12 Unforgettable Moments from the VanMag Archives

Our past editors and contributors share the stories, characters and triumphs that have stayed with them over the years.

There’s always one that sticks with you: that story that was more than just an assignment, that made an impact on not just the reader, but the storyteller, too. VanMag’s writers, editors, art directors and photographers share their favourites from the last 50 years.

Stand and Deliver

Musician Jim ByrnesJuly 2009, photographed by the late Gregory Crow,  art directed by Randall Watson

I assigned a portrait of Jim Byrnes to Gregory for a story. I seem to recall that according to Gregory, Jim felt at home sitting on his couch being photographed without his legs. Gregory had noticed Jim’s legs were propped up to the side and thought it would be interesting if they were in the shot. Jim apparently had no objection.

Randall Watson, creative director, 2008 to 2012

Ace in the Hole

June 1987, written by Douglas Coupland

The piece I remember most is ‘Ace in the Hole.’ It was the first magazine piece I’d ever written. I had a call from Mac Parry and 48 hours later I was in Beverly Hills writing about a guy originally from Vancouver, Doug Chrismas (without the t), who was involved in art-world hijinx. Within a week the piece was written, and I remember thinking, ‘You know, this writing is a great way to pay the bills.’ I had a studio in Yaletown that ate money; writing came at a very good time. That was 30 years ago, but it feels like yesterday.

Douglas Coupland, editor and writer, 1987

Blood Brothers

March 2011, written by Timothy Taylor

When I heard the story—from a photographer’s assistant who attended one of VanMag’s weekly editorial meetings—I wondered if it could possibly be true. She was a volunteer, she said, at VAST, the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture. (Who knew there was such a place?) Two attendees, an Iraqi and an Iranian, had fought on opposite sides during the Iran–Iraq War in 1982. In fact, the Iranian soldier, Zahed Haftlang, was supposed to have executed the Iraqi, Najah Aboud, but saved his life instead.

Each man ended up imprisoned in the other’s country. Each, tortured and tormented, ultimately made his way to Vancouver. One day at VAST, a quarter century later, these seeming strangers exchanged a nod, started comparing notes, and realized they were not strangers at all.

I knew this could make not just a great magazine article, but also a book and a movie, and I needed a first-class writer to do it justice. Timothy Taylor fit the bill; he produced an extraordinary piece, ‘Blood Brothers,’ that I’ll never forget. A book-length version, I, Who Did Not Die, has been published, and a feature film, My Enemy, My Brother, recently premiered at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

Gary Stephen Ross, editor-in-chief, 2006 to 2012

The Doctor is Out

December 2007, photographed by Wendell Phillips

Negotiating and developing communication with the intent of documenting the human condition in any circumstance requires integration. The terms of chronicling disadvantaged and vulnerable lives such as I found in the Downtown Eastside required special attention to people’s dignity. People were much more enthused and more likely to engage when they felt my interest in learning about their lives was sincere and my approach was respectful. Many in Vancouver consider the Downtown Eastside to be a beleaguered area of social crisis, and it certainly is home to sombre tragedies—but I’ve also witnessed extraordinary solidarity, triumphs of the human spirit and profound acts of kindness among those who call it home.

Wendell Phillips, freelance photographer

In One Ear

June 1978

‘What this magazine needs is a rock column.’—Les Wiseman

‘What this magazine does not need is a rock column.’—Mac Parry

Yet, a year later, my rock music column, In One Ear, first appeared in Vancouver magazine. It started off conservative, with the likes of Jerry Doucette and Nick Gilder. But as the column gelled it became more of a punk Creem North. I was a fan of Lester Bangs and patently emulated him. Years later, his book Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung was the text for my pop-music writing course at the University of Victoria. The punk and new wave genres had boomed and Vancouver’s former blues-can status was enlarged to include cutting-edge bands. The Stranglers, Siouxsie, DOA, Subhumans, Cramps, Ramones, Frank Zappa, Iggy Pop all got in with ‘those swell album reviews.’ Over 35 years later, I still get recognized from that column. As one music industry insider put it (about our November 1981 issue): ‘I love that I can read the cover story about Art Phillips and then I can turn back to In One Ear, where I can read about Wiseman up to no good with heroin-addict guitarist Johnny Thunders until five in the morning.’

Les Wiseman, editor and writer, 1978 to 1989

The Way We’ll Live

January 2000, concept by Douglas Coupland, photographed by Chris Gergley, produced by Anna Belluz

It was kind of important to Doug that we hire a style of photography that was reminiscent of Jeff Wall. We found Chris Gergley, who had just graduated from Emily Carr, but his style was all his own.

Doug’s take on the future wasn’t a clean one. It had elements of sci-fi, but really it was an interpretation of how we’ll bring things from today into tomorrow. We sat down and talked about the ideas and it was easy for me to go, oh bang, that’s it. Things like the octopus, I knew where to find residual catch—the boats come into Vancouver and they’ll freeze it and they know they can sell it to a specific restaurant. The only ode to Jeff Wall is really that octopus, and the fact it’s frozen makes it our own.

There were so many stories within each illustration and photograph that you didn’t need words. When I showed it to people, they were like, ‘You were actually allowed to do this? A magazine story that was pure image?’ Words, I’ve always said, are secondary: we look to image first.

