Darkroom Project brings Inuit women’s lives into focus, 40 years later
Nunatsiaq News celebrates women innovators on International Women's Day
TORONTO—The voice of Pamela Harris echoes off the walls of a small gallery on the campus of Ryerson University.
She’s looking at one of the many framed images lining the gallery walls; this one is a photo she took of Nilaulaq Aglukkaq, a Taloyoak woman with her long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Aglukkaq is standing in a well-lit darkroom, looking intensively over her shoulder at her toddler son, Willie, who’s leaning towards her from his place in her amautik.
The photo captures the essence of Harris’ time in Taloyoak, 44 years ago. In 1973, the freelance photographer, brought some Kodak 35s and a supply of basic darkroom equipment to teach photography in the western Nunavut community—then called Spence Bay, in the Northwest Territories.
“For crying out loud, trying to work in a little darkroom with this heavy toddler on your back,” Harris laughs, still focused on the image.
Her memories of that summer are sharp and fond. Harris worked with about a dozen Inuit women students that year. She set up the darkroom in the bathroom of the local craft workshop—a five-foot-by-seven-foot space with a small collapsible table, a honey bucket and a sink.
Like the image of Aglukkaq with her son on her back, the photos gave Inuit women a platform at a time when the photographers who documented Inuit communities were typically white men.
The photos show life from their own perspective, at home and on the land: gathering plants, preparing food and caring for their children.
The work of Harris and three of those photographers—Selena (Kublu) Tucktoo, Ootookee Takolik and Theresa Quaqjuaq—eventually made it south, first to a Toronto exhibit in the mid-1970s and later as a collection donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
That’s where a group of masters students from Ryerson University discovered the collection last year, and worked to have the Darkroom Project re-exhibited on campus.
“Before Christmas, I had a call from one of the students who asked if some of the photos could be exhibited,” said Selena (Kublu) Tucktoo, who took part in the Harris photography workshop while she was in her early 20s.
“I thought, ‘oh my goodness, they still have those?’” Tucktoo said in a telephone conversation from her home in Taloyoak. “I haven’t thought of that for a long time.”
During the summer of 1973, Tucktoo was enrolled in a dye workshop where she and other women from the community spent their days on the land hunting for flowers and lichen that could be used to colour fabric.
She said she recalled Harris showing up one day to see if anyone was interested in learning photography.
Photography wasn’t unknown to local Inuit at the time; a few people owned cameras. But film needed to be sent out to Yellowknife or Edmonton to be developed, so often photos would come back months later.
As Harris later explained: “I thought it would be helpful for people to have the option of making their own photographs, not that they particularly needed photography, but that since they already had it, they should also have power over it, the power that comes from being able to do things oneself.”
Tucktoo still remembers the crowded darkroom space where she first saw her images come to life.
“I used to take pictures, but I didn’t know how to develop them,” she said.
“I started thinking, ‘Ah, this is how they do it.’ Then I started being very careful about how to time it. It was something I’d never done in my life and it took me a while.”
Among Tucktoo’s photos which stand out in the collection is an image of Inuit women and their children, seated and having tea in a rocky outcrop outside the community. They’re sheltered by a large rock wall behind them which has block letters painted across it saying “Many Rocks But Little Bread.”
Though it has Biblical origins, the phrase has elicited different interpretations by those who’ve seen the photo.
The challenge of interpreting images from a faraway place and time prompted the Ryerson students to seek the help of the local Inuit community to provide some context for the Darkroom Project.
The students connected with an Inuk PhD student and lecturer, Katherine Minich, whose family is originally from Pangnirtung.
The interpretations can be varied and rich, but one thing should be clear from seeing the photographs, Minich said, is the skill and leadership Inuit women possess— both then and now.
“Women are not silent, domesticated observers to their political and social life,” Minich said. “That’s the message I see the women trying to promote. They are active, they are resourceful, they’re solving problems, all the while being able to juggle childcare and other domestic things.
“The level of detail and mastery that comes out of building something out of your hands—I think these photographs are an example of that.”
Harris’ photographs from her time in Taloyoak and interviews with the people she met there were captured in her 1976 book called Another Way of Being.
But back on exhibit at the university, with the attention of film and photography students, Harris is clearly pleased to see the project back on display.
“This is very cool that this work is being seen again,” she said. “I am just tickled.”
In Taloyoak, Tucktoo said she never pursued photography as a craft after the workshop although she still picks up her camera “once in a while.” She retired from a career teaching Inuktitut in 2007.
Tucktoo couldn’t make it to Toronto for the Darkroom Project launch, but says she’s honoured to know her photographs are being enjoyed by a new audience.
“That’s from so long ago,” she said. “I’m just happy to share them with people.”
You can see more images from the exhibit here.