by Paul Jacksties from Misadventures of an (Amateur) Photojournalist (68 Regent Dr., St. Catharines, ON, L2M 3L7)
“Paul, what’s the matter?” someone asked. “You look pale.” “I had my life threatened today. That’s all.” I’d been working for a lawn care company. Potential customers would call the office and ask for a free estimate. I would drive out in the company truck and measure up their lawn then leave them a form with a quote on how much their lawn care would cost. I would usually write something like, “Your lawn would benefit from either our gold or silver program.” Then in the appropriate-box I would fill in the prices for either program. It was an easy spring job. With all the driving I was doing I decided it would be a good idea to have my camera with me in the event I happened on some news in the making. Sure enough one day I passed by a fire in a trailer park in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I jumped out, took some photos, got them developed in an hour at Zehr’s, took them to the newspaper and had my first paying photo printed in the Standard, a St. Catharines newspaper, the next day. My friend Black-eyed Dutchie had been telling me I should go to the Fox Head Hotel in Niagara Falls to take some pictures. They were adding 10 additional storeys to the building, making it 23 storeys from 13. He was working construction there and he thought I could take some interesting photos. “Just put on your hard hat and some construction boots and go up the worker’s elevator to the roof,” he told me. “Hide your camera until you get up there. You’ll get some great shots.” A few days later that’s exactly what I did. The service elevator ran up the outside of the building — 23 floors up to the roof in a rattling metal cage. I was dressed incognito, with a hard hat and my construction boots so that I blended right in. When the last workers got out of the elevator I talked to the operator, a 20-yearold kid named Johnny. He had a sticker on his hard hat that read Big Phatty. I told him how I was friends with Dutchie and that I was planning to go on the roof to take some photos. Johnny didn’t care and he took me up the rest of the way to the roof. Up on top the view was incredible. I was so high up it seemed as if I could toss a stone down into the falls. Across the border in New York state I could see Buffalo’s buildings through the distant haze and I got some amazing photos of the steel riggers at work. I was climbing up ladders and onto scaffolding thirty feet above the roof trying to get worthwhile angles for the camera. At one point I was standing on a recently poured concrete roof of an elevator shaft to get a shot of a worker. I cautiously backed up as far as I could in order to frame the picture for the best possible results and found myself crouching along the edge of a sheer drop with no railings.
One worker noticed me end of a steel beam where he posed smiling with the falls in the background. I later took that photo to the Tribune newspaper in Welland and they printed it, although I was disappointed because it was so small and they buried it way in the back. I still believed I had some worthwhile shots and since I was going up to Toronto that weekend to visit my friend Siobhan I decided to take the photos to some newspapers there. The Toronto Star, the Sun and the Globe and Mail all had a look at the photos and weren’t interested. Back in St. Catharines I took the photos to The Standard and they turned me down as well because they had already had their photographer on location. I was disappointed but not about to give up. Although I had sold only one of my photos I was so taken with their potential that I returned to the construction site to take some more. I vaguely remembered having seen photos years ago in Life magazine of construction workers up on some skyscraper in New York City. I remembered being impressed that people were up there working in the sky and that someone had actually gone up and taken pictures. Once again I got into the metal cage of an elevator and rode the rickety ride to the roof of the Fox Head. Johnny the elevator operator now had a couple of stitches in his lip.
He gave me a look and I gave him a subtle nod back. I didn’t say anything because there were workers in the elevator with us and I didn’t want to get him in trouble because I wasn’t supposed to be there. By the time we got up to the roof everyone else had gotten out. I was just about to exit the elevator when Johnny noticed that the big boss was up there. “If he sees you taking pictures he’ll want to know what’s going on,” said Johnny. “You should come back another time.” “All right,” I agreed. We rode back down, picked up a few more workers on the way, and at the bottom I got out and thanked him even though I was disappointed. I’d driven from St. Catharines with the afternoon free and now I wasn’t even going to get a single photo. I wandered around the perimeter of the construction site, the camera still hidden away under my jacket. The casino was right next door and that complex had a big tower that was left behind from the old Maple Leaf Village. I asked casino security at the front door about getting permission to go up there for some photos. They made a couple of phone calls and I got my rejection. The tower, I was told, was deemed photo by Paul Jacksties unsafe and there were channels I needed to go through to get permission.
Disappointed I was getting nowhere I wandered around some more. The construction crane would have made a good vantage point too. I thought of climbing up the crane and was reminded of a $75 ticket I got a couple years earlier while in Welland doing a story for the school newspaper. Renovations were beginning at the old courthouse that had been built in the 1850s. I had snuck into the prison section of the courthouse and took creepy photos of the long-abandoned jail cells. I got one of a room down below where several prisoners had dropped to their deaths back in the day when hanging was still legal in Canada. Afterwards, to round out the whole photo-essay project, I climbed up the main street bridge to get a shot of the courthouse from a distance. There I was, more than 100 feet in the air, when some cop pulls up below and shouts for me to get down. He placed me under arrest and gave me the ticket. I wasn’t about to let that happen again. Still, I wasn’t about to give up either. I decided to find out who was in charge and to seek permission. Now there was an idea that hadn’t occurred to me. I went to one of the trailers and asked around. I met Bernie, a burly sixbroken foot man with a red beard. He was standing behind his desk, delicately tidying things up. “What can I do for you?” he asked. “Well, um, I was hoping to get your permission,” I told him. By now my Nikon camera was hanging openly around my neck. “Is that right?” he asked casually. “And what would you like my permission for?” “Well, I’m a freelance photographer and I was hoping to climb up the crane to get some photographs of the work going on.” He looked at me for a moment. “I haven’t had a chance to clean my desk in a while,” he said. I stood there silently, not quite sure what to say. “So you want to gain some notoriety?” he asked. “No,” I said with a chuckle. “I was just hoping to get some pictures of the guys up there working. Maybe I can sell them to the paper.” “I don’t know about that,” he said. “If I let you go up there then everyone will want to go up there and do the same thing.” “I can make you some doubles of the photos I take. I don’t have a lot of money.” He looked at me again. He was sizing me up in some way. “What’s your name?” he asked. “Paul,” I said. “Hang on a minute, Paul.”
