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Taking the Last Picture of Something

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The recent collapsing of the Azure Window in Malta finally motivated me to take my keyboard and tell you the story behind the picture above.

T’was the summer of 2015. We were on a journey on the North Shore, a beautiful region of Québec at the mouth of the St Lawrence River. A pretty classic road trip. Departure from Montréal, a stop at Québec City, two nights at Grandes Bergeronnes next to Tadoussac. Here we go for a nice weekend of oxygenation. A summary can be seen in this video:

But among the hundred of pictures taken during this trip, it’s without any doubts this lonely seaplane on a lake at sunset that is the most fascinating.

This picture had been shot on the 2nd night of our weekend. While we were en route for Tadoussac for dinner, when our attention was caught by the side of the road with this seaplane and this lake. This was the kind of moment where all the passengers of the car marvel at the beauty of a fleeting moment of a sunset, and when the detour to go to the shore is not even to be discussed.

It was August 21st at 8.13PM.

Less than two days later… “Another Tragedy for Air Saguenay”

“Seaplane Crash on North Shore: ‘vertical’ impact”

While we were heading back to Montréal, the radio announced the crash of a seaplane of Air Saguenay. After the obvious horror and empathy for the victims, a realization came to me — a realization that my photograph is probably among the last, maybe the last, existing of this aircraft.

The last visual trace of this seaplane in all its glory, innocently “immortalized” by my camera…

It’s also my guilty pleasure: this photography attracts, in an inexplicable manner, gazes and attention. As if an invisible force was attracting them, viewers stop and contemplate. And I like to come and have a contextualizing conversation…

Me: “Do you like this picture?”

Viewer: “Yes! It’s really [insert a positive adjective like beautiful, nice, superb…]!”

Me: “You know there’s a whole story behind this picture…”

Viewer: …

Me: “… This plane crashed the day after this picture. It’s probably among the last pictures of this particular plane.”

Viewer: *Mixed expression of fascination and half-disgust towards this new morbid information*

And this is where you really realize the responsibility of a photographer; our pictures might be the last trace of someone, somewhere, or something. Or maybe they will be the last trace of us in this world. That’s why they must exist (and the perfectionist will say “and be perfect too”).

This is where I also realized the broad scope of the name “visual storyteller” to describe a photographer. The story we’re telling is not always in the picture itself or in the moment it captured. No. It’s sometimes in a moment before or the after. In a temporality that hasn’t been frozen in the picture.

But taking a picture, and knowing it’s the last of the object you’re portraying, is a unique experience. Morbid, but profoundly aesthetic. Fascinating, but heavy with unsolved questions. It’s a peculiar feeling for a peculiar piece of art.

Almost two years after, I still don’t know how I feel about this picture and the responsibility it bears. But I feel that it deeply moves me, and will continue to do so until my last shutter click.

About the author: Jp Valery is a photographer and a product manager at Gameloft who’s based in Montréal, Quebec. You can find more of his work and connect with him on his website, portfolio, Twitter, Instagram, 500px, and Facebook. You can buy a print of Valery’s photo here. This article was also published here.

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2676 days ago
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Why Humans Have No Penis Bone

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Mating practices may help explain the mystery

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2772 days ago
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The Winning Photos of the 2016 Nat Geo Nature Photo Contest

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Sardine Run

National Geographic has announced the winners of the 2016 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year contest. The grand prize this year was won by photographer Greg Lecoeur of Nice, France, with his photo “Sardine Run.”

“During the sardine migration along the Wild Coast of South Africa, millions of sardines are preyed upon by marine predators such as dolphins, marine birds, sharks, whales, penguins, sailfishes and sea lions,” says Lecoeur. “The hunt begins with common dolphins that have developed special hunting techniques to create and drive bait balls to the surface.”

The photo was snapped in June 2015 after Lecoeur waited two weeks to witness predators attacking a sardine run.

