"There I was, reliving my parent's life."
From the Oscars to Root & Seed in under a week! This episode's guest is photographer of the rich and famous, George Pimentel. As a third-generation photographer, George shares the stories behind the man he is today and how family, experience, and connection to his roots has led to life of both balance and contradiction. And he wouldn't want it any other way!
From travelling to his motherland of Portugal as a University student, to his first celebrity photograph of Robert DeNiro, to a project he started during Covid, all the way to what he's up to next, this interview will leave you searching for a way to bring connection to your heritage into your life.
About our guest: For the past 25 years, George Pimentel has documented celebrities in every capacity and context, from TIFF and Cannes, to The Oscars, The Golden Globes, and the Met Gala. His body of work started in 1993 when George landed his first career break. With his Hasselblad camera in hand, he captured his first celebrity photo of Robert De Niro at the Toronto Film Festival. He recalls, "Ever since then, it has always been my passion. I never want to intrude in their business. I build trust and try to capture the stars in their own element." Follow George on Instagram and visit his website: georgepimentel.com
Reminder to rate and review our podcast on Apple - it helps other like-minded people find our pod and grows this beautiful community! If you’d like to tell us your story or chat about your thoughts on culture, family, and heritage, we always love to chat. Find us on social @rootandseedco and subscribe to our newsletter to never miss a Root & Seed moment.
And the thing is I learned everything here. My dad just wanted to make an honest living. Like the guts this guy had. He didn't know where to take any photos and he opened a photography studio. First customer walks into the studio and he doesn't even know how to work the camera and when the pictures came back, they're completely blurry...
Welcome back to Root and Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who are sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity. I'm your host, Anika Chabra.
Understanding who you truly are feels like on the one hand a simple task, like we should really just know that. On the other hand, it feels like a real journey, one that we get to understand more deeply from hearing the two sides of Ryan Alexander Holmes in episodes 1 and 2 of this season.
This episode’s guest celebrity photographer, George Pimentel has made a living from taking photos of the rich and famous. So why did we want to speak with him and what does that have to do with heritage, tradition or storytelling? Co-Founder Jenn and I had the absolute pleasure to be photographed by George last Remembrance Day at an event put on by Ancestry Canada. Within minutes we realized how and why George is as good as he is. He started building a rapport with us, asking us about Root & Seed. That led to him sharing a bit of his story and perhaps most importantly his respect for his family and heritage.
In this episode, we got the pleasure of meeting George in Toronto at his downtown studio, in person and got to feel all the emotions as Geroge spoke about not only the connection he has with his father and grandfather around the business of photography but also the personality and soft skills that he has taken from generations before him. We hear things like community, humanit, and generosity. How observing them allowed George to absorb them and now take them forward.
Here’s our conversation.
Hey, I'm George Pimentel and I am a third generation photographer. Here we are at my little photo studio that used to belong to my dad on Dundas Street West in Little Portugal. I've been working with my father here since I was eight years old, from now to 35 years later.
Next week I'll be jumping on a plane to Los Angeles to cover the SAG awards and the Academy Awards. So my world and my journey has gone from helping my little father photograph baptism photos and communion photos to somehow realizing that this building was very special and this is where I came from. And it was really important for me to really understand who I was and this is who I am. I love the community, I love going to the bakery, the priest comes in once in a while for a passport. I still have my dad's old customers. Five minutes ago someone called me to see if I could shoot his baptism. I love the contradiction. Sometimes I'm in the Cannes Film Festival, I'm in the Riviera. I'm on boats with champagne with Leonardo DiCaprio and then I come back here and then I have some Portuguese bricklayer doing some work across the street from me and he's coming in for a glass of water and we talk. And for me, it's all about community and just keeping it real.
There was a time in my life, well everyone goes through like discovering yourself. And so the first thing that you have to understand, I came from a family of photographers. So my father by blood wasn't really a photographer. My mother's father, my grandfather was a photographer on a small island in the Azores, was a fishing town and in 1940 he had a box camera and that's how he made an honest living. Imagine photographing like on glass plates, like that's where my family heritage came from. Now he had two boys, my uncles that love them to death, their kids, my cousins all became photographers.
