Seeing Whitney Pier through a new lens: One photographer’s journey

Right now, we’re going through a period of uncertainty and change. We asked a few East Coast creators to reflect on their own transformations, in the past or present.

Steve Wadden took over 10,000 photos for his project Forged, “a long-form, photo documentary chronicling the end of steel making in Sydney, N.S.”

The photos are mostly in downtown/north-end Sydney and Whitney Pier, between 2004-’05 and 2014-15.

Thirty-three photos saw the light of day at shows in Halifax, Cape Breton and Toronto.

Now, he’s going back through to pick and share some of his archived, unpublished favourites of a place that always felt like home.

As a budding photographer, he was drawn to the natural light in Whitney Pier. The industrial feel reminded him of his hometown, Glace Bay. The work of photographer Robert Frank inspired him to immerse himself in the community.

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Steve officially calls Whitney Pier home now. He and his family moved there the week Nova Scotia declared a State of Emergency in response to COVID-19.

In a time when he’s falling in love with Whitney Pier anew as a resident, Steve picked a few photos to share with us that symbolize his connection to this place.

Under the overpass that connects the former steel working neighbourhood of Whitney Pier to downtown Sydney, N.S., in 2005. Archived, previously unpublished from Forged.

As a photographer, I naturally draw my energy from the light. Wherever the light is good, I feel very much at home — comfortable, inspired, confident, even nostalgic.

Whitney Pier is a former steel workers’ neighbourhood that was built up the hill behind the steel plant at Sydney Harbour over 100 years ago.

There’s an amazing character of people, homes and small businesses here. A character forged  by their storied history.

All that aside, it’s the undeniably perfect light that falls on the neighbourhood that made me first fall in love.

Late in the day everything comes to life in pictures. I can feel a buzz in the air as light blasts up the hill, echoing off the harbour and spilling colour through the streets, into homes and onto peoples’ faces.

The place feels real, the grit doesn’t lie. I feel connected, and here on the hill I can squeeze every last ray of light from the day. It’s my idea of a photographer’s paradise.

This overpass crosses the former steel plant property, connecting the Pier to downtown Sydney and neighbouring Ashby.

A lot of people from the Pier would say to me, “When you cross that overpass and come here, it’s like a different world.”.

But for me it was the perfect combination of familiar and new that kept me coming back for more all these years.

The last of Sydney’s steelworkers who didn’t qualify for a full pension were hired to scrap the steel plant. They turned over a bunch of little structures like this to make warming huts in 2005. They ran cutting torches in through holes in the walls and had infinite flamage to warm their hands and to light their cigarettes. Archived, previously unpublished from Forged.

The last of Sydney’s steelworkers who didn’t qualify for a full pension were hired to scrap what was left of the demolished steel plant.

They worked with purpose and the vibe was stoic.

But just under the surface was this giant elephant in the room — disbelief and a daunting sense of loss.

One image that will always stay in my mind is of these little warming huts they made by turning over old scrapped structures like this. They ran cutting torches in through holes in the walls and had infinite flames to warm their hands and to light their cigarettes.

These photos came from a two-day shoot when I was given unprecedented all access to photograph the last of the steelworkers doing the last of the work in ’05.

Catherine Green boxes with boys in Whitney Pier — a former steel working neighbourhood in Sydney, NS — summer 2005. Archived, previously unpublished photo from Forged.

During the summer in 2005, the Pier was hosting a Whitney Pier/Toronto reunion with non-stop events, parties, family get-togethers, concerts, dances and food.

My routine was to just drive up and down the streets every afternoon, chasing the light and looking for something interesting happening.

So when I saw this little girl wearing giant boxing gloves and play fighting with boys, of course I pulled over, jumped out of the car and started taking photos.

Almost immediately a group of angry looking dad/uncle types rushed over from across the street to put the run on me, or maybe worse I thought.

A good friend of mine Rydell Green’s mom was one of the main organizers of the reunion, so in a quick act of desperation the first words I blurted out were “Karen said it was cool!” Turns out that was the right thing to say at that moment.

(Karen, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I know I still owe you some reunion pics!)

I shared this picture on my Instagram back in March and got a couple of tags and messages from kids in the photo who are now young adults.

The little girl is Catherine Green and one of the boys in the background is Andrew Green.

In 2020, Steve’s still out roaming the streets, but this time with his family.

From left, my nephew Joseph MacDonald, wife Emily Wadden and son William Wadden in Whitney Pier on Day 1 of the Nova Scotia State of Emergency in response to COVID-19. We just moved to our new home in Whitney Pier from Ashby that week.

You can see more of Steve Wadden’s unpublished work on Instagram.

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