Photographer Varun Aditya, of Tamil Nadu, India, won 1st place in Animal Portraits for this photo of a snake:


Photographer Vadim Balakin, of Sverdlovsk, Russia, won 1st place in Environmental Issues with this photo of polar bear remains in Norway:


And finally, photographer Jacob Kapetein of Gerland, Netherlands, won his grand prize in Landscape with this photo of a small beech tree in a river:

Struggle of life

You can find a larger gallery of all the finalist photos on the official contest website.

Image credits: All photos by their respective photographers and courtesy 2016 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year

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2776 days ago
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My response to Susan Dextras

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Today the New West Record printed a response to the Yes In New West story that ran a couple of weeks ago. It was written by Susan Dextras, a New Westminster resident, who has been outspoken about the proposal in the draft Official Community Plan to change the land use designation (note: not zoning) of the block that she lives on from single family houses to rowhouses and townhouses.

Her letter was fairly NIMBY and since she addressed my family directly, I’m responding to her points.

My husband and I are long time residents of New Westminster since 1984. When we first arrived in the Lower Mainland, there was no affordable housing in Metro Vancouver, so we looked in New Westminster and found the property where we have resided and raised our family for the last 32 years. We plan to continue living in our home for many years to come and we have no intention of selling to a developer or anyone else in the next 25 years.

In 1984 the average price for a single family home in Greater Vancouver was $116,444, and the average total family income was $30,070, which is a ratio of just under 4. In 2014 the average price for a single family home in Metro Vancouver was about $1,400,000 and the median family income was $76,040, which is a ratio of over 18. Since 2014 the housing prices have grown even more, yet incomes have not kept up.

There was affordable housing available in Metro Vancouver. House prices were not huge multipliers of income like they are today.

I would note that Mrs. Dextras’ husband holds a BEng in Civil Engineering, which he obtained in 1976. Civil Engineering is a fairly advanced field of work and pays well, so the odds are quite good that the Dextras family had an above average income in 1984. For Mrs. Dextras to say that “there was no affordable housing” is a stretch.

I would also note that the Dextrases (is that how you pluralize it?) managed to have enough money to tear down the 1903 house they purchased and build a new one in 1990. People who complain about housing not being affordable don’t generally build their own house six years into a mortgage.

Oh, and she says that she has no intention of selling to a developer. Great! Then don’t! Nobody’s forcing you to. Just like how you shouldn’t be forcing your views on your neighbours, over half of which didn’t sign your petition, by the way.

So my advice to Mr. and Mrs. Cavanagh and young couples like them would be to search for affordable housing in the outlying municipalities of the Lower Mainland where land is cheaper and more available, much like we did when we first arrived here. And yes, there will be a commute to and from work but it is what most people have to deal with to be able to afford housing of any kind in our expensive city. Such is life.

Basically what Mrs. Dextras is saying here is “we don’t want anybody young or poor to move into our city”. It reeks of classism. She also seems to be in favour of people not spending time with their families. Mrs. Dextras, I like my family. I like spending time with them. For you to say “just suck it up an commute” is offensive. You might not like spending time with your family, but I like mine and I would rather spend my time with them instead of commuting.

Mrs. Dextras also seems to be proposing that our traffic get worse. Instead of being able to live close to where you work, you should have to live out Langley, Abbotsford, Mission, or Chilliwack and drive through New Westminster to get to your job, right? One of the best solutions for traffic is reducing the need to drive to and from work, and Mrs. Dextras seems to think that maybe more traffic on our streets is a good thing. More pollution is a good thing. Greater dependence on oil is a good thing. Right, Mrs. Dextras?

When we became aware in September of this year of the City’s Draft Future Land Use Map which was sent by Canada Post to the households in our neighborhood, we were astounded to see that the City Planners had arbitrarily colored our 5th – 6th Street Corridor (from 10th Av. To 6th Ave.) “orange” to designate that our streets had been changed from RS1- Single Family Detached zoning to Residential Townhouse zoning – without our consent.

I’ve been told that you’ve been told numerous times that you’re wrong about this. Well, here’s one more time:


The zoning isn’t changing. After the OCP is implemented your property will still be zoned RS-1. The land use designation may change to townhouses, but that is not rezoning! What that means is that if someone wants to rezone their property, the densest it could go is to townhouses. They wouldn’t be able to rezone it to a condo tower (at least, not without a huge fight).

