A focused approach

Photographer Kathryn Mussallem captured this portrait of Ordinary Seaman Dale Bouchard during a 2016 sail in HMCS Calgary.

Photographer Kathryn Mussallem captured this portrait of Ordinary Seaman Dale Bouchard during a 2016 sail in HMCS Calgary.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

For the last eleven years, Kathryn Mussallem, 44, has photographed the navies of the world.

It’s an interest that began in 2009 while attending The School of Visual Arts in New York City as a grad student. As she walked the streets of Manhattan, she would often see United States Navy members walking about in full dress whites with their canvas Dixie-Cup hats.

“It looked like they were walking off a movie set from the 1940s,” said Mussallem. “Their uniform had never changed at that point and I was intrigued by that.”

She was able to photograph them during Fleet Week, up close portraits that revealed their human side, the person rather than the military. That collection made its way onto the pages of an arts magazine and launched a pursuit that continues to this day. 

“I try to show the human side and the faces of people who serve. I want people to understand these men and women are your friends, brothers, sisters, and parents,” she says. “It’s a hard life. They are doing their jobs and making great sacrifices for freedoms many of us take for granted, and are leaving their families for long periods of time while they are away at sea.”

Her work has won many accolades including the 2016 Sony World Photography Award for Sailor in the Spotlight that featured sailors hitting the dance floor at a popular bar in New York. It became part of a group exhibition at London’s famed art centre Somerset House.

Her solo exhibition Tattoos and Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor, captured at a Fleet Week event in Boston in 2012, has appeared at maritime museums in New York, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Vancouver.

“I chase sailors, that’s what I do for a living, I photograph them at work and play,” she says.

That quest led her to the Canadian Forces Artist Program, which offers a grant to select artists to deploy with one of the three military branches.

In 2016 she sailed in HMCS Calgary during a transit to the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, in HMCS Algonquin before its decommissioning, and last August she was there for HMCS Regina’s homecoming after a six-and-a-half month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region. 

She calls that event a “highly emotional scene”.

One moment stood out above the others. A sailor anxiously waiting on the deck as the warship docked, in his hand a plush toy. When the brow opened and the families rushed on board, she captured the sailor with his son, the embrace, and the reuniting of the plush toy after months away at sea.

“The big difference between USN and RCN homecomings is that Canadian families get to go on board the ship when it returns. That is really cool and a much more personable experience.”

The seven-day sail in HMCS Calgary offered her much-needed interaction with the crew to truly understand their service. She turned a mess into a studio and met with sailors one on one to learn more about why they joined. 

“I left San Diego on the ship as a stranger, but when I arrived in Pearl Harbor I truly felt like I was part of the ship’s company.”

Some of her Royal Canadian Navy images are on display in the Vancouver Maritime Museum – a solo exhibit entitled Ship’s Company: The Canadian Navy at Work & Play. While the museum is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mussallem says she is hopeful the exhibit will continue when things return to normal. 

She is currently at home self-isolating, away from her work as a photography and visual arts instructor at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

For more information about Mussallem and her work visit her website www.thealmightyqueen.com

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