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Telling stories 1,000 words at a time
It’s truly the end of an era at the Peace Arch News.
Photographer Brian Giebelhaus, who has been – for many – the face of the newspaper in our community for some 22 years, is moving on to pastures new.
But that doesn’t mean he, and his cameras, won’t be around. In fact, he’ll be dedicating even more time to the lucrative freelance assignments that have continued to pour in, despite his admission that he hasn’t updated his portfolio since the late ’80s.
He’s also looking forward to indulging the purely artistic side of his vision; shows of his wildlife photography have been featured at the White Rock and Cloverdale libraries, and he hopes more venues will follow.
“I won’t be leaving the community,” the gregarious lensman said shortly before his final shift Tuesday.
“I’ve always felt I’ve been a cheerleader for White Rock – tried to show it in its best light, even though I’ve sometimes caught it at its worst.
“As a representative of the Peace Arch News, I’ve always had to hang one step back. We’re not supposed to express an opinion on what we’re reporting and photographing. I’m looking forward to being more involved in the community, to give back a lot more and express opinions.”
For more than two decades, Giebelhaus has captured Semiahmoo Peninsula residents at home, work and play. He’s photographed them at the heights of happiness – and the depths of despair. He’s shown them pursuing their passions, pampering their pets, creating works of art and building the community – literally and figuratively – from the ground up.
His viewfinder has depicted residents in childhood wonder, and in the wisdom, and frailty, of old age. He has photographed crime scenes and romantic vignettes, and documented the changing face of the Peninsula, from the sometimes sad loss of landmarks to the excitement of new construction.
The easy-going, chatty manner familiar to many who have been his subjects and who’ve seen him at community events has often defused a tense situation, or helped relax a difficult interview subject.
But his hallmark has always been the creativity he has brought to each assignment, whether for a news or feature story or for an advertising layout.
And it’s been recognized with some 20 industry awards over his time here, including a first place at the Suburban Newspaper Association awards last year for spot news and two at this year’s awards, in the sports and feature categories.
“What I like best is the process of photography,” Giebelhaus said.
“I love the problem-solving – going into a situation, not knowing what it is and somehow finding a way to tell the story with a photo or photos. You’re trying to come up with something that grabs the attention and makes the the reader want to find out more.
“It’s the ‘what the…?’ factor. In community newspapers it’s like you’re trying to go somewhere and show the reader something they might not have seen even if they’d been there, a different photo from a different angle.”
A career in photography was not even a glimmer on his horizon when he was growing up in Holden, Alta., a small farming community an hour east of Edmonton just south of Vegreville.
His father, Harold, owned a dairy farm of 70 to 80 head of cattle, and Giebelhaus recalls the glow of reflected glory he felt when his dad would bring little bottles of chocolate milk across the street to the children at his elementary school.
His first experience in newsprint was filling in for a school chum as a delivery boy for the paper – likely the Edmonton Journal – when he was seven or eight years old.
“It was a windy day, and one of the papers I delivered blew away. I didn’t know what to do, and when I turned around all the others had blown away, too. I lost all the papers.”
After this early brush with circulation, Giebelhaus kept clear of newspapers for years. But fate – in the form of the professor who headed the business program at Grant MacEwan College – was moving him closer to photography.
Although Giebelhaus had no ideas for post-graduation, he was pointed in the direction of a sister college in Florida, which ended up in a placement at Disneyworld. He ended up studying at famed ‘Mickey Mouse U,’ while working at the Canadian pavilion at Epcot Centre.
Program participants were encouraged to document their activities for Disney promotional presentations, and Giebelhaus – who had just bought his first camera – found himself intrigued by the potential of career in photography.
“I was advised that if you want to get good… run lots of film through your camera. The best place to do that seemed to be at a newspaper, where you’d not only get to do all kinds of pictures, but the paper would also pay for the film.”
Giebelhaus returned to Grant MacEwan in the journalism program, from where he won a practicum placement at the Peace Arch News in the early ’80s.
After dues-paying jobs with several suburban newspapers and the Edmonton Journal, he found his way back to the West Coast.
And, after a three-year stint of freelance assignments, he returned to White Rock as the Peace Arch News’ full-time photographer in January 1989.
Giebelhaus says there has been a large measure of “serendipity” working for him throughout his career.
As a student, he worked as a darkroom technician for the Edmonton Journal.
For practice, he photographed a weekend football game, which turned out to be the perfect illustration for a reporter’s profile on a retiring player.
Later, at the Peace Arch News, he applied for accreditation for the historic 1993 Vancouver meeting of U.S. president Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin and was mistakenly accredited for a Vancouver paper.
He was the man on the spot for a photo op of Yeltsin greeting schoolchildren – overlooked by most of the international corps of photographers – and his shot became the key image of the event.
The snag was, he couldn’t be credited with the photo in the Vancouver paper. It was published under the pseudonym, ‘Peter House.’
“I had to keep my mouth shut,” Giebelhaus said with a rueful grin. “Everybody wanted to know who this Peter House was. A television station contacted me because they wanted to do a ‘day in the life’ feature on Peter House, because they thought it was such a great photo.
“I said ‘are you trying to get me in trouble with my boss?’”
Now his own boss, Giebelhaus will continue to tell stories from his unique perspective, the next chapter yet to be written.