Every October, when the leaves were reluctantly pulled from the trees by cold, heavy drops of rain, and the icy darkness of a winter’s morning slowly overcame fall’s wet days, we vowed never to return to this place. Huddled by the fertilizer, out of sight of the superintendent’s office window, trying not to spill our coffee as we shivered in our rain gear that hadn’t dried out from yesterday, we were silent, making plans of escape: to finish school, find a real career and say goodbye to what was supposed to be a summer job cutting grass on the golf course as a teenager, but became something else many years ago. In a week we’d be laid off, collect our moldy belongings and go our separate ways. Five months later, we’d return with gruff excuses for our failure to break free while betraying our words with sly grins that said how glad we were to be back.
It was March 2003 when I clipped the ad in the local newspaper calling for individuals willing to work early, dirty and long days as a greenskeeper at Westwood Plateau Golf and Country Club, on the far outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia. Accepting those three inevitabilities was enough to get me the job, and for the next 12 seasons I spent my days performing a constantly shifting host of tasks: cutting greens minutes ahead of the first tee time, repairing leaking valves that announced themselves only by swallowing rough mowers to their axles in their saturated quagmire, righting flipped golf carts the morning after certain tournaments and so on. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t weary days, which we passed cursing under our collective breath, but mostly time was spent laughing with friends as we worked with the constant din of birds, fairway mowers and blower-induced tinnitus in the background.
I began carrying my old film camera to work in 2009, while I was simultaneously working toward a Master of Fine Arts in documentary photography, my second degree earned with summer pay from the golf course. My photography took me to China and Tibet to document the Tibetan people’s struggles surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and it seemed natural to also document the work and camaraderie that I found at the golf course, with the manicured landscape forming a perfect backdrop to our often muddy tasks and faces. It was not a serious project at first, especially since I couldn’t let the camera interfere with my actual job. But, having been there for so many years, I found myself making photographs with a certain intimacy not normally afforded to an outsider. I could offer a glimpse of a golf course from a grittier vantage point than the tee box or the hand-cut and perfectly striped greens. I carried my camera to work with me every day for the next five years and shot hundreds of rolls of black-and-white film, forming a body of work that my co-workers and I can now look back upon, spurring almost-forgotten memories, names and stories that will forever bind us to that specific time and place.
I’ve noticed that many people who see these photographs are at first drawn to the labor itself, and the juxtaposition of the golf course as a gritty place of work as well as a luxurious place of leisure. It can be jarring, stirring empathy in some and annoyance in others, depending on how many chainsaws have ruined a person’s putt. Yet it is surprising, or perhaps not, that people who were not there with us, golfers in particular—many of whom also worked as greenskeepers in their youth—say these photographs remind them of earlier, simpler times in their own lives, of working hard in the fresh air, surrounded by friends, with half a mind on the future and the other on getting that fairway cut before the 11 a.m. shotgun. It’s been several years now since I worked my last day as a Westwood greenskeeper, and anytime I go up for a visit I feel like I’m seeing the course as an outsider; the current crop of greenskeepers, most 20 years my junior, are the new members of that secret world. So I content myself with enjoying the landscape while reveling in nostalgia for the labor and laughter that shapes it.