Polar bear hunts, pageants and other images from a new photo book about Atlantic Canada

After tragedy struck, photojournalist Darren Calabrese documented his return to the East Coast in a new book
Caitlin Walsh Miller

Ever since Darren Calabrese was a child, his mother told him that one day he’d have to leave Douglas Harbour, the New Brunswick farming hamlet he was born in, and search for success elsewhere. She knew the area’s opportunities were limited—both for his future career and for other life experiences. She was right. He went to Halifax for university, where he met his future wife, Tammy, also from the Maritimes. Eventually the couple settled in Toronto, where Calabrese developed a career as a documentarian and photojournalist, and Tammy as a nurse. For 11 years, Calabrese freelanced for publications including the Globe and Mail, Monocle and CNN, travelling to places like Tanzania and Japan on assignment.

Then in June of 2014, he received terrible news. His mother had died in a freak accident: an oak tree branch snapped and fell on her while she was enjoying a glass of wine on the family property. By midnight, Calabrese was back home. He eventually realized he’d have to stay to help his father, who was suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after the accident. Calabrese and Tammy had always talked about moving back, and by the end of 2015, they’d made the move permanent. Settling in Halifax, he and his family made regular trips to the homestead in New Brunswick and soon welcomed their second daughter.

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People talk about the fog of grief, but during that time, the familiarity of the East Coast came into sharper relief for Calabrese. He felt an intense connection to the land: his family has lived on those 400 acres since the 18th century, and now he could watch his daughters play on the same stretch of untouched waterfront he and his father and his grandmother did. “Photos of us all look exactly the same,” he says. “I don’t take that for granted—not for a second.”

By 2016, Calabrese was working on a book of essays and photos—pictures shot on assignment, personal images, old family snapshots. It was about his family and the region, and how he grapples with his place in both. Then, in September of 2020, his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Calabrese spent deer season rewriting the book, stripping away the padding he’d unconsciously put in to protect his father. “He’d be okay with everything in it, but I didn’t want to cause him any more pain,” says Calabrese. “He’d be thrilled that our family and our home are in a book. That there would be a lasting legacy.”

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That book, out now, is called Leaving Good Things Behind, and the ideas of loss, tradition and, yes, legacy run through it like a river. Since moving to Nova Scotia, Calabrese has been documenting the relationships between East Coast communities and their landscapes, capturing polar bear hunts in northern Labrador and oyster farms in Cape Breton. “There is a tension,” he writes, “between the perseverance of tradition and the inevitability of change.” Here, Calabrese talks about a few images from his book that capture the ever-evolving relationship between the land in Atlantic Canada and the people who call it home.

“I photographed this image for a story about concussions in football and the safety of the game in New Brunswick. It’s nice from an aesthetic point of view, with the team lined up for the national anthem and all the orange helmets and uniforms. But what makes this a picture to me is the kid in the centre looking up at the sky. He brings a quiet, mournful quality to the image. I don’t know what was going on in his head. The team they were about to face was known for playing a particularly physical game, so maybe he just recognized what he was in for.”

“Anyone who’s grown up in rural Canada knows how important pageants are to the community. Generations of women—grandmothers, mothers, daughters—participate in them. This is the Oqnali’kiaq Princess Pageant in Eskasoni First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community on Cape Breton Island. The portrait of Alizabeth Jeddore opens the ‘Island’ chapter of the book. Here, she’s seen taking a break from practising the ‘Strong Woman Song,’ which she performed in honour of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by mummering. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries—you disguise yourself with whatever you have on hand, as Sarah Ferguson and her dog have done here, and visit your neighbours unannounced around Christmas. It’s pure East Coast absurdity. There’s no logical reason for traditions like this to exist, but they do. There’s a perseverance to them, because they’re meaningful to the communities that practise them. The best ones are special and unique. They don’t have to be spectacular.”

“This is the base of the tree that killed my mom. We cleared a lot of the surrounding trees immediately after the accident to be safe, but we kept the stump—it’s part of the landscape and our history, whether it’s there or not. So we decided to decorate it and give it a new context. My daughters, Harriet and June, painted rocks with my cousin Caryn. This is perseverance. This is what families do when you lose someone. You wear it, and you make it part of your life. You could try to avoid it, but in the end, it’s always there.”

“I didn’t have the patience for hunting as a kid. Then, one day, I was on the 401 outside Toronto when I realized that if I could sit in traffic, I could sit in the woods. In 2015, six seasons in, I shot my first deer. My father and I brought it to Willie Mckellar’s butcher shop in Minto, New Brunswick, which is a village near where I grew up. I didn’t have my camera on me, but when I saw these moose antlers drying on a roof—an absolutely normal thing to see during moose and deer season in rural Canada—I raced home to get it. This day was the first time my dad and I were really loose and comfortable with each other at home. We were drinking beer and laughing, and things were great.”

“A blue whale washed up on a beach south of Halifax in 2021, and after much discussion, we took our daughters to pay our respects. It was beautiful—people were placing flowers on its tail. There was such reverence for this 30-metre-long whale. It’s impossible to grasp the magnitude of its size until it’s right in front of you. I wish I didn’t see it this way, but there’s a lot to be excavated from these emotional experiences. We talked about it with our kids the whole way home—why it died, what’s going to happen next. And my eldest spent the next week reading about blue whales.”

“Joe Googoo is a Cape Breton oyster agriculturalist from Waycobah First Nation with nearly five decades of experience. Since a deadly disease called MSX killed the Bras d’Or Lake oyster industry in 2002, he’s been working with researchers to combine traditional knowledge and modern science to bring commercial oyster farming back to Cape Breton. He puts his literal blood and sweat into his harvest—that’s how much it means to him.”

“Nunatsiavut, the Inuit territory that stretches along the coast of northern Labrador, has an annual polar bear hunt. It’s tradition. It’s how they’ve lived for thousands of years. From a practical standpoint, it’s also meat, which gets divvied up to community freezers all along the coast. After the group got this bear, there was such a buzz: excitement, pride, gratitude. When the snowmobiles brought the bear back to town, it was like a funeral procession—there was a total understanding that this animal gave itself up for them.”