Our Monday Motivation series on GuinnessWorldRecords.com profiles the inspiring stories of commitment, courage and dedication behind some of our most extraordinary titles. This week we're placing the spotlight on a third generation photographer who made it his mission to preserve a small Canadian town through portraiture.
Many have not heard of the town Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, perhaps until this year.
Situated thirty minutes outside the metropolis of Montreal, Canada, the small city is populated with an intimate population of just 90,000.
You’ll find one of its more celebrated citizens him down a narrow street, after passing a few French street signs, inside a photography superstore.
Martin Clairmont says camerawork is deeply rooted within him, having followed in the footsteps of three generations of experienced, passionate photographers within his family.
As well as also living her entire life n the quaint city, his sister, Julie Clairmont, also shares the same enthusiasm for capturing images.
For the past few decades, Julie has spent her time managing the Lord Photo Inc. camera store in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, founded by their grandfather in the late 1930s.
“Surrounded by a beautiful river called the Richelieu, our town was once the most important port in Canada linking the US and the upper-Canada,” explains Martin, “Since 1938 my grandfather has been taking pictures of families residing in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, then my parents from 1979 and now my sister and me. I think it’s safe to say we’ve contributed in keeping family heritage well alive in our town. We are deeply linked to its history.”
So when the chance came to take the family's tradition of photography to a level it had never gone to before, the Clairmonts couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“Portraits of a City” would become a mission run by Martin to chronicle the town’s current state and people.
It was an ambitious project that aimed to freeze a moment in time since the 350 years that Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu had been an official Canadian city.
“The year 2016 marked the 350th anniversary of the town, and we wanted to create a symbolic, citizen-oriented art project. Since it’s the people that live in our city that makes its character, we decided to immortalise every citizen by taking a professional portrait and archiving them for the next 350 years!”
Martin ultimately hoped to display all the portraits in a connective line, as a way of creating a gallery for participants to see each face that composed the city.
The project was no easy task – Martin and his team of professional photographers would need to find a way to harness the cooperation of nearly every person in the city to make the idea a reality.
Depending on the number of portraits they were able to collect, Martin would also be in line to achieve the Guinness World Record title for the Longest line of photographs, a title which had a daunting minimum of 4155 ft 10.08 in.
“Memory and remembrance belong to everyone,” said project photographer Jean Martin, “We want to let the community write this slice of history. The people of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu will therefore be able to help preserve a moment in time. We hope to raise awareness of the importance of posterity and thereby restore the nobility to a medium that has been widely misused since the advent of social media.
“Photography has certainly become for many an ephemeral act. However, this project has the power not only to protect a community from the erosion of time, but also to unify it around a single masterful artistic event.”
Knowing the great task that was ahead of them, Martin enlisted the help of several photographers and his sister to begin stream-lining one of the largest projects of his photo career.
For sixteen weeks during the Canadian summer season, the team used social media and promotional videos to get the attention of the townspeople.
Within just a few weeks, the videos went viral, with many eager to support in the noteworthy cause.
After seeing the enthusiasm, Martin decided to construct a 50-foot trailer which contained five individual portrait studios, allowing the caravan to travel into 18 zones of the city and cover all neighbourhoods.
“People were encouraged to come and have their free portrait taken in the mobile studio every weekend. We were present in almost every gatherings and events in the summer as well. The whole process was thoroughly tested before going public. First, we had three people inputting the participants’ name, address and birth date into our database. Then, a card with a sequential number was given to them. Finally, they would climb up in the trailer and get 2 pictures taken of them: one with the numbered card in front of them and the other one without.
“Each Monday, we ran a custom program that identified the number on the cards and linked the name of everyone in the database. Three 4X6 prints were printed: one given back to the participant, another one archived in a wall of file cabinets for the next 100-200 years and the last one saved for the Guinness World Records title.”
As locals lined up to get their portraits taken, unique faces and smiles crossed Martin’s path, some which stood out more than most.
Among seeing families and friends he grew up with, he also acquired new experiences, like working with a special education school for autistic and disabled children.
“The day we spent with those kids and their parents really opened my eyes on their everyday reality. The fact that we included those kids in our city’s portrait really meant the world to the parents and the school’s staff.”
Martin was determined to make no exceptions for his comprehensive project; if the archival mission was to be successful, they would need to freeze every person in time, no matter who they were.
“Old friends from school we had lost track of and often we created links between families we didn’t even know existed. The youngest participant was 5 days old and the oldest was 104 so we’ve linked almost 4 generation in one project which, to me, is pretty amazing.”
As the number of portraits grew, the time for the final presentation of images grew closer, which would be the first of its kind for the people of the Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
Martin was intent on breaking the previous record holder’s standard with his commemorative project, began reflecting on his initial purpose.
“Memory and history are two things that drives me. Being front row in watching the photography industry change dramatically in the last 10 years has really pushed me to educate people close to me on protecting their mementos.
“Technology has simplified the process of taking great pictures, but the overconsumption of has driven people to lose themselves of their colossal libraries of images. Pictures tend to get better and more important in time, like good wine. Imagine a 10-year-old that we took in photo, opening these archives in 50 years?!”
So in November 2016, Martin and a troupe of volunteers gathered to hang each photograph in a continuous line, making sure each photo touched the next in order to count towards the record attempt.
With string lights hanging, the warm glow created a wholesome and familiar ambiance for those watching the process.
Martin stood watching his project come to life as Portraits of a City formed along the walls and even ceiling of a narrow tent.
Comprising of 15,588 portraits, covering a distance of 1,530.2 m (5,020 ft 6 in), Martin Clairmont finished work had succeeded in its aspiration of preserving Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and becoming a record holder with the help of the rest of the city.
“Earning a record feels like we’ve accomplished something bigger than ourselves. It just puts a nice ending to a project I had in mind for the last 10 years.”
Now, Martin as his team has taken one of the three images they had documented of the townspeople and have placed it in specially-designed archival envelopes.
The portraits are currently being preserved in alphabetised filing cabinets that will remain in Saint-Jean’s library until the year 2066.
Summing up the project, Martin says: “Our inquiry shows that memory is something volatile and fragile, especially in the context of the digital image. We wish to attest to the importance of the collective memory, because it is the idea of community that unites us as humans.”