Now my dad, his father passes away when he is nine years old. His brother passes away when he was like ten years old, polio. He has him and his mother and another brother. No money, no nothing living in the village. They ship my dad over to the next island to work in a hotel. I have a photo of my father, 12 years old as a bellboy. He literally left his family to bring the money back to survive to pay the bills for his mother. So my father stayed at the hotel, but here's the key. He learned English, that was his education. He learned etiquette. He learned where to put the fork, customer service because the travel industry. When he came back to the other islands, he was refined.
That was key. It's a true immigrant story. My dad was in the hotel business and when he immigrated here, with my uncles in maybe 1962, the story is my dad said I don't want to do the hotel business anymore because of the hours. I'm a family man. So my dad goes back to my uncles, says I don't know much about photography, but I know how to run a business. Let's open up a business. You two will be the photographers. I will run it and that's where it all began. They had the first photo studio in 1965 in Kensington Market. My uncles were artists, but they didn't really know business. My dad came in and had a plan and he managed and my parents were living well. I would see the family photos. My mother was in a fur coat. I'm like, look at us. We're living it!
Tell me about how they met. Your parents.
My parents. They say the first physical attraction, the town is small and most of the time everyone goes to the church and that's how they met. But the beauty of it is that at 18 people have to go and serve in the military. My father, he would write letters to keep the relationship.
When that finished he went back to the hotel and he came back and they decided to come to Canada. They got married there in a small town, it was a beautiful thing, like the dream. Like I remember I had a very good childhood, but my parents were different. They did not wanna live in the community. We lived in North York, I was the only Portuguese kid. Like everyone I remember, they're like Mrs. Pimentel is making fish tonight. You're like, literally walking on the sidewalk and you just smell the fish. And my dad said, listen, there's big better real estate up here, better education, don't be afraid because a lot of people like to stick within their own community because they feel safe. So that's where it started. My father would drive all the way down I was like eight years old, I remember very well holding the flash and helping him and coming in here on Saturdays.
All my brothers and sisters had to do it, but I was the youngest. Eventually, the business got too big and my uncle had a dream of always going back to Portugal. And so one went to Vancouver, one went back to Portugal and my dad, this is the moment truth. My dad really didn't know how to take photos. He's like now what? I know how to run a business, but who's going to produce the product? And he said I'm going do it and he bought this building in 1974. And I have a little photo of it and it was a dream. And back then this was great real estate. The key was my dad was smart. Two things. He bought the building on the south side because the sun doesn't hit the window display. So no Instagram, no nothing, we used to put a picture, a big photo in the window display, we'd put like the flavour of the month or whatever or if we took a wedding picture.
So I always helped my father do these Portuguese weddings. They carry the big pig out, the band, the bride and groom would leave and get dressed up, come back at midnight and take up more photos. But I didn't realize that all these little homes here have my father's work. To this day, sometimes people are like, you photographed my communion photos. I go, send me the photo, screen grab it. I love to look at it. It's very retro with those gold frames and my poor dad, we'd have to take a photo of the Jesus and they'd always want the Jesus in the photo and the kid praying and looking up. And we had no Photoshop and we had to superimpose it.
And the thing is I learned everything here. My dad just wanted to make an honest living like the guts this guy had. He didn't know how to take any photos and he opened a photography studio. So the first customer walks into the studio and he doesn't even know how to work the camera and when the pictures came back, they're completely blurry. And so the customer comes to pick up their pictures. And my dad said, oh, we have to redo them and that just breaks my heart. That breaks my heart. And but slowly, I realized that maybe 25% is just actually taking the photos. The other 75% was running an honest business. And because he had spoke English, we had lineups of people here. My dad was a good man, he was like let me help the people. They didn't speak English and so he read all their letters and helped them with insurance and all this. That was my dad. My dad never bounced the check. He was just an honest man. He taught me literally just do a good job and they will always come back. And I live by that.
I love that. And then you went to Ryerson and you did a very special project in your fourth year. I think it feels like a turning point.
