Faculty of Animation, Arts & Design
Year of graduation: 1981
Click. It takes a split second for a camera to capture a fleeting event as it happens — a brief snippet of time that photographer Bernard Weil has spent his life pursuing across countries and continents, through times of celebration and of war. Weil’s acclaimed career in photography can be traced through a series of such moments, from the instant that he was handed his first camera at the age of four and began combing the neighbourhood in search of a great shot, to his current role as chief photographer at The Toronto Star.
Weil’s journey began as a Sheridan photography student in the early 80s, when The Mississauga News asked for volunteers to cover a local election. Weil was instantly hooked on photojournalism. “I thought to myself, ‘Here I am recording the news. I’m not a part of it, but I’m witnessing it and documenting it,’” he says.
That one-time event turned into weekend work, then a full-time darkroom technician role with the publication after his graduation in 1981. “Sheridan's two-year program was perfect for me as it allowed me to get into the workforce years earlier,” says Weil. He moved on to The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, where he had his first taste of a daily newspaper, then — after attracting notice by winning the photographer of the year award from the Ontario News Photographers' Association in 1986 — he joined The Toronto Star as a staff photographer covering multiple beats, including the prolific Life section. “What I do for fashion is the same as what I do with sports,” says Weil. “My job is to capture something that the viewer may have seen or not seen. It’s that moment that you try to capture: that joy or anger in the face of the subject.”
Weil’s assignments took him from the glittering runways of Paris and multiple Olympics to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (where Weil’s video camera work would form the basis of The Star’s video department). A defining event would occur, however, during his mission to document the first Canadian soldiers arriving in Afghanistan after 9/11 — a split second that Weil will never forget. On March 4, 2002, Weil, fellow journalist Kathleen Kenna, her husband Hadi Dadashian and an Afghan driver were on a dirt road between Kabul and Gardez when a man threw what Weil initially mistook as a rock into the vehicle’s backseat. The resulting explosion from the grenade severely injured Kenna, blowing the windows out of the car. “When we finally did roll to a stop, the car was filled with smoke and I screamed for everybody to get out,” says Weil. “I remember putting my foot out onto the ground and saying to myself ‘That’s it. There’s guns pointed at me right now and I’m dead.’” But when Weil looked around the remote desert area once the smoke cleared, the man who threw the grenade had disappeared, leaving chaos in his wake.
Weil and Kenna were evacuated from the country through the efforts of other members of the media, The Star and the UN. As he left Afghanistan, Weil clutched only his satellite phone in one hand and two cameras in the other, as by that point, all of his other possessions had been stolen. “It was just a horrible 24 hours. We came under attack later that night again,” Weil recalls. “I don’t want to put myself in jeopardy like that again…it was a life-changing experience.”
Although the experience left Weil wary of being a combat photographer, his love of travel and passion for photojournalism remain unscathed. To Weil, each moment is still an exciting opportunity to share and preserve a glimpse into another life, time or place. “You have to follow your passion and you have to be good at it, because there’s always going to be someone who’s better than you,” he tells his children every day. “I think that everybody has something within them that they’ll really excel at. The biggest struggle in life is finding out what that is.”
Learn more about Sheridan’s Department of Design, Illustration and Photography