An eye for the wild(life) side

By Sam Westcott | The Irish Loop Post, January 10 2019 (Vol.12 No. 1)

For two Trepassey residents, the land that surrounds them has become more than a place to call home - it has become an opportunity to document and share the local natural wonders with the rest of the world.

Cliff Doran is a Trepassey native, who currently works as a lightkeeper at the Cape Race Lighthouse. He met Sharon Topping, originally from Ontario, when she settled into Trepassey a number of years ago with her husband. Topping is a photography buff, who infected Doran with the dedication of a shutterbug. In recent years, Doran’s captivating photographs of wildlife and stormy seas at the Cape have gone around the world on social media.

“She’s my mentor, I’m her tormentor,” Doran jokes. Although, the relationship between the two photographers seems more symbiotic.

“There’s a standing joke,” says Topping. “I went out and bought a big lens, and there’s a joke that whenever I have that big lens in the car, I don’t see anything… He’ll often give me a call, ‘There’s caribou up here now, get your coat on and get up there.’”

In 2017, Doran won the Weather Network’s Picture of the Year for a photograph he called ‘Moose In The Mist.’ He recently hosted the film crew from the Newfoundland Sportsman, taking them into the country surrounding Trepassey, showing them the best places to photograph the wildlife. Each year, Topping helps Doran put together a calendar of his photos. The one for 2019 sold about a hundred copies.

Both Doran and Topping are often called upon by local news stations like the CBC and NTV. They’ve become the eyes of these news stations, in a place far enough away from St. John’s that their own videographers can’t make it in time to catch breaking news.

But where Doran and Topping’s photography have really found a home is on social media, where the pair can upload whatever photos they want for free.

Doran and Topping have over 5,000 followers on facebook between the two of them. The followers range from former residents of the Southern Shore excited to see their hometown area flash into their newsfeeds, to people from away who have only seen Newfoundland in the kinds of photos that Doran and Topping share.

“People (from around here) keep saying, ‘You’re putting Trepassey on the map,’” Doran says. “If it’s not on the map now than it will never be.”

But if they haven’t literally put Trepassey on the map, then at least they have made the town famous, especially among bird watchers. Doran managed to capture a Cave Swallow a few years ago,becoming the first person in Canada to get a picture of the bird. Soon, bird watchers and photographers from New Brunswick were flying in just to try and get their own shots.

“They flew right down to Texas to try and get this bird and couldn’t find one. And here I was in Newfoundland and found one,” he says.

“It’s like a cycle,” says Topping. “He takes a picture of a bird, someone identifies it as a rare bird, and next thing you know the bird watchers are here taking the pictures themselves.”

“I’ve served a lot of birders coffee and cake over the years,” Doran admits.

Another time, Doran was working the lighthouse in Cape Race, where locals had begun feeding a three-legged fox they named Tripod. One night, Doran was bringing food out to Tripod when he felt something swipe across his legs.

“I looked down and said, ‘That’s an arctic fox.”

Doran suspected the animal had come in with the icebergs, and so set up his gear through a window in the lighthouse the following day to get a picture. The fox ended up a few inches away from Doran’s lens.

“They call him the whisperer,” Topping says, and Doran laughs.

The venture into photography hasn’t been all sightings of rare animals and awards for Doran and Topping. One time, Doran thought he had found someone from outside the province who was willing to take on a load of his photos to sell. But as far as Doran can tell, the photos were never sold, nor were the proofs ever returned to him.

Recently, Doran got a call from a friend at The Rooms. When his friend asked if Cliff could send him a specific picture of his, it was a picture Cliff happened to be looking at on the computer.

“Someone had changed the colour around and put it in The Rooms,” he says.

Once the curator saw Doran’s original, the print inside The Rooms was immediately taken down.

“That’s what puts a bad taste in your mouth,” Topping says. “When people do that.”

But regardless of that, the pair of photographers will go on doing what they do. As Topping says, “We’re not in it for the money. We sell our pictures at a comfortable rate for anyone to buy, but if no one buys it, so what?”

Topping, who began taking pictures when she was a child, has followed the progression of cameras from film to digital. Now fully immersed in the digital world, she’s found a niche in editing pictures in computer programs. She’s even expanded into taking aerial photos from drones.

For Doran, owning his own camera resulted from a lucky break. He was first mentored into taking photos by an older lightkeeper at Cape Race.

“All of a sudden, he didn’t want to be going out in the cold anymore, so if he saw something he’d say, ‘Here, take the camera and go over and get a picture of this.’”

But it wasn’t until Doran happened to be in the mall when a flash sale on cameras happened that he decided to buy his own. Now for fans on social media, Doran’s name is synonymous with photography.

Posted on January 18, 2019 .