Atikokan photographer wins Canadian Geographic award

By Eric Shih
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Thunder Bay Source

Alan Poelman has been selected as Canadian Geographic magazine’s photographer of the year for 2022.

The Atikokan photographer said he found out he won the award on Thursday morning,

“I was pretty shocked. It was the first photo contest I’ve ever entered,” he said. “It was a huge honour to be named that from Canadian Geographic, so I was absolutely thrilled by it all.”

Alexandra Pope, the editor-in-chief of Canadian Geographic which ran the contest through its Photo Club, a 15,000-member community of amateur and professional photographers, said Poelman’s work stood out.

She said an initial short list is created through blind judging by magazine editorial and design staff, where they just look at each image by its own merits.

“We’re looking for evidence of good principles of composition. We’re looking for interesting and original content and an image that really tells a story and evidence of technical skills,” Pope said.

“We saw a couple of images and we were like “Wow, these are really good. Let’s definitely put these in the short list for finalist to send on to our external judges. And when then I went through the short list and actually cross-referenced them to the photographers Alan’s name kept coming up.”

Pope said five of Poelman’s submissions were short-listed as finalists.

“This guy obviously has something really special with his images, so let’s take a closer look at his portfolio,” she said. “And after doing that, we determined that he was absolutely deserving of being Canadian photographer of the year.”

Poelman’s images were among the 6,400 entries of submitted photos that had to be taken during 2022.

Photography is a good hobby, said Poelman, who works as a therapist and freelances in photography with assignments for tourism agencies.

“I started probably in my 20s, but [more] seriously in the last five to eight years,” he said. “It’s something I do usually to unwind and it’s good for my mental health.”

He said in his professional work he tries to help people find hobbies that alleviate depression and anxiety.

“[For] photography specifically, you can get outdoors, lots of mindfulness activities in it as well and kind of grounding when you’re experiencing a landscape or watching wildlife.”

Poelmans said for wildlife photography, he finds taking symmetrical portraits of animals most interesting.

“So that usually involves an animal looking back directly into the camera, you see a lot of symmetry and their faces when they’re directly aligned towards the camera and they have that glance staring back at you,” he said.

The magazine highlighted a portrait of a lynx staring straight at the camera that Poelman took as particular favourite of the judges.

Pope said that image and another one he took of a ground squirrel really stood out among the field of submissions this year.

“It was perfectly divided in half, like you could draw a straight line down the middle of the ground squirrels face or the length of space and both sides would be perfectly symmetrical and you know, that doesn’t always work as a compositional technique,” she said. “Sometimes you want to see a little bit more variety, but for whatever reason with these two animals, it just really worked.”

Poelman said finding animals to get a great shot is just sheer luck and a lot of travelling around.

“For the lynx shot specifically, I was just driving down the back roads of Atikokan and a lynx hopped across the road. I understanding lynx behaviour since I’ve seen them before. They typically hop across the road and then just kind of hunker down in a spot that they think they’re not seen,” he said.

“So I got out of the vehicle and sat on the road and I saw him just kind of hunkering down and he stood there for around five minutes and I was able to take all kinds of portrait shots at different angles and different facial positions and everything until I got one that I really liked.”

Pope said Poelman images involve more than just luck.

“Although he does say that the lynx image in particular was just a fluke and a really lucky chance encounter with that animal he clearly has the skills to capitalize on an opportunity like that,” she said.

“He was driving, he saw a lynx, he knew where to find it in the bush and got the shot.”

Poelman said he keeps his camera with him everywhere he goes.

“It’s usually good to have all the settings kind of honed in, so if it’s a really sunny day then you manually just all your settings: your aperture and exposure and get all that ready for a potential animal to pop out. And then if it’s cloudy, you adjust them for that too,” he said. “So all you need to do basically is grab your camera, turn it on and then start firing away.”

Being named photographer of the year comes with a $5,000 grand prize and photos published in the magazine’s upcoming March/April issue.