January 5, 2014 2:07 pm
Updated: January 5, 2014 2:39 pm

The man behind the lens: political photographer to three prime ministers

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Watch above: Official photographer to three prime ministers, Jean-Marc Carisse, discusses his life sitting in the front row of history.

As official photographer to three Canadian prime ministers, Jean-Marc Carisse has had a front row seat to history, all the while disappearing into the background.

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“I’m a fly on the branches,” the award-winning photographer who, for years, was immersed in political culture, said in an interview on The West Block with Tom Clark.

Shadowing Liberal prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chretien in Ottawa and on their trips around the world, those adventures also earned Carisse the privilege of photographing every U.S. president since Gerald Ford.

His photographs have afforded Canadians interesting insights into the personalities of political leaders, as well as their relationships with one another.

One photograph Carisse describes as a “play of contrasts,” shows Margaret Trudeau, former wife to Pierre Trudeau, standing close to Laureen Harper, wife to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is in mid-sentence during a gala. Their hips touching, Trudeau’s raven hair and bleach-white outfit with a high neck line is a contradiction to Harper’s blonde tresses and black ensemble with a low cut.

“It’s a play of contrasts,” Carisse said. “And I felt that I captured the essence and their beauty. I found it looking very elegant and charismatic.”

Carisse credits his skill at capturing the private moments of politicians’ lives with his ability to disappear into the background.

One of his favourite examples of where that skill paid off is a black and white photo of Chretien hopping a high stone fence during a stroll with former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Jean-Marc Carisse at his gallery cafe in Ottawa, looking at one of his famous photographs.

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“They had gone in the forest for a long walk, rather than meeting in a small room…  and they came by jumping little fences, knee high fences, until they came to this area,” Carisse recalled. “They couldn’t find the stairs, so they went back and forth, to the left, they came this way, and they didn’t notice the stairs. So prime minister Chretien says, ‘Bill I’ll race you to the top.’ As Chretien described it to me, it was about two metres high, so seven feet, so the president had difficulty climbing, and Chretien had stalled (atop the fence) … to enjoy the moment.”

While the three prime ministers he has photographed have all faded into the pages of history books, his access saw him taking photos of a little boy who today, decades later, hopes to soon become prime minister.

Watching Justin Trudeau grow up, though, Carisse said he never had the impression the little boy would become a politician.

“No way, no,” he said when asked. “When he was a kid when I would see him … just horsing around like any little boy, the outcome, some may have thought that maybe (brothers) Alexandre or Sacha would have been more prone to end up as prime minister. And it turned out the other way around. I never would have known.”

© 2014 Shaw Media

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