Let me give you an example of the difference between land use and zoning. Queen’s Park is a lovely park in the middle of the city. It has an arena, a baseball diamond, some tennis courts, a nice rose garden, a really good playground, a petting zoo, and wonderful trails. It’s a park. It’s also zoned RS-1. Now do you see the difference between land use and zoning?

If Mayor Cote and the City Councillors take the time to walk down 5th Street, they will see a lovely eclectic collection of old and new homes, all well maintained, some with manicured gardens where neighbors meet for special events and family gatherings.

If Mayor Cote and the City Councillors take the time to walk down my street, they will see a lovely eclectic collection of old and new homes, townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings, all well maintained, some with manicured gardens. We had a street party right in front of my house this year, and another one right around the corner. There are Christmas lights everywhere, and people are always out walking on the sidewalks. Kids play in their front yards, whether they be in front of single family homes or apartment buildings. It’s a vibrant and diverse community, and it should be held up as a model community for the rest of New Westminster.

This is NOT a neighborhood which should be rezoned by the City and then offered to a developer who would then systematically over the next 20 years, demolish each house and begin construction on 450 townhouse units in our 15 acre Corridor.

That’s not how rezoning works, and that’s not how this process works. Again, just to make this clear, the OCP process is not rezoning. Nobody is offering developers anything. There are no bulldozers coming for you. Stop with the paranoia.

What the OCP process means that should one of your neighbours decide to sell their house, someone can buy it. And then maybe their neighbour sells their house, and that same someone buys that one too. Now they own two neighbouring properties. At that point, the landowner can apply for a rezoning. Only after that gets approved would there be any hint of demolition.

In fact, this is exactly the case of the block of houses up for sale along Eighth Avenue at Cumberland Street. One man bought one of those houses decades ago. Then the neighbouring house came up for sale, and he bought that. Let one of his kids live in it. He did that for four or five of the houses there, and members of his family were living in each house. And now the families have grown up, started moving away, and the gentleman has decided to try to sell all of the properties at once so that the adjoining lots can be rezoned to townhouses, making more affordable housing for young families to move into. His view is that young families should be able to enjoy New Westminster and afford to live here, and he’s trying to help that by trying to increase the number of family-friendly townhouses in New Westminster.

It’s a shame that you can’t see that, Mrs. Dextras. It’s a shame that you got lucky on the land lottery and are now so selfish that you can’t bear to see a few younger families move into your neighbourhood.

And all of this done to meet the City of New Westminster’s OCP agenda, which ultimately was initiated by Mayor Cote and council … to satisfy Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy and its need for more densification. However, Metro Vancouver’s strategy is “only guidelines and not the rule of law,” as Chief Justice Sharma of the Supreme Court of B.C. has outlined in her decision of the (Metro Vancouver vs. the City of Langley) court case in 2014.

Here’s a tip for readers at home: if someone who isn’t a lawyer starts talking about court decisions, they’ve usually misinterpreted that decision. In this case, she not only gets the defendant wrong (it was actually the Township of Langley, not the City of Langley) but the entire jist of the case. Metro Vancouver was trying to get the Township of Langley to not develop a “University District” because it didn’t fit into Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy. The Township of Langley argued that they were operating under the old plan. And yes, the judge did say that the regional growth strategy is “guidelines expressing policy” and that Metro Vancouver “does not have superiority over land use management within the boundaries of a municipality.” But Metro Vancouver isn’t telling New Westminster how to manage its land use within New Westminster. The whole point of the OCP is that New Westminster is telling New Westminster how to manage its land use within New Westminster. Is New Westminster supposed to take New Westminster to court to try to get New Westminster to not manage its land use?

(Astute readers will note that I’m someone who isn’t a lawyer and I’m talking about a court decision, but my information comes from this news story and you can go read it and determine for yourself if my synopsis makes sense instead of Mrs. Dextras’ throwaway line with no backstory.)

Therefore, the city is not legally bound to follow Metro’s strategy and should not be using it as an excuse to rezone, devalue and eventually dismantle our existing private property neighbourhoods in the name of creating more affordable housing in the future for someone else’s benefit.

