Images capture Inuit clothing, souls
A new photo book by a former Iqaluit cabbie displays the dignity and diversity of the Eastern Arctic’s people.
MONTREAL — The cover photo of the recently published book Uvattinnit: The people of the Far North shows Gamilie Akeeagok of Grise Fiord standing in his caribou-hunting clothes with his rifle by his side.
The portrait invites readers to share in the aging hunter’s vision of himself and his world.
It’s one of the many exceptional photos in this modest but thoughtful book about Inuit and traditional clothing.
“We are the people of the North and that will not change with time,” Akeeagok is quoted as saying. “Our traditional clothing was worn by our ancestors for millennia. It is our reference and our pride.”
That pride stands out in all 35 of the photographs in Uvattinnit, meaning “For us.”
Montreal-based photographer Karim Rholem produced the book.
Rholem, better known as “Kimo” to his friends in the North, shot the photos between 1994 and 1997. During that period he lived in Iqaluit and traveled to various other Nunavut communities, staying with local families and photographing them and their acquaintances in their traditional clothing.
In Iqaluit, Rholem worked as a taxi driver, which exposed him to the darker side of life in the Eastern Arctic. But that wasn’t what he wanted to show in his photography.
“I wanted to show the good side, the dignity, and the technology,” Rholem said. “There are social problems in the North, but there are good things, too.”
With a grant from the Canada Council, and help from First Air and Kenn Borek Air Ltd., Rholem set out to photograph Inuit elders.
“I wanted to take photos of all the elders before they passed away,” he said. “These people were nomadic, led a nomadic life, and after they’re gone, it’s gone.”
Along the way, in Coral Harbour, Iqaluit, Arviat, Arctic Bay and Grise Fiord, Rholem captured Nunavummiut of all ages in their traditional clothing.
The pictures were not quick snapshots. The subjects had to pose in Rholem’s portable studio wearing their choice of traditional clothing.
The result of these efforts are photos showing a variety of people and traditional-clothing styles. Every portrait is accompanied by a short quote from the person pictured, as well as a description of what they are wearing.
Printed in French and English, these short, deceptively simple texts contain a wealth of reflection and inspiration, and make Uvattinnit a book that can be read many times over.
A wide array of topics is touched on in these texts — from the qualities of caribou fur, to the importance of name-giving, to the history of the Ahiarmiut of Ennadai Lake.
The notes on clothing were written by Betty Kobayashi Issenman, author of Sinews of Survival, which is also an excellent reference on traditional Inuit clothing design.
In her introduction to Uvattinnit, Issenman says many photos of Inuit taken in the past reveal that the photographers had little respect for their subjects. The people in the shots often went unidentified, and many were noticeably uncomfortable about being photographed. The grace and natural spirit of Rholem’s portraits, on the other hand, reveal a more honest and deep relationship.
“In his portraits, Karim Rholem has achieved a power rarely seen in photographic works,” writes Issenman. “Because he knows the life history of his friends, their souls shine out from what could ordinarily be classed as a two-dimensional black-and-white paper image.”
Each photo is carefully labelled. Those whose portraits are included in the book are:
Koonoo Muckpaloo, Harvé Paniaq, Itani Paniaq, Yvonne Paniaq, Isaac Shooyook, and Tugak Tunraluk of Arctic Bay;
Nutarraluk Aulatjut, Leo Ahmak, Arnold and Martina Anoee, Judith Amarudjuak, Mark and Abraham Eetak, Bernadette and Aqpah Illlungiayok, Anita Iblauk, Annie Sewoe, Helen Konek, Sheila and Emma Konek, and Tony and Martha Otuk of Arviat;
Marty Angootealuk, Johnny Kataluk, Noah Kadlak, and Pat Netser of Coral Harbour;
Akeeshoo Nowlak, Leetia Onalik, and Aaju Peter of Iqaluit;
Seeglok Akeeagok, Steven Akeeagok, Ben and April Akeeagok, Gamilie Akeeagok, Larry Audlaluk, Kristine Audlaluk, Annie and Arnarulunnguaq Audlaluk, Inuja Flaherty, Leah Kaaluk, Tookilkee Kiguktak, and Jimmy Qaapick of Grise Fiord.
Several of the individuals listed have died since Rholem took their photos.
“I dedicate this book to all the Inuit,” Rholem writes at the beginning of the work. “Particularly to those women and men who are fighting to protect their environment. To those men and women who are fighting to perpetuate their ancestral culture.”
Uvattinnit is published by Stanké International, and costs $29.95.