Anna Belluz, art director, 1995 to 2000


October 2006, photographed by Marina Dodis

It was disgusting and shocking and very smelly. I think when we’re faced with the consequences of the way we live, it is pretty shocking, especially because we don’t live in that big a city—it’s surprising how big the area was. The writer is in the photo. It just helps to see the scale; it’s difficult to grasp unless you get the tractors in there and a person. I usually shoot portraits, so this was a change of pace—he almost disappeared in the shot. Which actually worked as a little bit of a metaphor.

Marina Dodis, freelance photographer

On the Heroin Trail

May 1978, written by Garry Marchant

My decade as the Vancouver magazine travel columnist changed my life, turning my long-time love of travel into a full-time job. I ventured from the icy wastes of the Antarctic to the sultry beaches of Polynesia and from the Galapagos to Tibet. I rode the Concorde from New York to London and savoured the luxury of a suite on the legendary liner QE2 on the way back.

I also wrote features, including an exposé of Filipino faith healers, an account of my year as editor of the Brazil Herald in Rio de Janeiro, and a story on the heroin trail from Thailand to Vancouver.

For that story I went to northern Thailand, where I saw hill tribes harvesting the opium, making incisions on the poppy buds, then scraping off the sap. In Bangkok, I learned how the labs turned the opium into heroin and how it was smuggled out. I also visited a prison in Bangkok to interview Canadian drug dealers, including Ricky from Montreal.

Back home, I spent a night on the streets with the Vancouver Police drug squad.

Sometime after the story appeared, I got a letter from Ricky. He was being released from prison and intended to stay with me in Vancouver for a while before continuing on to Montreal.

I fretted about this for months, but Ricky never turned up.

On my next visit to Bangkok, I contacted an RCMP officer at the Canadian embassy. He told me that Ricky was stopped at the airport with a load of heroin and was back in prison.

Travel writing was never so nerve-racking.

Garry Marchant, columnist, 1977 to 1989

Rational Enquirer

January 1999, written by Steve Burgess

Long-ago editor Jim Sutherland and I came up with a column called Rational Enquirer, a sort of ‘fake news’ column before its time. The concept: every month I would pull a weird stunt designed to throw light on a current issue. In 1999, rusty ships full of Chinese refugees landed on our coast, causing some hysteria. So I set up a table in Kerrisdale with a petition titled ‘Support Chinese Refugees!’ Twenty minutes later I changed the petition to ‘Support Chinese Dogs!’ Dogs beat refugees by a ratio of seven signatures to one.

Once, I picketed outside the Greek consulate with a sign reading ‘Rice, pita bread AND potatoes? Too much starch! Greek food: the silent killer!’

Steve Burgess, writer, 1994 to present

Hot Shots

September 1987

’Hot Shots’ was an 18-page photo essay that celebrated famous Vancouver landmarks by shooting them from unusual angles. The design of the story was easy—just run the photos as big as possible—but assigning and coordinating each shoot was tougher. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward was the photo wrangler and took some of the pictures, including the jaw-dropping cover image of Squamish rock climber Kevin McLane on top of the old Woodward’s sign. That image was secured with permission and permits while others, including a revealing aerial of Wreck Beach that irked Transport Canada, were not. Craziest of all was the photo session atop the Lions Gate Bridge. On the afternoon of the scheduled shoot (and two days before we went to press), our photographer refused to climb the bridge’s inner ladder. So editor Mac Parry hurriedly left our Richards Street office, drove to Stanley Park and the bridge, and took the shot himself. It’s a beauty and ended up opening the story.

Rick Staehling, art director, 1976 to 1994

Doctors in the House

March 2015, photographed by Pooya Nabei, fashion styling by Joanna Kulpa, hair and makeup by Sonia Leal-Serafim, prop styling by Nicole Sjöstedt

It was ambitious. We had to have everyone come in at different hours and did it as a composite image, just because of the logistics: they all had surgery and appointments. It took us 12 hours. They would come in and we would place them and shoot them one by one, slowly building the full picture. There was a couple who came separately but we wound up sitting them together in the final shot. Time goes quickly when you realize, ‘this is a really special moment.’

Pooya Nabei, freelance photographer

Tased and Confused

May 2008, written by Danielle Egan

I asked the RCMP to shoot me. It was 2008, a few months after Robert Dziekanski died, after being tasered by the RCMP. I filed a request to attend Taser training, which at that time included mandatory exposure (to 50,000 volts of electricity). I thought they’d say no and I’d get something on the record about potential dangers to civilians. To my shock, the Use of Force instructor agreed—tasering included. My editor loved the angle. As I geared up for that day, doing hair-raising scientific research on tasered pigs and watching too many tasering videos, the RCMP didn’t back out.

I showed up for training. The Use of Force instructor—I’ll call him UOF—said the tasering offer stood. I started to sweat when he passed around the barbed darts, displaying his numerous tasing scars. Would I risk muscle tear? A rogue shot to the eye or genitals? The rare chance of seizure or cardiac arrest? A lifetime of disappointment from my parents?

At lunch break, I choked down a muffin. Many hours later, live cartridges loaded, UOF said the RCMP’s lawyers wouldn’t allow a reporter to be tasered. I felt jilted. I said I’d sign a waiver. No deal. I did get some choice quotes. But I still wonder if I’d have done it, given the choice.

Danielle Egan, writer, 1997 to present


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