Passion and therapy.
That’s how Oxford resident Shaun Whalen describes his photography and the hours, not to mention the litres of gas, he devotes daily to what is definitely more than a hobby.
“I have about $15,000 worth of equipment now,” Shaun says, the best pieces accumulated since he retired from his job as a survey technician with the Department of Natural Resources in 2011.
While his photos are a staple on Facebook and with photography groups, Shaun has provided his services for the Oxford Frozen Foods 40th anniversay celebration, Anne Murray and Saltscapes magazine, and his sports and wildlife photos appear regularly in this newspaper. A career highlight was being part of the media pool for the U2 concert in Moncton in 2011, a double delight since Shaun is a huge music fan.
He also does family portraits and weddings.
Not bad for man who didn’t pick up a camera until he was an adult.
“I was more seriously into it when the kids came along, when Lachlan was two or three years old,” he says. “I very rarely used a camera before that. Even on our honeymoon, we grabbed disposable cameras.”
That honeymoon was in 1988 after he married Sandra Fraser. They have two sons, Lachlan, 20, and Tiarnan, 16.
With the kids, including Lachlan’s longtime girlfriend, Ashley, Shaun and Sandra celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last September, a quiet celebration because Sandra was in the hospital. She died in November, nine years after being diagnosed with cancer.
Since then, Shaun’s silver SUV parked on the side of Route 301 has become a common sight for other drivers. Taking photos of the boys playing sports and of the wild animals he sees while driving around the back roads is therapy for him, he says.
“I can forget all the stuff that’s going on and concentrate on that, on looking.”
Shaun, who is 54, credits two activities from earlier in life for helping him take the remarkable photographs he’s known for.
“I used to draw and paint quite a bit and I think it helps,” he says. “One thing that really helps me is playing a lot of sports. I have good reflexes and good hand-eye coordination.”
He says this helps with sports photography but also taking photos of birds.
“If you’re playing hockey or basketball, I can tell within reason where someone is going to go, where the play is. Most people chase but if you can get ahead of the action, you get the shot you want.”
It was his older son’s athleticism that pushed Shaun to get serious about his photography.
“When Lachlan started playing soccer, I wanted better quality photos because he’s an exceptional athlete. I wanted to try and capture the best I could under the conditions.”
Since then, he has photographed both his sons playing soccer, basketball and baseball, as well as their friends and teammates. While Shaun is generous in sharing his photographs with others via Facebook, he makes sure his signature appears on each photo.
Every artist deserves credit, and thanks, for how he or she uses and shares their talent.
“I see stuff people wouldn’t normally see,” Shaun says. “If I’m driving along the river, I see scenes so stop and bang them off. I do a lot of landscapes a lot of people, sports.”
And animals. His photos of wildlife, including birds, are finely detailed and close-up.
“It’s kind of a high,” he says of getting that perfect shot of a person or an eagle in motion. “I’m looking for that shot of you diving through the air to catch the ball.”
He missed getting shots this spring of eagles’ mid-air courtship but he hopes to snap some shots of ospreys fishing. Right now, he’s on the hunt, photographically speaking, for bears.
We joke that Shaun will be okay if he ever comes nose-to-nose with a bear on the rare occasion he ventures into a field. Because of psoriatic arthritis, Shaun doesn’t walk very fast or some days, very well so he’ll easily be able to obey the first rule of meeting a black bear: Don’t run.
A self-taught photographer, Shaun says he learns from reading and making mistakes.
“Nobody ever helped me out. I had to read and figure it out. And I only know about one percent of what there is to know. The main thing I’ve learned through screw-ups is to have the settings ready for the conditions,” he says. “The camera is always turned on and the settings are set and the lens cap is never on it. I’ve lost shots just trying to reach inside the hood trying to get the lens cap off.”
The only thing worse than losing that great shot is losing the love of your life.
“Sandra was always very supportive of me doing photography,” Shaun says. “She never crapped on me for going out all the time. She did tell me, ‘I am amazed by some of your work.’ That kinda blew me away.”
Her loss touches him even more deeply because he can relate to how their son Tiarnan feels about losing his mother at the age of 16.
“Tiarnan and Sandra were really close,” he says. “My mom died when I was 23 and we were really close.”
But they were -- are -- a close family, and that is helping them through this difficult year of firsts.
“I keep going for the boys and the dogs,” Shaun says of the dual challenges of losing his wife and struggling with constant physical pain. “I try to keep things as normal as I can.”
But with everything, what is normal is constantly changing. Lachlan is in college and soon Tiarnan will be learning to drive. Yet there will always be that perfect shot to chase.
“I love macro photography, too,” Shaun says. “Like a bee an inch from your lens. I don’t care, I just like getting the kick-butt awesome shot. To get the best shot I can.”