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Spotlight: On Board the Last Bus From Saskatoon

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 26, 2019


You can’t get to Saskatoon by Greyhound anymore.

Last July, the company announced that it would end all bus service in Canada west of Ontario as of October 31, 2018, citing low ridership and high overhead costs. (Greyhound does still operate between Seattle and Vancouver.)  

After hearing the news, Toronto-based photographer Derek Shapton pitched an idea to The Walrus, a Canadian magazine that publishes long-form journalism, cultural criticism and fiction. Shapton proposed boarding a Greyhound bus for its last run along a stretch of road from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Brandon, Manitoba.

He chose the route, part of Greyhound’s Edmonton, Alberta-to-Winnipeg, Manitoba run, because it served many small, far-flung communities, rather than taking a more direct route through more populous areas.

Shapton’s travelog project appeared in the magazine in February. But it was more than a travel story. “For nearly a century, buses have been an important transportation lifeline for people in many small western towns, and when the decision was announced, some were worried that it would effectively isolate these communities from the rest of the country,” noted Shapton in the magazine.

Shapton is a commercial photographer with a long client list including Mercedes-Benz, Penguin Books, Sony Music, Levis, The New York Times, Outside magazine and other publications. “I am not a photojournalist however,” he says. “This being the case, I felt that the most honest way for me to handle the Greyhound assignment would be by approaching the story in a different and hopefully unexpected way. I’ve always been intrigued by how modes of travel mediate our experiences, so I decided to focus on the small-scale and local. I wanted to see these isolated places up close and try to get a visceral sense of what they are like.”

“The 600km leg of the route I was on provided service to 27 different communities, and the photos I ended up making were not so much the story of a bus trip as as much a topographic meditation and elegy for the loss of a way of engaging with the Canadian landscape,” says Shapton.

“I was way outside of my comfort level on this one. Not only was I taking the photos, I also wrote the article, which was a first for me,” Shapton says. “In an era of limited and vanishing editorial opportunities, I think this approach — writing and shooting at once — might, out of necessity, start to become more and more common. That was probably the most challenging part of the assignment for me, but is was also the most memorable element for me.”

To document his travels, Shapton used a camera that has become one of his go-to tools: Besides shooting with a Canon 5D Mark IV, he snapped pictures with his iPhone 7.

“The editor at the magazine is a fan of my Instagram feed and loved the idea of trying to bring a similar aesthetic to some of the shots,” he says. “Using my phone-camera is a big part of my Instagram imagery, which over the past few years has started to become a distinct, standalone body of work in itself, almost like a whole other portfolio and very different from my more commercial photos.”

On his journey, Shapton passed through and photographed towns like Elstow, Colonsay, Plunkett, Foam Lake, Insinger, Minnedosa — place names, he noted in his article, that “read like accidental poetry.”

“Buses are cheaper than air travel, more direct than the train,” Shapton noted. “Taking them can be easier and safer than driving your own vehicle.” One of his fellow passengers, a “particularly passionate advocate” of bus travel, told him that what she loves best about taking the bus is the connection she feels to the terrain when traveling at ground level.

“I watch the prairie undulate around us, rumpled and furrowed, wet and alive. She’s right,” noted Shapton in his article.

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