about body positivity—went on a gallery tour in Calgary.

Creating safe spaces in front of the camera is a priority of Murdoch's—even if she's braved her own share of risks in search of the perfect shot. From six-storey ladder climbs to helicopter shoots, photography has taken her to breathtaking heights. We caught up with Sarah to talk about falling in love with photography and the places that love has taken her—from Scottish ceilidhs to the Rocky mountains of Alberta.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

How did you get into photography?

SM: I've always been involved in the arts. Growing up [in Calgary], I drew, and I painted. My grandma was a painter, and it was something I always loved. I took every single art option around. But I always knew that I was going to be a teacher. Everyone in my family is a teacher; it’s something I love to do. I was a camp counsellor, I was working with kids. My mom has a preschool, so I’ve basically taught my entire life.

I started at [the University of Calgary] in a three-year general studies degree, but I took a minor in art. This was 2001—and back in the day, digital wasn’t around. Photography was in the darkroom. I took a photography course as part of my minor, and I just completely fell in love with it. I hadn’t really done any photography whatsoever, but in that course, in that year ... I decided to switch my major to fine art, and basically my major to photography.

I spent the second year at U of C doing the foundation program. We were doing darkroom; it was incredible. I decided if I wanted to be a photographer, that I should be at [the Alberta College of Art and Design]. So I put together a portfolio, and in 2003, I was accepted into ACAD. It was a degree, four years long. I got to skip the first year because of my work at U of C. And then it kind of just started from there.

What was it about photography that hooked you?

SM: You know, it’s weird. I don’t really know what exactly it was. I think it’s a very collaborative process. You’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your classmates, and you’re standing at the sinks, and you’re watching your pictures come up. I think it’s a really interesting mix of technology and also really old-school. And the idea that I get to work with cameras, I think, I’m always interested in technology and how things work, and everything like that.

Two newlyweds share an intimate moment after their elopement. Photo by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photo: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)

I miss film a lot. Even today, I miss film. I think it’s just that tangible nature of something. And also with film, you just never know what you’re going to get, so there’s that sort of aspect [as well].

What was your first-ever camera, and when did you get it?

SM: It was in university, for my photography course. That was my very first film camera, and it was a Pentax. It’s so polarizing in our industry, Nikon and Canon, and I [chose neither].

Having started in the darkroom, how has that shaped your current digital approach?

SM: I think my style really is reminiscent of film. The biggest goal in my business is to create photos that are timeless. I think in our industry, there can be a… there’s definitely fads, and they’re great, because they speak to people, and there [are] styles that suit everyone, but I feel like if you’re really into a fad, then you will know, ‘Oh, that was so 2013 or 2019.’ I try and stay away from [fads] and just really take beautiful images in my camera. And I try and leave them alone. Obviously, there’s a little bit of post-production, but for the most part, I want people to see the photos, and I want them to see the people and the emotions and the story, and I don’t want them to see a filter.

What makes for a timeless photo?

SM: For me personally, it comes through good gear, it comes through [understanding] aperture, and it comes through using light really well and finding the light. I think instead of fixing photos in Photoshop after, I really try and get them to look as beautiful in the moment as I can.

A ranching couple pose for portraits in front of their cattle. Photo by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photo: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)
What was your first paid gig?

SM: I remember my first wedding that I did. I was a basket case. For about five or six weeks beforehand, I was having trouble sleeping. I was incredibly worried; there was a lot of pressure. I remember the feeling of just absolutely hating it [laughs]. I was doing it because I had been asked, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this.’

I just remember thinking, ‘This is not worth it at all.’ And it was because I was completely inexperienced. I didn’t have backups for my backups, and I didn’t have any knowledge of how to work with people, and I didn’t have knowledge of weddings. I meet people all the time that say, ‘You’re a wedding photographer, I could never do that. That’s so much stress and anxiety,’ and now, fifteen years on, it’s second nature. But it’s because I’ve alleviated the risk. I’ve basically taken away the risks—especially with my gear now. So the anxiety of it… there is none. It’s just excitement.

How do you prepare for a wedding now? What makes for a smooth photoshoot?

