Gjestvang15 Andrea Gjestvang

Inaugural Far North Photo Festival celebrates beauty of the land, people

The new festival in Yellowknife is a gathering of Arctic talent and an important challenge to the dominant frames through which the world often sees the north's underrepresented ways of life

The idea for the first-ever Far North Photo Festival began a year ago, according to founder Pat Kane. It came on the heels of conversations about how northerners could reclaim their stories — and share them with the world.

Set to take place in Yellowknife, November 15-17, the festival is designed to showcase northern stories for a northern audience in a northern setting.

The Narwhal, as a festival sponsor, spoke with Kane about the importance of visual storytelling, especially when it comes to combatting a long history of stereotypes, especially, as he puts it “about Indigenous people and those living in underrepresented parts of the world.”

1. What makes photography from the North unique?

I think what makes photography unique in the North is the beauty of the land but also the beauty of the people. It’s no surprise tourists and journalists and adventurers come from all over the world to photograph the North — there is something special about it here that a lot of people are drawn to.

But the North and the people who live here are often the subjects of photography, kind of like souvenirs that you take home with you to show your friends after a holiday.

In a lot of ways the land and people are reduced to a commodity. Our festival wants to provide a platform and opportunity for northern photographers to share their own visual stories in a northern community.

It’s a small but important step in building our industry across the North and beyond.

Gwich'in leader Princess Daazhraii Peter Mather

Gwich’in leader Princess Daazhraii with child in Arctic Village, Alaska. Princess has spent much of her life working to protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge. Photo: Peter Mather, Yukon

2. Are there aspects of life in northern Canada — and especially Indigenous ways of life in the north — that you feel the border-hugging population just doesn’t get?

There are a lot of things that people in southern Canada don’t know or understand about life in the North.

I’m always a little shocked when I have to tell people that Yellowknife and Whitehorse are two different cities thousands of kilometres away from each other and that people in Nunavut live in houses, not igloos.

There is a lot of ignorance (sometimes straight up racism) around Indigenous people and their way of life in the North.

For example, hunting and trapping is still a big source for food and income in very small, remote communities here and the viciousness of the online attacks toward that way of life is appalling. Most surprisingly, it is often white, educated, urban, progressive people doing the attacking.

What they don’t realize is that issues like high costs of living, food insecurity, poor access to health care and so on are some of the reasons people hunt and trap (using that example again). The positive benefits are huge for small communities: it is healthier, cheaper, provides clothing and keeps people tied to their culture.

Foto: Carl-Johan Utsi fishing competition

Mikael Torbjorn Utsi and Kerstin Simma during a fishing competition in Anonjalmme in May. Photo: Carl-Johan Utsi, Sapmi

3. What kind of visual storytellers are you showcasing at the Far North Photo Festival and why?

Our gallery is actually two exhibits in one.

The first features established photojournalists from each of the circumpolar regions and countries from around the world.

Our hope is to show the unique perspective and diversity of photographers working across the Arctic. Jenny Irene Miller will be showing a project about the two-spirit and LGBTQ+ communities in Alaska, and Andrea Gjestvang has a project about teens in remote Norwegian communities who are impacted by resource development nearby, as just a few examples.

The second exhibit features work submitted by photographers across northern Canada, ranging from professionals to amateur. Photographers were asked to submit work that reflected their concept of home. The result is a collective snapshot of life in the North, with submissions from across the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut.

By showing this work, we aim to re-orient the geographic consciousness of documentary photography across the North, which is often viewed through a southern perspective. Each of the artists blends storytelling with culture and place with an authority that comes from being “of” that place.

Lisa Milosavljevic, Nunavut hunter ice

A young hunter touches the ice forming during a boat ride near Iqaluit. Photo: Lisa Milosavljevic, Nunavut

4. Recently there’s been some controversy about journalists from the south heading to northern places to report on life there. Do you think it’s important to have people from the north telling the north’s stories?

I recently saw a story about Nunavut published in a prominent publication which disappointed me (and angered many others).

It was supposed to be a profile of a person but it quickly became a story focussed on poverty and abuse and hopelessness filled with token characters, stereotypes and no explanation of why the social problems exist in the first place.

This is not uncommon for northerners (and most Indigenous communities anywhere). There is a history of journalists, writers, filmmakers and photographers coming to the North to “document” people for a few days, only to leave and wow their friends will tales of grandeur and expertise.

Do I think northerners should have the exclusive right to tell their stories? Of course not.

But northerners can offer so many things that someone from elsewhere cannot: they know the land, the language, the politics, the cultures and the nuances of a community.

Most importantly, northerners should be given the same opportunities that southerners have like access to film schools, journalism programs, music workshops and photo festivals so that skills can be improved. It also doesn’t take much for editors and clients to try to hire northerners or at least mentor them.

Drummers NWT Amos Scott

Drummers warm up their drums before a fire feeding ceremony. Photo: Amos Scott, Northwest Territories

5. What should people attending the festival expect?

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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