Don't make me cry. You're gonna make me cry.
You’re going to make us cry.
The highlight of my life of self discovery was yes I applied to Ryerson. I was fighting with my dad, I was 18 years old and I was growing up and I was coming into the studio and I wanted to see the world. And when you get that age, you just want to explore. And I had dreams and I thought my father was stopping my dreams, but he wasn't. He always encouraged me, do what you need to do. And I thought I'm going to apply To Ryerson's Photo Arts program. And it was a great time. It taught me to express myself and I had the trade already. School really taught me there's another world out there. The fourth year came around and this is the moment of truth where they say, you need to do a thesis and I decided what's missing in my life?
I was born in Canada. Why don't I go back to the town of ??? and relive my parents' life? At that time I wanted to be a street photographer, but I never knew how to make a living from it. But I just loved people and loved just life and so there I was. I jumped on a plane. I met my father's uncle. This old man, 80 years old, never met him before. Gives me a big hug. He says he's so excited because he has nothing to do, so he's gonna chaperone me. And there I was, and I got to see my parents' old home, and I walked the streets. And the people, when they look at me, it's like who is this guy walking around? He said, ah, he's "familia du Laranja", and that's my grandfather. So my acceptance was, "who are you? Oh, familia du Laranja." My grandfather had a nickname called The Orange, like the fruit orange. Apparently, he grew the best oranges in his garden. So they named him Laranja.
King of the Oranges.
Yes. And there I was, I was reliving my parents' life. And every day there was a photograph. Every minute there's a photograph and one time my dad's uncle was talking to this man and as he left he said, you know who that man was? I said, no. He says you know how many kids that guy has? 19. I said, what? I said I want to photograph him, I want to do a family portrait. Make it happen!
He comes back a couple of days and I can see the father talking to my uncle and he's saying no, we're not doing this, impossible. He said they never are at the house at the same time. Never, they range from two years old to 25 years old. One's working, one's here, one's over there. No, impossible. We can't do it. A week passes by, it's at nighttime. I'm in this little shack. I can hear the rats like go up on the roof, okay. And then my uncle comes in, he goes, hey, let's go get your equipment. For what? Let's do the photo. They're all at home. So how'd they get home? It's raining.
Yeah, it’s true.
He gets me in the truck, he puts a tarp over me. I go in to grab my camera and I go into this little room, smaller than this and they're all in there. One's sitting on the table, one's sitting on the counter. So they all gathered and it was important for them and I lined this picture up and I could just see them. Oh, and then all of a sudden I saw this man in the shot and he leaves and then another man comes in to replace him. I said, what's going on? Where did this guy go? He goes, oh, no. That was the boyfriend. We wanted to keep the 19, we wanted to keep the 19. So, there was a replacement there. The last son came home from work and they slipped him in.
It was just an incredible experience roaming, photographing in black and white and just discovering who I was. It's still beautiful. I can't photograph like that anymore. I was young, I had no attachments, I was focused. The whole process of printing each one and looking at all the films, selecting, telling the right story and discovering my culture.
Talk more about that. What was it to you? It feels like it was almost therapeutic in some ways.
I think everyone who's a daughter or son to an immigrant family. They need to go back and find it and go back to their parent's home. Walk through it, smell it. It's so important to understand who you are as a person. That journey alone, just to see the struggle and to understand. Man, when people come here as an immigrant, how scary is that? Leaving your whole life to live in another country and having your suitcase and most of them have no money.
That's guts, right? I'll tell you another story, when you said, how did your parents meet? Now it's all coming back to me. They used to court each other. Now, they would say, could I meet you at your window? It was a normal thing. That was their date and the father would be in the back keeping an eye and she would be hanging off the windowsill and the man would be on the sidewalk. And when I would drive around when it got dark, you see every house with the men. And I said I need to photograph that because that's how my parents met.
Now the next level is, okay, he's getting serious. They've been doing this for a while. They have a town square, the father will give permission. Okay, you could walk around with my daughter, but I'm gonna be on the park bench watching. And that's the next level. That's the next level.
That’s like second base.