SM: I really pride myself on being customer service-focused. COVID has changed [things] a little bit, but generally speaking, I meet the couple first in person. We discuss what I offer, what they’re looking for. If they choose to book with me, I really like to be communicative. About a month before their wedding, we’ll either meet in person or talk on the phone, but generally speaking, if the wedding’s in Calgary, we meet at their venue.

I’ll have asked them questions about their timeline. I will propose a timeline that fits the amount of photography hours in their day. Oftentimes, a couple will come to me and say, ‘How should we structure our day?’ And I can give some advice on that, so that is really helpful. If they don’t, and they just have set times, which is totally fine—a lot of times, the church will say, ‘Your wedding is at this time,’ and the reception venue will say, ‘Your dinner has to be at this time.’ Then, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how best to maximize the time.

Young newlyweds share a kiss amidst fall foliage. Photo by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photo: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)

So we’ll meet, and I will have asked for their creatives locations, if they have any ideas or any vision for that. It could be stuff like, ‘Do you want a natural location, or do you want an urban location?’ And then together, we will go and look at the locations. It makes it a collaborative process. Oftentimes it’s a curated location list, but they definitely get a say—and the cool part is, I’ve had clients take me to places I didn’t even know existed. And so even fifteen years onward, I would never get rid of the location scout.

I find that when we plan really well, that’s what takes the anxiety away—not only for me, but also for my clients. And then on the day, what generally seems to happen is that even if they have a wedding planner, the photographer keeps the time. I really love timelines, and I love the logistics part of the day. I had a wedding in the winter where the driver disappeared, and we were supposed to have two hours for creatives after the wedding, and we had 25 minutes, because the driver just completely disappeared. Nobody knew where they went. I went ahead to the location, was waiting, and by the time they got there, I had 25 minutes to do the wedding party and the bride and groom. And it was fine. Like, it was minus 15, minus 20; it was cold. And it actually worked out fine. But it’s those types of things where, if I know what’s going on, and everybody’s on the same page, then the preparation is all beforehand. I’m not running around and thinking, ‘Oh, where are we going to go?’ I already know that. 

I want to bring up a quote of yours: “I want to capture people as they truly are, not fit them into some contrived version that fits a certain look.” Could you talk about that?

SM: I have a real passion for real people. And real stories. Again, I think in our industry, it can kind of… it always maybe goes back to Instagram and having a very polished and very curated view on your Instagram page. It sort of bothers me. I feel like it doesn’t really leave room for realness and authenticity. That’s something that I’m incredibly passionate about: making a safe space for people. No matter what you look like, no matter who you are, I want people to feel like they matter. And I want them to feel like… I want them to have the same memories as everybody. And I want to capture people as they truly are. Like, that’s really my mandate. In my entire life, I just… I want realness, I want authenticity, and I want to tell people’s stories. And I want to tell the regular people’s stories.

How important is it to create a safe space in front of your lens?

SM: As a photographer, the number one thing people say to me is how they hate having their photo taken. My number one goal is to put people at ease and create an environment where I can get them to stop thinking about being photographed and start thinking about the relationships that are around them, whether it’s their family, their partner.

A same-sex couple shares a kiss at their winter wedding. Photo by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photo: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)

The number one thing that I can do to achieve authenticity, to get the realness that I absolutely love, is to make people feel comfortable. And then aside from that, the LGBTQ2+ community is incredibly close to my heart. In Calgary in 2020, we are still experiencing unsafe spaces in the wedding industry. I’ve had clients where their cake lady has cancelled their cake two days before, because she found out that they were gay. That kind of thing just destroys me.

And so I make a big effort to try and make sure that I’m promoting the fact that I want to create a safe space, especially for this community, because oftentimes what I get asked is, ‘I was worried you weren’t gay-friendly,’ or ‘I’ve had bad experiences already in the industry, and we’re just trying to get married, and we’re looking for gay-friendly people.’ And I’ve had comments from people saying that they knew, because I’m posting about it, or I’m blogging about it. I also feel like the more… I’m not going to make a massive difference in the world, but if I can make a small difference in the world by showing it, maybe I can play a small part in normalizing it as well.

