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Photographic Memories

Mark Zelinski has a world of experience, and a variety of charitable causes are benefiting from it
By Ted McIntyre

Two exhausted villagers squat on a tuft of grass in Nepal at sunset. In the background, a thin strip of Himalayan mountaintops is framed by an indigo sea of cloud below and a frozen blue sky above.

Mark Zelinski snapped the striking photo in December 2000 while touring Asia to visit a series of Outward Bound schools. The shot is featured in a recent pair of collected works of the Oakville-born photographer: From the Field and Untitled. While the former features precious few words, the latter contains none whatsoever— not so much as a title on the cover.

"I have seen so much deprivation in the world that it's easy to become overwhelmed or desensitized," explains Zelinski, who is now based in Hamilton. "I was photographing a small village school in India in 2009. They were acting out a play in which every student in the school played a part. There was no stage, so the acting took place in the schoolyard, the rooms—the entire grounds, really. I noticed in the classrooms that there were no books, let alone computers or TVs. I realized that one of my photography books would probably be considered a treasure at this school, so in the following weeks I decided to print my 70-country, 35-years-in-themaking global family album without a single word in it. That way, the book would not be limited by literacy or language in a place like this village school, but contain only the universal language of photography."

Zelinksi honed his skills at Sheridan College and the Ontario College of Art and Design, where he graduated in 1979 with three scholarships as OCAD's top student, winning the Governor General's Medal in the process. He quickly parlayed an Oakville newspaper article celebrating that honour into an assignment at the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey, which he in turn parlayed into a week-long shoot at Toronto General Hospital. From that emerged steady work from the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs. Zelinski gradually expanded a commercial list of clients that now includes Sun Life, Deloitte, New Horizon Homes, Ford Motor Company, Panasonic and the National Film Board of Canada. He's also the preferred wedding photographer of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Carmen's and Oakville Conference Centre, among others.

But most of his epitaph will likely be reserved for his recent pursuits, which have culminated in the publishing of his two aforementioned books, as well as One Small Flame: Kurt Hahn's Vision of Education, a photographic testament to the service projects and expeditions of more than 70 Outward Bound centres, United World Colleges and Round Square Schools worldwide. Joint forewords were penned by Justin Trudeau and King Constantine of Greece, and the book is proving to be a useful tool both for educators and in inspiring youth volunteerism locally and globally.

The unique format of both Untitled and From the Field, meanwhile, has enabled agencies worldwide to make use of the books in a variety of ways. Schools, orphanages and libraries in Haiti, Ethiopia and throughout Asia have received thousands of books. Others are destined for rescued victims of human trafficking, while still others have been goodwill gifts to North Korean schools. "Because the books are without text, they pass the censors there," Zelinski notes. "As a result of this project, the grandson of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has enrolled in the Bosnia United World College for world peace."

The ripples of Zelinski's efforts have also been felt close to home—much closer than he expected.

"At first the idea was simply that I would, through photography, bring all the cultures of the world to children and families who cannot flip through a National Geographic, switch on Discovery Channel or Google any topic. But about a third of the books I've donated are destined for end-users here in Canada. Charities here are using the books as gifts to donors and volunteers, tools for literacy, addiction counselling, crime prevention, grief counselling, educational aids for homeless youth, gifts to families with mental heath issues… and the list continues to grow. In Hamilton/Halton, I've donated hundreds of books to Rotary District 7090, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Halton, Mission Services, Suntrac Addiction Treatment Centre, Acts of Kindness Network, the Centre For Compassion And Wisdom...

"For a long time I've been aware of importance of charities working in developing countries and disaster relief," Zelinski continues. "Working with local charities, though, I am shocked by the need that is right here, sometimes in the most affluent communities— by the number of children who go to school hungry, the devastating effects of high illiteracy rates, mental health issues, substance abuse, and just how many families are in need of assistance of all kinds."

Compiling the compelling compendium of images that now drives his charitable efforts— from a Mozambican woman nursing her baby to a Hindu holy man with five feet of hair—has not been without a measure of risk.

"In Peru in 2004, I ascended from hot jungle lowlands of the Amazon basin to cold winter in the high Andes—1200+ feet— much too quickly," Zelinski recalls. "As a result I was laid up in a hotel room in Cuzco with a serious fever, unable to move and hallucinating for two days without food. On the third day my hired guides collected me and we drove for many hours to several villages near the Bolivian border. I crawled around on my knees for hours with my camera on a tripod, slowly taking photos of weavers. That night I was given antibiotics and days later the fever eventually broke. The interesting thing was that when I finally got home and processed the film, I did not recognize the people in the photos or have any memory of them—and the pictures were great!

"Some other close calls were situations where I instinctively knew that if I acted frightened or like a victim, I would certainly become a victim. Once in Harare, Zimbabwe, I was abducted by a random street gang. I grinned into the eyes of my captor—who held a knife at my throat—as if to say, 'If I go now, I'm taking you with me.' They moved on to threaten another innocent passerby. There was a similar situation when I was lost in a burnt-out tenement in South Bronx, New York City, and surrounded by an armed gang. As they closed in on me I walked directly toward the leader and loudly demanded a cigarette. Stunned by my cockiness, the gang not only left me unharmed, but escorted me to my destination."

Zelinski still has places to go, but mortal threats should be at a minimum. After devoting much of the last three years to his trio of new international books (and donations to more than 50 charities), he is back in business in the Golden Horseshoe with a clear vision: "A good corporate citizen can be a global citizen as well."

"Each commercial shoot, each wedding photograph I take and every one of books sold around the world helps to pay for the thousands of photography books that I donate to charities locally and globally," he offers. "I've had the privilege to photograph many world leaders, Amazon tribes, sports heroes, open-heart surgery, Maasai villages, jails, industries, secret military operations, oil rigs and many of the globe's most amazing locations. My photography has been my window to the world. The best part is that I can share that with others."