That’s the next level. Being there, I experienced that and got to photograph that. That's what I want to capture and I also wanted to capture like all the levels of life I wanted to count. That was the section on love. But there's also a section on religion. There's a section on death. They didn't have these elaborate funerals. What they would do, they'd put the body in the house and everybody would crowd around the house and oh my God. The body was there, like open casket, women all in black mourning around the coffin. I made sure to give them that photograph. They wanted that photograph. It's the last photograph, so important. Those are real. This is real life.
Your observation that present-day George wouldn't have taken the same pictures as 19-year-old George or 22-year-old George. I think that is profound because you're the lens, right? It's through you that photographs come and because of your perspective and I think that's so beautiful. Now please bring me back to that.
Coming out of Ryerson I started going back to how I shot the Portuguese village and went back to Toronto to shooting celebrities. My first photo was Robert De Niro on the streets and my energy was the same way. I wasn't like a paparazzi. I would say, can I grab one photo on my old camera? They would pose and I thought I had something. Those are the best days of my life. I was creating, this is who I was.
Fast forward moment of truth, covid. I got scared. However, what did I because I'm a photographer. I said this needs to be documented and I said, I'm gonna start doing this project. And the first photo it opened my eyes, is that I went to go visit my father. My father being an elderly, we can't get near him. I'm in the car, come to the car. I put my hand on the glass. My dad's in a mask and I take a photo and I put this hand, it was so real. I put it on my Instagram, it blew up.
I said, why don't we do an exhibit? Why don't we do something? And I kept doing this and I was happy. I felt like I was roaming the streets of my parent's village. I was happy and I just thought it was important for history. And I thought, I always like to do projects, I could only go so far with just my photography. And all of a sudden I said on the news, everybody submit to Canada Covid Portrait. You don't have to be a professional, we got over 10,000 photos. And every day the power of social media is great because now you can use that hub to show people what you're doing. These are photographs. This is how people are adapting and it was a beautiful thing.
I love that you brought back the spirit of the 20 year old through that authentic lens. The other thing that I noticed when you were talking earlier, but after my mom passed away four years ago suddenly. I went to India and I'm a very novice photographer. I literally took a camera and I had my iPhone and I went from Western India to Eastern India and we went in villages and we stayed in people's homes in B&Bs. Not seven stars like Deli and Bombay. It was real, but it was therapy and that's what you were talking about that happened to you as a 22 year old and then through Covid. It was therapeutic for you, but then it was therapeutic for the audience too. So there was just something like really beautiful about the power of what you do, to not only inspire yourself, but inspire your audience.
What saved me? Trust me, I went through a period in my life where I'm like, I need to be a little more polished. This saves me. I need the contradiction. I'm blessed, it's very privileged. That I could be at the royal wedding and then come back to Dundas West and wear like flip flops with socks. Go to the bakery, no one knows who I am.
I still love putting the photo in the window display. Sometimes a celebrity photo and so I blow up a photo of the royal wedding and I put it in the window display and I'm here late at night. I'm locking up and there's a woman holding her grocery bag. She's looking and I was so proud of the photo and I look at her and I said, you like the photo? And she's like yeah it's a good photo. I said, I photographed it. And she looked at me, yeah right, okay. And she walked away and she did not believe me and that's the story of my life here and that's what I love about it.
You said you can't forget where you come from and the photo is the proof. Do you remember ever saying that?
The worst thing about the business is when someone forgets where they come from. People get a sense of your energy and they know if you're real. I honestly believe that it's so important just to go back and reminisce. I go through my hard drive like all the time. Just to go back to memory lane. I love looking at being sentimental. I love seeing oh my God look at us then and so I'll surprise people and they'll be like outta style, but like totally a different look and I'll be like, hey I just came across this. I send people texts. Like an old hideous photo of himself just a laugh, right? It's good to laugh at yourself and just say, remember when. It's so important. That's the power of the photo.