Body positivity is an important part of your work. In 2018, your “Hello Lovely” exhibit went on a gallery tour in Calgary. Tell me about that project.

SM: Yeah! I want to create safe spaces for plus-sized people as well. I know of personal instances where people have not been showcased on a photographer’s blog, because they were not considered ‘acceptable.’ And so, that is something that is incredibly close to my heart as well.

With “Hello Lovely,” I had been thinking about it for a really long time. I started it just at the end of summer in 2016. It was kind of [at] the onset of body positivity as a movement really starting. It was just something I wanted to do for myself; it wasn’t for any huge reason other than obviously, I wanted to promote body positivity; I wanted to promote self-love.

And it was a little scary to put myself out there. It was almost like a coming out thing, where it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m fat, and this is what I’m gonna do,’ because I’d never really done that before. And it was really amazing; it was an incredible experience. I think it meant a lot to people, and I think it allowed a lot of women to just kind of do something for themselves.

Women pose for the "Hello Lovely" photo exhibit. Photos by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photos: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)
Who or what has been your biggest teacher in photography?

SM: I don’t know. I was really inspired by my instructors at ACAD. And inspired by my classmates. And then, after school, I think the best thing that I did was I didn’t look at anybody else. I kind of just did my thing.

One of the best self-care things I ever did was I didn’t follow photographers in the city. I just try and keep to myself, which is maybe not a great thing, but also, if I try and kind of delve into the industry, it just… I don’t know that it’s a great place for me personally. It’s weird.

It makes sense. In one way, you’re trying to avoid comparison. There’s the phrase, “comparison is the thief of joy.” And yet, maybe there’s benefits to having a network of photographers, too. What’s your relationship with the photography community at large?

SM: That’s the thing. In terms of me taking care of myself, the way that I did that was I created very, very close relationships with very few photographers. One of the things we did in the early days was we had a Calgary women photography group, but there [was] only about thirty of us. We did shoots, we did portraits of each other, we did model shoots. It was women photographers only—sorry guys—and we would get together for potlucks, and what that did was it created a realism to our work.

Again, with social media, everything is so glossy and shiny, and everybody’s great. When in reality, that is not true. I don’t want to be part of the bullshit. Anytime there’s a Calgary wedding photographer meet-up or group, that is the last thing I want to do. Because I don’t want to stand around, and the one question you get asked is, ‘Are you busy? Are you booked up?’ And it’s just like, what am I going to say? ‘Yep! I’m super busy.’ When maybe I’m not. And nobody’s truthful, because everybody’s out there bullshitting each other. No-one wants to be honest.

I’ve really just kept things very, very small and tiny, and because of that, I have a safe place to vent to, to refer to. We trust each other. Stephanie [Couture] and I will second shoot for each other. And I just love it, because I get to hang out with one of my great friends.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began and life shifted indoors, you started a “doortrait” series called the Front Steps Project. How did that start, and what’s that been like for you?

SM: The Front Steps Project was started in the States. It was actually a friend of mine that sent it to me and said, 'You should do this! This is so you.' Again, it started out of a desire to document and tell stories. This is an incredibly unique time in our lives. And then also, as a way to connect with families—I've got two little boys [aged] three and seven, and my family work is something I am incredibly connected to.

Also, I love the idea that I could do something for people where there wasn't any strings attached. You don't need to pay anything for this. I want there to be something in the world that someone is doing just for the sake of doing something nice. And I loved it. I loved being able to get out during those very closed-in days. I was able to connect with friends—that was the most amazing part. I connected with friends I hadn’t seen in years. So it was great in that respect, that I was able to be social, I was able to get out and shoot, and then I was also just able to brighten people’s days. Like, people were so happy. It made people get dressed and take a shower [laughs].

These days, getting dressed and showered is a big deal.

SM: It is! It really is.

You shot a Zoom wedding not too long ago. What was that like?

