Sometimes it takes an outsider’s gaze to shine a light on social dynamics in new and unexpected ways. For newcomers to Winnipeg, their perspectives and insights, both critical and celebratory, help better shape our collective view of ourselves and our communities.
One of those newcomers who is committed to exploring Winnipeg through their own lens is critically-acclaimed photojournalist Prabhjot Singh. This is his story.
Singh’s self-described approach to his work is “to look out for something exceptional in ordinary daily life.” Photo: Prabhjot Singh
The basic reason for coming to Winnipeg in 2019 was that my aunt and other extended family members lived here. They had come to Canada close to 20 years earlier.
However, there were also some medical reasons. Every major city in India is so heavily polluted, and my doctors had recently begun to tell me that I was worsening my existing asthma problem and they recommended that I needed to change the environment I was living in. So that was another reason that helped push me to move here, since we know that the air quality in Canada is very good, and the pollution levels are very low. So those were some of the reasons that I wanted to move to this country.
Back in India I was working full-time in the family business of building materials with my father in the northern state of Punjab, while also doing some photography on the side.
After initially earning a degree in IT, I later finished a diploma in photography and then started working as a freelance photojournalist and managed to get some of my work published in various Indian newspapers and online platforms.
The first three months in Canada were actually pretty difficult – they were probably the worst memories I have of being here. To sit idle for three months without work was hard.
But I eventually learned of a massive recruitment effort by a retail grocery store that was opening up new locations here in Winnipeg. I was initially hired as a cashier, but after 8-9 months they actually promoted me to a supervisor role, and I love it. Helping out with the front end of a store and handling customer service reminds me a lot of the type of work I used to do for our family business.
There really are a lot of other people here from my home region in India. In terms of going abroad, Canada is actually one of, if not the top choice. Sikhs are everywhere – in each and every city in Canada you will find Sikhs. In fact, as far as I’m aware Sikhs have been living in Canada for almost 100 years now.
So I have absolutely been able to find a familiar community here in Winnipeg, even though it is on the other side of the world, whether it’s our community store, or places of worship. I think that’s made it a lot easier to adapt than it may have been even just twenty years ago.
Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), in front of Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Elected leader of the federal NDP in 2017, Singh – who is Sikh – is the first visible minority person to lead one of Canada’s major political parties. Photo: NDP/Flickr
Socially and culturally, you know, Winnipeg is very different from the place that I come from. India is very much still sort of like a puzzle. There’s a lot of competition for everything in India.
If there’s one job opening you will find like 15,000 people applying for it. In those terms, just coming to a place that is less populated makes many aspects of life far easier – and creates a lot more opportunity.
Canada’s system of laws and transparency also just seems to work better. In India, if you have to work on anything that deals with government departments it gets quite difficult and messy because you have to bribe every second person. Here it seems much more simplistic. Also, in terms of the work culture, there’s just much more honesty in the system, and people don’t seem to shy away from working hard when they need to.
Even now if I am reading news stories or watching TV and hear people being critical of local governments, I think there’s a large number of people in Canada who don’t realize at all just how good things are here, and they take things for granted.
Living in India you would never imagine that during something like the Covid-19 pandemic that the government would give people $2,000 a month for support. These are the kind of benefits you just don’t get in a less developed country.
Even things here in Winnipeg like Manitoba Start, the government agency that acts as a talent pool for skilled immigrants and helps newcomers get informed about the work culture and people here – they do a great job. It was really helpful. Me and my wife were enrolled in three or four classes a week during our early days here.
One of Canada’s major draws as a destination for newcomers is its strong institutions and vast network of social services. Above – Indian job seekers queue outside of an employment services office in Bishnupur, West Bengal province. Below – The entrance to Manitoba Start, a government-run career development agency for skilled newcomers in Winnipeg. Photos: flippy whale/Flickr; Kyle Hiebert
Otherwise, like I said, what I really appreciate about Winnipeg and Canada is that it is just a far better place to live in terms of air, water and lack of pollution compared to much of the rest of the world.
In India, it’s even hard in terms of getting unadulterated food. Farming in India uses a lot of pesticides and insecticides, they really abuse that – industrial agriculture is pretty massive, and you just never really know what’s been used on your food.
However, to be honest I’ve not tried a lot of what I guess you would call Canadian food. I don’t eat meat at all, so in that case it becomes a bit difficult to go out and find a lot of new places to eat.
You know, generally at home we try to speak in our mother tongue, and she really tries to, but she mostly speaks in English. She really adapted pretty fast. Initially she was living with her aunt who has two daughters, and she picked up the language in just a few months. So even before going to school she was speaking fluent English. And that was our major concern – she had never spoken a word of English back home in India, so obviously you worry about the little ones and how they will adapt.
Photography is still really my true passion. I generally like to find stories that have a positive impact on society – that’s what I’ve been doing throughout my career as a photojournalist.
There was a story I did on two Spanish international hockey players who run an academy in southern India. I spoke to them over the phone before boarding a train to go see them and document the program they run, which was widely published. Then when I was in Cambodia I shot a story about landmine victims who now actually run an orphanage and a jewelry manufacturing site employing other landmine victims who have disabilities. So that’s the kind of stories I try to find.
Singh’s photography focuses on community-building and progressive human interest stories. This includes his coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters in Winnipeg, seen here outside of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in June 2020. Photo: Prabhjot Singh.
I’ve also recently documented Angela Taylor, who runs a non-profit community organization called Inspire Community Outreach in the Winnipeg area. The story was about how she and her organization were able to cope with everything during this pandemic.
I did the story as part of a project for an organization called The Other Hundred and its Healers project, which collects photo essays from all over the world about people who have provided care for others during the pandemic. It was posted just a couple weeks ago.
You know, I bought a new camera like three months ago. And being in India, to think of buying a camera worth like $3,000 – it was impossible for me. But now I’ve done it. So that in itself to me is a sign of the financial security that is possible to achieve over here, which is really important.
Especially since I’m not really the kind of person that relies on doing a lot of planning, I just kind of go with the flow. I really try to just take everything as it comes my way, and since arriving here I haven’t encountered any major obstacles that have made me think I should have done things differently.
*To see more of Prabhjot Singh’s work, follow him on Instagram.
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