New Westminster is not rezoning your property. Pay attention.

But I guess we just have different views about the future of our city. I see a city that embraces newcomers of all kinds. I see a city that’s welcoming to young people, to immigrants, to people who aren’t as well off as others. I see a dynamic and evolving city. And I think Mrs. Dextras wants to wrap the city in Saran Wrap and keep it the way it is forever, to the detriment of future generations.

And that’s a shame.

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2778 days ago
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The Key to a Family-Friendly City? Family-Size Housing (in News)

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Fully functioning cities need families too. Here’s how they can attract and keep them.
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2791 days ago
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"I Fight Back.” Jonathan Kozol's Plan to Stop Bigotry in Trump’s America

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As exit poll numbers rolled in and it became clear that the majority of white voters chose Donald Trump despite the bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia that came to define his campaign, I thought about the prescient warnings in the work of education journalist Jonathan Kozol. For nearly 50 years, this educator, author, and civil rights activist sounded the alarm about the damage done to pluralistic democracy by our increasingly polarized education systems. He argued that fewer integrated public schools mean fewer opportunities to learn mutual understanding and collective responsibility, essential qualities for a tolerant democracy. With his landmark New York Times best-sellers—Savage Inequalities, Amazing Grace, The Shame of the Nation—Kozol shaped a generation of teachers and writers covering schools and inequality.

Our public schools today are more racially segregated than they were shortly after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. White children, in particular, are growing up in homogenized environments, attending schools, on average, where 77 percent of students are white. White kids are also less likely than children of color to interact with students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds in their neighborhoods. Understanding and respecting different communities has to start early, and that becomes more and more unlikely if Americans don't have daily opportunities to interact and connect with each other, a position Kozol has championed for decades.

A week after the election results, I called Kozol—who describes himself as an "eternal optimist"—to ask what advice he has for parents, teachers, and progressives across the country who want to turn their anxiety over the rise of extremism and bigotry into working toward positive changes in our schools and in our society.

Mother Jones: How is your mood as we enter the beginning of the Trump administration?

Jonathan Kozol: I don't remain low for too long. I fight back. I went through the moment when Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, and I've lived through the moment when Ronald Reagan won [in 1980]. This is worse, but only by degrees. We've never had such overt extremism before—that's new and scary.

MJ: Do you think that the declines in the amount of time students spend learning social studies, humanities, and civic education—especially in underfunded schools serving working-class, rural, and inner-city students—has contributed to the deep divides and the rise of bigotry in the U.S.?

JK: Yes, it did contribute to what just happened in this country. I've been worried about this for many years. The loss of social studies eclipses our memory of historical atrocities; it eclipses our memory of the damage done to social orders by extreme racists and xenophobes.

The humanities at their best, especially fiction and poetry, refine the souls of human beings. They open our hearts to compassion, give a profound sense of human vulnerability, and open our hearts to identifying with those who suffer most. The virtual decapitation of humanities and social studies in our public schools over the past 15 years has, I think, helped to narrow our sense of civic decency, collective responsibility, and moral generosity. I don't think the decline of social studies and humanities explains the election, but these two factors heightened the distrust between the races and the classes in this country.

MJ: How should our civic education—including social studies and humanities—change to help young people appreciate the fragility of democracy and understand and reject extremism?

JK: I'd give the development of critical consciousness the highest priority right now: Empowering young people to ask discerning questions and to feel that it's okay to challenge the evils and injustices they perceive. The civic education and engagement is being beaten out of kids by this tremendous emphasis on authoritarian instruction and [emphasis on] one right answer on the test. We need to empower young people to understand that the most important questions that we face in life have limitless numbers of answers and that some of those answers will be distressing to the status quo.

In teaching history, it's very important to enable students to recognize the very high toll these extremist, racist values have taken in the past. Not only on Latino and African Americans, which is obvious to us, but in earlier generations to Jews, Italians, and Irish people, among others. The cruelty against children of color is part of an old pattern. The best part of the American story is that we ultimately did welcome all of these minorities to the United States and, in time, we saw how beautifully they enriched the fabric of this country.