Oh my God, you're so fun to interview. So we have something, we have these conversation cards. So one of the things that we have and we came up with was this idea you're talking about immigrant family stories, you're talking about intergenerational stories. Sometimes they can be hard to get right. For instance my family partition, you're talking about war, you're talking about poverty, like all those other things that they're hard memories to have. So when Root & Seed started, we started with an online application only that serves up questions that you would have conversations with your elders about. And then you record it and you could add three images and add text, that's entirely free. This time last year our audience said, you know what? We really want physical cards because you're talking sometimes to nonna who's 85 and they don't necessarily want a phone shoved in their face type of thing.
So we came up with the idea of these physical cards and each of the cards have a QR code. And when the QR code is scanned, it takes you to the app and you can record for free. So all you need to do is buy this and then you can unlock all these other questions. So we took the top 68 questions that are on our app and we printed it into these cards. Which is so fun. So do you mind if we ask you? They're super fun.
Is there one tradition that you'd be like, oh my God, if you can do one thing, children keep doing this or cooking this?
Food is important to any culture and I've always wanted to pass that down to my children. My mother was the best cook. Like the taste, everything, the soups that she used to make. The Portuguese dishes and everything. I miss it because my mother has passed and I always wanted my kids to be like this is our culture, food is our culture. Make shrimp like at Christmas time, if we're long gone way down. When you're way down the road, think about how we used to enjoy this. I mean that sweet bread, we call it massa. It was so important. It was so important. Like they put the egg, you never eat the egg it was just decoration, but it was such a beautiful thing.
That's right, other Portuguese members of our community have talked about massa, so as soon as you said that, I was like, oh yeah. Got it! You showed us the glass plates. Do you mind telling us a little bit about those glass plates and any other heirlooms?
When I went back again, back to the Azores. My grandfather had a house, but in the back he had a little studio. When I went back there, there was a trunk filled with glass plates and our family, we couldn't take them all. And we kept the more important ones, these glass plates is history and I've already scanned them. And it's just important because sometimes in our community right here in Little Portugal. The church will do like an event and they'll ask me, do you have any photos and I'll pull out my grandfather's photos. They go ballistic! Everybodys gathered around when someone got married, they didn't have a wedding album. They couldn't afford it. They took one photo, the group shot.
Then think about it, his story, like how does somebody in a village become a photographer? Like where do you get your supplies? Where do you get your cameras? My grandfather to take his portraits he had a box camera and he'd have to get a five by seven sheet of glass and he would coat the emulsion. He would dry it and he would put it in a holder and photograph one photograph. And it was a big deal and thank God I collected and I'm going to have an exhibit of his work with my work in July. And the thing is, as we get older, I go back to my uncles and my father and I ask, how did our grandfather do this? Where did he buy his camera? We don't know. We just know it's there. And I go back all the time, even with my father. My father's 88, I don't know how many years he has left. I am asking every single detail that, yeah, you're right. How did you meet mom? When was the first time you met mom? I still ask those questions, it's so important.
George, thank you for this. Oh, it's been so great. It's like your life story. It's pretty amazing.
Understanding the personal side of George makes you really appreciate what a seasoned professional he is and how understanding the value of his connection to his roots has led him to being more sure of himself.
A true immigrant story: the courage, humility and resilience shines bright here. It's no wonder George met the challenge of pivoting during the pandemic. Just like his father rose to face the obstacles of running both sides of a photography business when his uncles returned to Portugal.
George's ability to stay grounded is probably what makes him so able to expose the humanity and real emotions of his subjects even when forced to connect through glass and masks and technology and you can't just turn that on. George lives it: jetting from the glitz of Hollywood award shows back to his unassuming studio in Little Portugal. It's the fact that he can feel at home in both. It struck us that this life of contradiction is probably a very relatable feeling, especially for children of immigrants.
Huge Thanks to George for welcoming us into his studio.
Next episode, we continue to explore the bond between child and fathers in our next episode when we talk to Layla and Ab Freig in another one of our family episodes.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, executive produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel, and edited by Emily Groleau and Camille Blais. Bye for now.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
Brought to you by: Root & Seed
Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Editing by Emily Groleau
Sound Editing by: Camille Blais
Music credit: Something 'bout July (Instrumental) by RYYZN
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