Bernie got onto the phone with the crane operator and had a short discussion. When he hung up the phone Bernie told me that I wasn’t a freelance photographer but rather an acquaintance of his. I told him that I understood and, as he requested, I wrote up a waiver saying no one but myself was responsible for me in the event of death or injury. A few minutes later, having thanked Bernie, I found myself climbing up what I would later find out was at that time Canada’s tallest free-standing crane. Several times on the way up I had to stop and catch my breath. At one point the crane shifted into motion and I grabbed the railing out of surprise as the entire shaft shuddered. Near the top, close to where the crane operator sits, I found a little spot to sit. I caught my breath and snapped a couple of photos. Then I heard a voice. The crane operator was calling me. I climbed up a little higher and made my way on top of the little box out of where he worked. I took a couple of photos of him and wrote down his name. Sam asked me if I wanted to go out to the end of the crane’s boom. Without hesitation I told him that I did. He looked at me with a surprised expression then asked if I wasn’t afraid? 10 minutes later, when there was a lull in the work, he brought the trolley in and I climbed onto a little platform with low railings. “Just always hold on tight,” he told me. Next I was wheeled out to the end of the boom. One of the steel workers was still up on a beam 30 feet above the roof. I snapped away with my camera as Sam guided the boom of the crane in various positions so that I could get different angles to shoot from. The roar of the falls along with the bustle of traffic below made for quite the ride. Sam rotated the boom of the crane 360 degrees as I busily snapped away with my camera.
He even stopped the crane as I changed a roll of film while suspended directly over Clifton Hill with all its museums and tourist attractions. That week I was doing some more estimates back in Niagara Falls when I decided to drop in at the Review, the Niagara Falls paper. Joe Wallace, the editor, came out to have a look at the photos. He said that he might be interested in using one or two of my pictures and that he had been considering having a writer do a story on the construction at the Fox Head. I told him that I was also a writer and that I could do the story. He asked for my phone number so I gave him a copy of my resume. Two days later he phoned and gave me the go-ahead to write the story. I returned to the construction site and entered the trailer where Bernie had his office. There were several people in the trailer and one of them asked if he could help me. “I’m looking for Bernie,” I told him. “Now I remember you,” he said, noticing my camera. He ambushed me so that we ended up in Bernie’s open office. He closed the door almost all the way so that we were alone. “You’re a dead man,” he said, pointing into my chest. “Why, what for?” “You took that picture for the paper.” “Yeah, so?” “That guy wasn’t wearing a safety line. Now the Ministry of Labour has got my ass in a sling because of you.” “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” “You better get out of here.” “Okay,” I said, and made my way out of the office and out of the trailer. “And don’t let me see you here again.” “Well, I’ll talk to Bernie about that.” “Never mind Bernie!” he said angrily. “I’m the boss around here.”
I was standing outside of the trailer by now, looking up at him as he stood in the doorway. “Don’t forget what I said,” he told me. Later that night I was recounting my afternoon to Black-eyed Dutchie and Teabag. We were at Teabag’s place, sitting on the balcony having a beer. “So are you still going to do the story?” he asked me. “I don’t know, I think so. I mean, they already know my name so that’s no secret. If they want to find me to kill me…” “Okay, but don’t forget to ask him in your interview,” Dutchie said laughing, “how many people Working there are involved in the Mafia?” I laughed nervously. Teabag didn’t seem to think the situation all that funny. When I later asked Teabag if I could use his phone to try and set up an interview with Bernie he demanded that I punch in * 6 7 so that his number wouldn’t get traced. “Yeah, right.” I said. “Like they’re going to be coming over here to your place to look for me?” “Hey, when you start messing around with construction workers’ livelihoods, I wouldn’t be too careful,” Teabag said warningly. “You know what a little trick of theirs is? They run you off the road then make like they’re coming to check if you’re all right. Then it’s game over. I’d get a gun if I were you.” “Sure, Teabag.” I said and laughed. My laughter was unconvincing though and Teabag looked at me in an unusual way. I eventually got an interview with Bernie who told me all about the operation. I even went back up to the top of the Fox Head to take more photos. When a couple of workers who were working dangerously on the edge of the building saw me with my camera, they immediately tied themselves off to a nearby safety line. “Don’t worry guys.” I told them. “I’m not here to get anybody into trouble.” The 500-word story was printed up along with two of my photos and took up more than half a page of the newspaper. I was surprised and pleased that they never changed a single word. At last I was a paid and published writer and photographer both in a single shot. The death threat still didn’t sit well with me but eventually my feelings of unease faded away. That I helped give the project some positive exposure in the press probably helped me win some favour too. I’m pretty difficult to kill anyway.