SM: That was amazing. I feel so fortunate that I was able to experience that. They did a fantastic job; they hired an AV company to come in and mic everybody, and make sure that the video was great and the feed was okay. They used an emcee from their family, so they kind of had a flow to the [ceremony]. Someone was on Zoom as the emcee to make sure that the guests knew what was going on, and someone was there to introduce the speakers. For someone who loves authenticity and telling stories, photographing a Zoom wedding was right up there. It was so exciting to be able to do that.

What’s in your camera bag on any given shoot? How many lenses are you taking with you?

SM: I have three Canon Mark IIIs. One of my Canons is getting a little old, so I got a new one. [Part of] reduction of risk and anxiety comes with really good gear and having backups for your backup. And then in my Mark IIIs, I have dual-shooting, so I photograph to an SD card, and I also photograph to CF cards. I don’t shoot on super large CF cards, so that if one card were to fail, hopefully the SD card would pick it up, and then if both failed, then I’m shooting with a second camera, and also, I’m not losing the entire day; I’m just losing a part of the day. And I’ve been shooting for fifteen years; I’ve never lost anything.

(Oh god. Why did I say that?)

Two families share a moment with their little ones on a sunny day. Photo by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photo: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)

Gear-wise, I have a 70-200mm, I have a 50mm f/1.2L, and I have a 16-35mm. And I have a new love for my 85mm f/1.8. But generally speaking, if I’m shooting, I have a harness, and so I wear two cameras. And it’ll either be my 50mm and my 70-200mm, or my 50mm and my 85mm. And then my 16-35mm is my favourite for really big, wide open landscape shots of my people. I love the connection between people and their environment, so my 16-35mm really expands on [that].

What’s your favourite place to shoot around Calgary?

SM: It depends on the time of year, but Confederation Park is a big favourite. Nose Hill Park. I prefer Canmore over Banff—Canmore has more open fields with mountains, and Banff is more closed-in. I don’t even know the names in Canmore, but I definitely prefer Canmore over Banff, and then in terms of Calgary, for natural locations, Confederation Park just offers so much. And Fish Creek as well. There’s like 100 entrances to Fish Creek, and it’s just the best.

What words of advice would you give to your younger self about the photography industry?

SM: I was thinking about that. I generally like how I’ve [done things], and I’ve gone through a lot. I would definitely say, social media: do that [laughs]. Figure that out before it’s too late and everyone has 5,000 followers, and you’re stuck below 1,000. And it sounds really sad, but also, I own that. I own the fact that social media is my biggest downfall as a photographer.

Do you have any personal photography projects, outside of what you’re commissioned to do?

SM: Well, I do a lot of work. I do charity work with some organizations in Calgary. I do pro bono work for Made by Momma [a non-profit supporting families in difficult life situations]. And then I do some pro bono work for Sonshine, which [offers housing] for women who are escaping abuse. So again, just trying to give back.

There’s always been a second side to my self-employment, so I [spend] half my time as an artist-in-residence. What’s funny about my career is that, back in 2006, I was approached by a friend who worked in Langevin School, and she said, 'Hey, I know you’re great at photography, and I know you love teaching kids, so could you develop a photography program to teach photography to my Grade 2 students?' So then I did, and fifteen years later, I’m still doing that program, and I’m working in Calgary schools.

A young couple celebrates their engagement, backdropped by the snow-dusted mountains of Canmore. Photo by Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography).
Photo: Sarah Murdoch (Modern Photography)
What is your favourite or most memorable shoot?

SM: I photographed a wedding in Scotland. It was inside a sixteenth century church; it was absolutely incredible. And I got to photograph a ceilidh, which is amazing. It’s sort of like western line dancing, but with kilts and whiskey and fiddles. Everybody knows what they’re doing except for you, and you just kind of get flung around the room by people that know what they’re doing. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced in my whole life.

I have a corporate client that I work with in Calgary that has put me up in crazy places. I’ve had to climb six-storey ladders with my gear on my back, and I have a deathly fear of heights. There was lot of talking going on in my head. They also put me up in a helicopter where I got to shoot—not hanging outside the helicopter, but almost outside it. I also get really car sick, so I spent the whole time trying not to throw up [laughs]. I’ll never forget that.

See Sarah's Focal Portfolio

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