New Parksville resident Onnig Cavoukian with his trusted sidekick Pasha and a portrait he took of then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau with his family

THURSDAY SPOTLIGHT: Capturing a leader’s vulnerability

Portrait specialist is enjoying semi-retirement and the slower pace of Island life

Onnig Cavoukian has photographed more than 100 world leaders, but these days he’s just as happy with snap shots on Parksville Beach.

It’s taking him awhile to adjust to the slower pace of life, having recently moved from Ontario, but he said he enjoys it.

“I tell people I’m becoming a beach bum.”

Though a recent arrival, his Parksville home is already lined with favourite portraits taken over the last 50 years, along with works by his famous father and grandfather who started the photo dynasty known as Cavouk.

His home is an elegant and comfortable reflection of his easy nature, which he uses to put his famous subjects at ease.

“The longer you give me, the happier I am. The secret of my work is to help you become vulnerable, to capture your essence — in a studio you get nervous,” he said, casually pointing out memorabilia on a tour.

“I make myself vulnerable in your eyes so you trust me enough to let go, then it’s a piece of cake,” he said. He likes two hours or more for a shoot, but doesn’t get that with world leaders, which have included the Shah of Iran, Indira Ghandi, Queen Elizabeth and Pope Paul VI.

“Breznev gave me this,” he said of an archaic camera, explaining that Leonid Breznev, Soviet leader at the height of the Cold War, was one of the few who scared him.

“All you saw was power walking in. He was a warmer, gentler Stalin,” he said. But Cavoukian won him over and by the end he crossed the room to give him a big bear hug.

“We may not become friends, but we become more than acquaintances, I really love that part,” he said adding he sees about a third of his subjects socially afterward.

“Back home I could attend a social engagement every night if I wanted —  that’s great for a single guy who can’t cook,” he said with a smile.

He’s also shot celebrities, business leaders, regular people and Canadian luminaries and has been honoured with three Canadian stamps made from his work.

But he never wanted to get into the business. His grandfather Ohanness was a famed painter and restoration artist who escaped the 1915 Armenian massacre in Turkey and moved to Cairo where he got  into photography and became the official photographer of King Fouad.

That was a tradition Onnig’s father Arto continued before moving the family business to Toronto in 1958.

“My father wanted me to do it, but I wanted nothing to do with photography.”

At age 18 he stepped up for six months when his father suffered a massive heart attack, “and here I am 50 years later.”

But he did get into it and learned to love photography, which he’s still modest about.

“I used to think wow, royalty, but if I weren’t good at what I do they wouldn’t ask me to do it. I’m not trying to show off but I am the very best I can be.”

Born in Egypt, Onnig still identifies strongly with his Armenian roots, traveling there as often as possible.

He continues to show off connections to Armenia, including a stunning panoramic picture he took of Mount Ararat — said to be the landing place of Noah’s Ark — with a line of military helicopters in the foreground.

The Armenian leaders made him an honorary general and gave him a machine gun, which he wasn’t allowed to take on the airplane, so they gave him a glass one full of brandy instead, which he displays proudly.

He also displays his grandfather’s collection of fine old books and quips that people say his grandfather’s charm and grace skipped a generation to him.

His family has found success in many area with his brother Raffi becoming a well-known children’s entertainer, and his sister Ann serving as the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.

Continuing the tour, he points out his brother’s first gold record and casually references things like “You know who that is? Pat Nixon, the president’s wife,” he said gesturing to a family portrait with two women and two kids. “She’s with Maggie — Mrs. Trudeau and the boys.”

Trying to retire, Cavoukian calls himself an avid hobby photographer, taking advantage of the natural beauty of his new home and occasionally working, recently completing a book for a major Ontario charity.

Flipping through his photos of people like Oscar Petersen, Lee Iaccoca, Mrs. Canada and his grandparents among the world leaders, Cavoukian hopes to get a bunch of his and his family’s work into a gallery collection for posterity.

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