Archived photographs help to return an Inuk gaze
"There was a real sense that the camera was a colonial tool"
A black and white photograph depicts an Inuk man and woman in traditional clothing, with the snow on the tundra behind them lit up by the sun.
Something almost seems out of place: the hunter in the photo is wearing a Kodak Duaflex camera around his neck.
The man is Joseph Idlout, and what few people know is that he was a photographer for a time in the early 1950s.
Now, a pair of researchers from Carleton University are hoping to shine a light on his work, and that of other Inuit featured in decades-old photographs.
Carol Payne is an art historian at Carleton University in Ottawa who has worked extensively with Project Naming, which helps Indigenous communities identify unknown faces in Library and Archives Canada’s photography collections.
That’s where she first encountered photos taken by filmmaker Doug Wilkinson, who spent time on northern Baffin Island to produce his 1956 book and film Land of the Long Day.
Many of the photos depicted Idlout, who played a camp leader in Wilkinson’s film.
That led Payne to a number of photos that Idlout had taken himself in the early 1950s. Wilkinson had left a Kodak with Idlout, along with a developing kit.
“He’s such a well-known figure—both for leadership in the Inuit community and his family’s relocation to Resolute Bay,” Payne said.
“But they also don’t know he took photos and he was a fine photographer. He depicted mainly the people around him and great landscapes.”
Through her research into photography taken in the Arctic around that time, Payne picked up on a theme: photographs taken by southern photographers depicted Inuit unrealistically, like actors in a performance.
“They play on stereotypes,” she said. “Portraying them as the other. So there was a real sense that the camera was a colonial tool.”
Payne recalled seeing images of Resolute Bay, showing Inuit who had just been moved into the settlement and showing the group smiling.
“I’ve long been interested in the other side of that,” she said. “A lot of Inuit are now using those photos to reclaim their own stories: stories about their own communities, stories about resistance.”
Idlout’s photos are a great example of that, Payne said, and she hopes to share them with a wider audience—particularly in Nunavut, where he has many descendants.
She hopes, eventually, that Idlout’s photographs will be used to show people what life was really like for Inuit in the 1950s, rather than relying on outsiders.
She calls her research project Returning an Inuk Gaze.
“It’s a history that many people don’t know,” Payne said. “And we’re hoping there are people who can illuminate those stories … descendants of Idlout or people who appeared in his photographs.”
The story of Shoofly Comer
Christina Williamson, a PhD student studying cultural mediations at Carleton, works with Payne on the Idlout project. But she also has her own area of interest: Inuit women’s labour, especially the culture of sewing and making clothing.
It was the photographs of another non-Inuit “explorer,” whaling captain George Comer, that introduced her to the story of Nivisanaaq, an Aivilik woman and skilled seamstress.
Comer also served as an unofficial anthropologist, taking photos of Inuit he met on his whaling expeditions near Cape Fullerton on Southampton Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Comer had a relationship with Nivisanaaq, who was also known as Shoofly Comer. In this case, he didn’t give her a camera, but a sewing machine—one of the first in the region—and Nivisanaaq was commissioned to make caribou suits for the whalers.
Nivisanaaq also made skirts in calico and trade cloth that she would trade with other women for their beadwork.
What Williamson doesn’t know is how well-compensated Inuit women were for their work; she suspects they were undervalued.
Still, Nivisanaaq, or Shoofly, went on to become a prominent leader and mediator in her community.
“Because of her position as wife of the captain, she held quite a bit of power and access to goods,” Williamson said.
That allowed Nivisanaaq to negotiate a lot of trade in the region and made her a natural mediator and translator between Inuit and non-Inuit visiting the area.
The work she created as a seamstress lives on; Nivisanaaq’s granddaughters found one of her parkas on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1999.
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Carol Payne and Christina Williamson will be showing photographers at the visitor’s centre in Pond Inlet May 9.
On May 15, Payne will make a presentation on the 1950s photographs of Joseph Idlout at the Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit.
Williamson will follow with her own presentation on Inuit women’s role in the whaling industry and the photographs of Nivisanaaq.
The events start at 7 p.m.