It's also important to avoid giving the impression that history is something that is done by famous people who lived 200 or 2000 years ago. When I speak to students, I always say: 'History is also something you can do. It's what you do Monday morning about the ideals and longings you felt the night before. You don't need to look at history, you can enter it.'

MJ: When we talk about the benefits of integration, the emphasis these days has often been on how students of color can benefit from going to schools with higher test scores. What often gets lost is your longstanding argument that integration offers white children the opportunity to fully develop as human beings and responsible citizens who have skills to integrate multiple perspectives. There is a high cost if white children are spending most of their life segregated from daily interactions with people from other racial or ethnic backgrounds.

JK: That's right. I don't think standardized test scores can tell us anything significant about what children are learning. One of the greatest gains made during integration was not something that can be reduced to numbers: mutual understanding and respect for each other. It was simply a much higher, richer, fuller, culturally more capacious quality of education, because kids were in schools with students from other backgrounds, and parents with clout made sure that all kids in the school were receiving a full breadth of learning.

MJ: Given that the Trump campaign signaled its preference to use government funding to expand vouchers and charter schools rather than promote integration, what can progressive parents do if they want to promote stronger democratic values and reduce bigotry in our country?

JK: There are plenty of ways in which privileged people could confront the hyper-segregation of our public schools and the profound residential segregation of this nation. And I would argue that they don't have the right to use the outcome of this election as an excuse to abdicate their own responsibility. The local districts—especially historically liberal districts that surround major metropolitan areas—have a perfect opportunity to expand the kinds of voluntary integration programs that have thrived for many years in places like Boston. At some point there were 27,000 kids on the waiting list [for the voluntary integration program] in Boston, even though the program can only admit 400 kids every year. The program is still thriving, because there is still state funding—not enough, but it's there to cover the significant extra costs: transportation, highly qualified teachers, mentors to students who need extra supports.

Any enlightened metropolitan area could create the same kind of program so long as they can convince their legislators to provide what is ultimately a tiny portion of any state budget to make this happen. But even if parents can't obtain enough money from the state, most of these districts can easily afford to pump some of their own local property tax wealth into receiving schools to make sure it works in a really good, creative way.

One reason this option hasn't been on the table is that major media outlets avoid drawing attention to these successful programs. That's a part of the neoliberal drift—don't talk about segregation. Let's instead use the latest, so-called data-based, research-driven, miracle solution to create high-scoring, happy, apartheid schools in America. That's the agenda.

MJ: What is your advice to dispirited progressives? How can they turn their anger toward meaningful action?

JK: Don't mourn. Organize. That's the most important part.

If we are going to build a powerful movement to resist these ugly trends that have swept across the nation, we have to build a movement that can sustain itself after the immediate moment of outrage. It's not too hard to get tens of thousands of people into the streets to protest Trump's election. One of the weaknesses of the left has been a reluctance to create any kind of structure that could perpetuate the struggle beyond a single incendiary incident. Obviously, movements have to have a good amount of participatory democracy, but there has to be a way to generate and sustain leadership from the grassroots. I don't mean a single individual, but a cadre of leadership that can guide us to be wise rebels and bring things to completion.

Sometimes we spend too much time—and I've done this for years—testifying to Congress and subcommittee hearings. Congress people pat you on the back and say, "I'm on your side." Then years go by and nothing happens. Political change on that level never happens unless there is a powerful movement comparable to the Civil Rights Movement that was coordinated by the SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], and SCLC [The Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. These groups scared the establishment enough where they passed the Civil Rights Act and the war on poverty.

At the government level, I think we need to struggle hard to turn around the Democratic Party into a genuine opposition party that it has to be. I think we should move the party in the direction charted out by Elizabeth Warren and resist gravitating to the innocuous center of the spectrum, which the party has been doing for the past 30 years. Bush, Obama, Clinton didn't do a single thing to deal with the sweeping segregation of our public schools.

We have to struggle hard to make sure that the Democratic party upholds a truly bold vision of what a noble society should be and not just tinker around the edges of injustice. I am convinced that I will live long enough to see that happen.


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