Q&A with Chris MacArthur, creator of The Keith Biggins Project

Chris MacArthur

Chris MacArthur was a fashion photographer in London, England when he decided to adopt the persona of Keith Biggins and come to Northern Alberta to capture the locals and live life as a roughneck on the oil rigs. Keith Biggins settled in Spirit River throughout the duration of what he calls as The Keith Biggins Project from September 2013 to April 2016. Some people may wonder: What was he thinking? What was it that he set out to do?

We threw that quesion to him, and he replied: “I wanted to do a photo project that was of personal significance and could jumpstart my career somehow. I knew the best way to achieve it would be by exploring a subject that I had a strong connection to and was something people hadn’t seen a trillion times before.

You had been in Northern Alberta before. Is this why you came back?
Yes, I had worked and travelled all over Alberta in my early 20’s and had a lot of crazy and memorable adventures and experiences. These memories have inspired me to come back.

What did you learn about communities such as ours that was different from the first time you were here?
I wouldn’t say I learned much, but I had a greater appreciation for everything this time – the people, the places, the experiences that I may have taken for granted in the past. Also, getting older and travelling the world and becoming a photographer allowed me to see things from a new perspective.

How did you find the people you met and photographed?
Everyone’s very different, and each interaction is unique. That’s what I love about being a portrait photographer. I enjoy engaging with strangers and spending time in their world for a day, or an hour or even just 15 minutes. For most people in these remote communities it’s a totally random and once-in-a-lifetime experience to have some guy show up out of the blue, with cameras and a 10,000-dollar lighting equipment, and then spend an hour fussing around to craft an image that makes them look great. My interest in other people’s lives and stories and making them feel special has always been the foundation of what I do.

You have quite the portfolio, growing up in Vancouver, internship in New York, two years in London, England, yet you blended in very well up here. Did you make any lasting friendships?
Absolutely. There are two or three people I’ve stayed in touch with, but I’m always on the move and so are they. Thankfully, we have the Internet.

You wanted to showcase a different side of Canadian culture. Do you feel you’ve succeeded?
I think I succeeded in capturing a teeny tiny slice of a region that most people in Canada, and beyond, know nothing about. When people think about Alberta they often think about Banff or maybe Jane Fonda’s visit to Fort McMurray. I wanted to show that there’s so much more, especially the regular, everyday stuff that makes this place unique.

Why was this project important to you?
Because it gave me the chance to showcase a world that had always been important to me and that I was extremely proud to be a part of. As well, creating meaningful, compelling work as a photographer can be brutally challenging and psychologically draining, so being able to conceive and execute a project like this was a major milestone.

You decided to come here as Keith Biggins and not Chris MacArthur. Why did you make that decision?
I knew people would pay more attention to the work of an oil rig worker who’s a photographer than a photographer who goes and works on the rigs for some kind of “art project”. It sounds like a corny reality show. The name Keith Biggins came from a wacky Newfie driller I worked with many years ago. He had a great personality and an even greater handlebar moustache.

You were here from 2013 to 2016. As life often does, times have changed since then. Have you contemplated Keith coming back and seeing how things are now?
Chris will be back to visit, to feast at the Penguin Dairy Drive Inn and to drink beer on top of the trains that lay up along the Spirit River Highway. I’m also planning to come and shoot a video about a Mennonite family in La Crete that I’ve just discovered I’m related to. But Keith and his riggin’ days are over. As the saying goes, “I’m too old for that shit.”

How would you explain our area to someone who has never set foot in Canada?
It’s beautiful. It’s inspiring. It’s home to the friendliest, most-generous and hardest-working people on earth.

What do you remember most fondly about your time here?
The epic sunrises and sunsets from up in the derrick, whether it was a perfect summer day or 40 below. The great folks I worked with, even though most were insane lunatics. The extra-long drives everywhere. The old weather-torn barns and rustic homesteads in the farmers’ fields. The pleasure of sleeping in my own bed after three weeks in a slummy 1-star hotel in Valleyview. Drinking with Patti at the Rolla Pub. The Bonanza Mud Bog. The super annoying radio ads for Wapiti Auto Sales.

Any regrets or things you wish you would have done while here?
Zero regrets. Well, no, there’s a couple, but they’re not appropriate for the pages of a classy publication like The Central Peace Signal.

Do you feel that your time here has enriched you?
Absolutely. Now whenever people are looking for a photographer who can also spin rods and back an 18-wheeler, I’m the first person they call.

At A Glance