Dr. Shyamala Gopalan (aka Vice-President Kamela Harris’ mom)

If you live long enough, the past may sometimes surprise you. Way back in the last century—1982 to be exact, I was employed as a medical photographer at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. The job consisted of taking photographs during surgery, of patients, medical procedures, and copy work, which the doctors, researchers, and professional staff required for their medical education lectures and publications. Since it was a McGill University teaching hospital, I was kept quite busy except for summer when teaching activities came more or less to a complete standstill. I had noticed that most of the other employees I came into contact with were immigrants, and so, in my spare time, I began to photograph them. They had all come from somewhere, either seeking a better life, or escaping from a terrible one. They all had a story, and I thought that this would make an interesting project.


Over the next few years, I would photograph almost anybody, from who showed up at my studio, to those I could drag in from the corridor. There were doctors, nurses, secretaries, managers, lab techs, orderlies, housekeeping staff—anybody.


One afternoon, Shyamala showed up at the studio to have some gels photographed. She was a medical researcher who had arrived a few years earlier and was engaged in breast cancer research. Shyamala was a breath of fresh air compared with most of my other “clients”.  She insisted on being called by her first name. She had a sense of humor, and could laugh at herself—she was anything but uptight. Having a strong sense of justice, she would talk at ease with anybody as an equal. She was also smart—very smart. She would come by weekly to have these gels photographed and usually she came herself instead of sending a student.

As I was setting up the studio to make the photos, we were chatting and I mentioned my project.


“I am an immigrant also,” she said, “why don’t you take my picture?”


“OK. Sure. Tomorrow?”


The following afternoon, she showed up, bringing along an old crumpled black and white 8x10 photo of herself. It was a close-up of her outside in the sun, grinning while she brushed her teeth as the foamy suds surrounded her mouth.


“I hate formal photographs.” She said. “I like ones that show the real person, warts and all. Can you do something like this?”


I looked at the picture and said, “Really?”


“Thats the type of picture I want. I don’t want to look like some stiff in a lab coat. I want it to be me—as I am.”


I adjusted the lighting and began to shoot. I tried, I really tried but nothing was happening. I could not find her. She was trying too hard to be loose, and everything seemed a bit too forced. After shooting 3 rolls, I finally gave up. She said she had to get home to prepare supper for her girls, and off she went. I developed the film, made contacts, and promptly forgot about the photos for the next 35 years.


That was until, about 2 years ago, when I read an article in “Coolopolis”—a Montreal blog published by Kristian Gravenor. In a short posting one day, he mentioned that the then Senator Kamala Harris grew up in Montreal and her mother was Shyamala Gopalan, who worked as a research investigator at the Lady Davis Institute in Montreal. I immediately connected the dots. I dug up my old negatives and had another look at them. I still did not think much of them but I noticed this one. It was the last frame I shot.


I took around 750 portraits between 1982 and 1984. A few years ago, I began to think about resurrecting the project. I pretty know which images I want, but am still torn between using just portraits, or, to include my comments with them (there are a number of interesting stories here). Of the hundreds of portraits I took so many years ago, this one (not one of my best) turned out to be my most memorable, and for reasons unknown to me at that time I made it.


Hopefully one day, I will finish this book.