Jason Symington’s passion for photography and documentary film has taken him as far as Siberia and the Amazon rainforest. His dedication inspired countless students at MacEwan University, where he teaches. Together with Sharon Rose Kootenay, he was shortlisted for the 2021 Eldon and Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize.
As soon as artist and documentary filmmaker Jason Symington gets behind a camera, he becomes fearless. On a trip to the Amazon rainforest – where he and another MacEwan professor took a group of students to document a biodiversity station – Symington scrambled up a rickety metal tower to the top of the canopy. It was one of those decisive moments of inspiration he is always looking for. There was no way he would miss this opportunity.
“I knew I wanted the photograph from above the canopy and the only way was to climb the tower,” he says. “I am scared of heights but once you put a camera in my hand I am pretty much good for anything.” The resulting photograph, View from Above the Canopy of the Amazon Rainforest, Tiputini, Ecuador, captures the moment he emerged out of the darkness of the jungle when trees beneath formed a solid wall of green and parting clouds revealed an endless sapphire-blue sky.
This moment was among the highlights of an adventure-filled trip; another was meeting scientists who come to this untouched and most biodiverse region on the planet. Some posed for portraits, including the founding director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, Dr. Kelly Swing, who sat in front of his large photograph of an iguana in his office. “I like my photo of Kelly,” says Symington, smiling. “His head is cut off just below the neck. I tell students not to do that until you know the rules. Once you know the rules, you are free to break them.”
But these uplifting photographs belie some unsettling experiences. “I was a new diabetic back then and everything in South America was high in sugar. Good God, they love sugar!” he exclaims and recalls a boat ride when a bag lunch he was given made his body crash. Then there was the time he overheard loud shrieks coming from the jungle: “The sound came from the area where we were sleeping.” In the silence that followed Jose, a biodiversity station worker, calmly said “Jaguar”, and explained the shrieks were a capybara. Jose mentioned that we should be careful as we went back to our huts. “There is a jaguar and our big defense is to be careful!” laughs Symington.
By comparison, the expedition to film the Baikal Archeology Project in Siberia was less life threatening from animal attacks. “You go with preconceived notions of Russia and what to expect, thinking that everything in Siberia is going to look like a gulag and they have a three-storey Apple store,” he says. “If I put my students into a group of Russian students, you couldn’t tell them apart.”
The initial excitement of the trip continued with weeks of filming archeologists search for graves using ground penetrating radar, digging a trench, methodically removing dirt, all in search of Neolithic and Early Bronze age remains and artifacts. It was challenging for the film crew to stand around waiting for something to happen. During the dig at the Shamanka II site, the skeleton of a woman buried with a child above her chest, had a quiver of arrows beneath her. An archaeologist explained to Symington that this was an uncommon discovery. Symington saw this as a vital component to the documentary, thinking “this would be a huge discovery as it changes the way we think about this time.”
These, as do most of Symington’s projects, began with a simple credo he recites to his students: “When an opportunity comes up say, yes.” So, when Métis artist Sharon Kootenay asked him to collaborate on a public art project with a ten-day deadline, he plunged right in, digitally transforming Kootenay’s three-millimetre beads to five-inch monoliths. “When Jason put it [the design] together and connected all the flowers it made them very energetic,” says Kootenay. “Instead of passive, it became energetic and made it 100% better.” Their installation, Transformation: Wisdom and Promise – an iteration of a giant gate put on annually by The Works International Visual Arts Society – was so successful that both were shortlisted for the coveted Eldon and Anne Foote Visual Arts Prize.
That’s the kind of artistry Symington casts onto all his projects. He carries his Master of Fine Art Degree like a dogma. “I don’t walk far from the path of being an artist in anything I do, from teaching, to photography, to directing and producing,” he says. “There is a meaning that has to be there to put into this world or it’s just more noise.”
For the past 10 years the Eldon + Anne Foote Edmonton Visual Arts Prize has recognized outstanding artists from the Capital region. To celebrate, the Art Gallery of St. Albert is hosting the first ever exhibition in association with this award. In Good Company features award winners Preston Pavlis, Lauren Crazybull, aAron Munson and Gillian Willans, alongside the artists from the 2021 short list, including Emmanuel Osahor, Sharon Rose Kootenay and Jason Symington. Work by these seven incredible artists hang side by side, connected by their shared experience with the award, while offering a glimpse into their individual practices.
In Good Company runs November 9, 2021, to February 5, 2022. Plan your visit here.