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'I made a vow': Jeff Thomas on the power of photography

Photographer and curator Jeff Thomas was recently honoured with the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. It was a moment that brought him back to a life changing event 40 years ago. 
Photographer Jeff Thomas is the 2019 recipient of the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Art. (Andrew Hunter )
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Photographer and curator Jeff Thomas was recently honoured with the Governor General's Award in visual and media arts. It was a moment that brought him back to a life-changing event 40 years ago. 

Late one night, in 1979, when Thomas was 24 years old, he was driving home. 

Thomas fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a telephone pole.

"I had a fractured dislocation in my spinal cord, and it left me paralyzed," recalled Thomas, who is Onondaga from Buffalo, N.Y., and Six Nations of the Grand River, Ont.  

After the accident, Thomas spent weeks in the hospital, but his injury wasn't healing. The doctors told Thomas that they would have to operate. But Thomas was told that surgery might not help and that it could even worsen his condition, he explained. 

"It was one of those moments where I felt like something else had to step in to help me get through." 

It was then that Thomas "made a vow" that transformed his life.

"I said that 'If I can walk out of the hospital, I'll dedicate my life to making a contribution to my community.'"

Three months later he walked out of the hospital, but "with a permanent disability," he explained. 

Photography: 'It gave me a reason to continue to live'

When Thomas left the hospital, he decided to address an issue that had been bothering him for a long time. He started taking photos to draw attention to "the invisibility of Indigenous people in urban centres." 

"And that's really when my career in photography began."  

Thomas had been taking photos for years, as a hobby. He bought his first camera when he was in high school. But the accident changed his focus. 

"It gave me a reason to continue to live."

Part of the series "Scouting for Indians." Thomas writes on his website: 'This series represents my journey to find traces of indigenous presence in the city.' (Jeff Thomas )

Today, Thomas's photographs are in major collections in Canada, the United States and Europe. 

When Thomas stood on stage in Ottawa to accept his Governor General's Award, he started to tear up. During his acceptance speech, Thomas recalled, "I started to say something and then I got choked up ... and I got to the point where I could barely finish a sentence." 

Thomas realized why he was overcome with emotion at the award ceremony. 

"What I had done and what I had vowed to do 40 years ago had finally come full circle."