Interview with Gabriel Safdie

First Came Poetry.


I enter Gabriel Safdie’s studio where desks and tables are busy with papers, photography, and various souvenirs. He invites me in warmly, offers me a coffee and a seat. He’s traveling to China tomorrow and has a few things left to cross off his list. In spite of this, he listens patiently as I fumble through my notebook. “Time is of the essence,” I think to myself and this thought instinctively makes me clumsy.


Each question I ask him is enrobed in a few facts I learned about him in preparation for our interview. “You already know everything about me!” Gabriel Safdie jokes. In some way I feel like I’m a student again, speaking to a professor during office hours — there to ask questions but also to prove myself as a pupil. Undoubtedly, my memories of academia are revived in the presence of Safdie who was once a professor himself, teaching literature and theatre studies in Europe and then in Montreal at Dawson College.


He fondly reminisces about his years as an educator, all the while remarking on the brilliancy of his students and their enthusiasm to learn. He reflects on one of the courses he taught which featured existentialist writers (and/or writers who sometimes wrote about existentialism.) Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, and Samuel Beckett are some of the many authors that were taught and who continue to be enjoyed by Safdie. To this day, many of Safdie’s students sustain a relationship with him by checking in with him through Facebook.


Before becoming a professor, Safdie’s interest in literature sprouted from an early love of poetry. Fiction and theatre followed as his appetite for the written word grew. In the 1980’s, he published a book of poetry entitled Open Windows. This was around the same time that he began work for his family business, delving in to the uncharted land of commerce. Despite Safdie’s responsibility to his family business, his engagement with the arts progressed strongly. Now retired from business, his artistic endeavors press on with his new interest in travel photography.


The tangents of Gabriel Safdie’s life mirrors our conversation, which runs in zigzags of stray thoughts and comments. That is to say, our exchange is organic and informal. We discuss his careers but also politics, and his love for travel and photography. At first, I find him modest when he describes himself. He says that he is “Nothing except what he is and what he does” – but perhaps it is not modesty, it is a nod to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism. Following this theory, Gabriel Safdie is a writer, a professor, a businessman, a traveller, a photographer, and conceivably more. The multitude of his functions prove that he is anything but nothing.