Cole Burston on Covering the Toronto Van Attack

Jimmy Jeong: It’s April 23, 2018 and reports started hitting social media and the news that a van was rampaging through the North York Business Centre and hitting people. Take me through that morning. What were you doing before you heard the news of what was happening?

Cole Burston: I was having coffee getting through invoices and awaiting the call of my girlfriend to pick her up from the train station. A friend had sent me the news alert and suggested it could be something big. So I ran home got my gear and ran to my car. 

JJ: So you went to the scene before anyone called you?

CB: It wasn’t till I was 15 minutes away from Yonge and Finch that a photo editor from the New York Getty office called me and asked if I could cover some breaking news. I figured my phone would be ringing off the hook if it is in fact something big. I’d rather be on scene when I get a call then be sitting at home waiting for the call.

JJ: Describe what you saw when you first arrived.

CB: When I first arrived it was eerily calm. There were cops standing around over top of bodies covered in tarps. People in the area were all watching as everything unfolded. But an eerie calm in the air. So when I first got there, I asked them to tell me where the van was located. I wanted to keep up and follow the story as it was happening. 

JJ: What was your first frame?

CB: The first frame I shot was cops standing over a body and people in the foreground watching.

CB: I then got the message that the van had been stopped near Sheppard Avenue. 2KM away at the next major intersection. I knew i wanted to follow the news, and not just make pictures of where I was. I started my 2km run to the van.

JJ: With full gear?

CB: Full gear - backpack, laptop, two kits, and a 300mm f2.8. I stopped along the way to take a couple more pictures of bodies ( I didn’t realize the whole 2km stretch was littered with at least 9 bodies.)

JJ: Shit.

CB: I stopped into a Dairy Queen where a TV was playing the news. I filed a quick shot for the desk and then continued running. I finally got to the van. Shot what was there, filed it. Then started the run back to the main intersection. At this point I was dead tired but continued shooting. Eventually I needed a power outlet to charge my laptop so I stopped into an Iranian bookstore that was right off the main spot. We chatted. He was very kind, offered me water as I was sweating and out of breath from the run. In the days following, I’d stop in and see him. Just to make sure he was doing OK since there was a body pretty well across from his shop that day.

JJ: How did you end up working for multiple agencies?

CB: Getty wanted me on for the first two days and then their coverage was ending. The Globe called on the third day in the morning. And then CP called the fourth day.

JJ: Did you ever get a chance to pick up your girlfriend from the train station?

CB: No. She’s no longer my girlfriend. Just kidding. 

Cole Buston is a photojournalist based in Toronto, Canada. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s Magazine. He is also a member of Rogue Collective.

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