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Documenting Inuit history

At a ceremony in April 2015, 3,600 photographs taken by Nick Newbery in Nunavut between 1975 and 2014 were officially donated to the Government of Nunavut (GN), represented by Joe Kunuk, Deputy Minister of Culture and Heritage. At the same time, it was announced that a new website had been established (www.newberyphotoarchives.ca) to which all the pictures have been transferred so that all the images are now accessible to the public, including the permitting of free downloading of 4×6 prints of any photograph.

The GN was interested in acquiring The Nick Newbery Photography Collection as it provides an accurate historical record of diverse aspects of life in Nunavut over several decades and can now be used by the government to promote the territory, its people and their culture. Nick was interested in donating his pictures to the GN as a legacy, to share them with Nunavummiut via a government website and as a thank you to Inuit for always making him feel welcome to record them and their culture.

The Nature of the Collection

The collection is neither a comprehensive study of Nunavut nor a picture-perfect masterpiece full of artistic subtleties. It is simply a broad-based come-by-chance accumulation of images, primarily documentary, occasionally creative, taken by an amateur photo grapher on a limited budget over four decades.

Woman in caribou skin amoutik in Pangnirtung.
Woman in caribou skin amoutik in Pangnirtung.

For Nick, photography was an outlet that provided another way of experiencing life. He had no training and until 2000 was using a manual, film-loaded Pentax K1000, which travelled happily in an old beaver hat in his grub box and only ever froze up once. He used colour slide film, which meant having to send it south for developing, waiting four to six weeks to get the results back and then more often than not throwing away much of what he’d shot anyway!

Many photographs were taken on the run, in difficult circumstances, in very low temperatures, with pictures restricted by the number of frames per film and often not as crisp and well lit as those produced by digital cameras today. But as a collection of diverse images documenting an interesting time in Inuit history, they can perhaps justify a place in the archives of the Government of Nunavut.

The Broadening Interest

Although involved in photography before going North, Nick’s interest really took off after moving to Nunavut to teach. Initially his picture taking was simply to satisfy his own curiosity. But over time, it expanded from capturing aspects of life in a small northern community to recording the activities of his students and Inuit friends, especially when out on the land. It eventually morphed into a desire to document every aspect of a unique culture on the cusp of major change. Although he lived in Taloyoak, Pangnirtung, Qikiqtarjuaq and Iqaluit, Nick travelled widely in the Territory, visiting every community and often using his summers to further explore the land, its wildlife, its history and the culture of its people.

Drum-dancers.
Drum-dancers.

This took him on walrus, seal and caribou hunts, to Dorset and Thule sites, to Inuit outpost camps, to long-abandoned HBC and RCMP posts, to national parks and to historic sites such as Kadlunarn Island, used as a base camp by Martin Frobisher. He sensed the history in the air and was fortunate enough to be able to record significant northern political events such as the signing of the 1993 land claim agreement and the creation of Nunavut in 1999. As a result, his pictures have appeared in a variety of publications, including three coffee table books published by the Iqaluit Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, all in an attempt to promote life in Nunavut to the outside world.

The Importance of Identifying Inuit

 

Participants with the Inuit Naming Project, in preparation for the website. © Nick Newbery
Participants with the Inuit Naming Project, in preparation for the website.
© Nick Newbery

The collection is divided into 10 sections: (in colour) communities, parks, trips, events, people, culture, birds and animals, flora, ice and sky and (in black and white) igloo building and Inuit games. All pictures are catalogued and captioned in English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun, recording the names of the people, places and dates they were taken. The GN asked that as many people as possible in the pictures be named so, with the support of many sponsors, a tour was arranged for Nick to visit the four Nunavut communities where he and his wife had formerly lived. Local researchers were hired with the result that all but a handful of individuals in the collection’s approximately 3,600 pictures were successfully identified.

Portraits of the North

Young girl and inuksuk. © Nick Newbery
Young girl and inuksuk.
© Nick Newbery

Until as recently as the 1950s, non-Inuit institutions sponsored much of the photography done in the North for propaganda purposes directed at a southern audience. The federal government used photography to support their northern sovereignty claims, the Hudson’s Bay Co. to enhance their image and the churches to fundraise for their missions. Although Inuit featured in many of the pictures, unlike non-Inuit they were often objectified, with their names rarely recorded. Today, that has changed. The often underappreciated beauty of Nunavut and the culture of its original inhabitants are now getting regular worldwide media coverage. But no longer is it just outsiders who record and publicize Nunavut and its people. From Peter Pitseolak’s black and white documentary photographs of camp life near Cape Dorset taken with a box camera in the 1940s to the imaginative digital colour images of Nunavummiut and their world today captured by people such as David Kilabuk of Pangnirtung, it is comforting to know that modern Inuit are becoming as keen and able to photograph their world as anyone else. Thus we now have the northern photographic record beginning to be made through an Inuit lens, giving a local perspective, documenting the northern treasures often overlooked by southerners, bringing to mind the lines in ‘No Strange Land’ by Francis Thompson:

The angels keep their ancient places
Turn but a stone and start a wing
‘Tis ye, ‘tis your estranged faces
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

In many ways Nunavut is still a hidden gem. Through his legacy of photographs Nick hopes that more Canadians will come to appreciate their North and the Inuit who have made it their home for centuries while also offering Nunavummiut a snapshot of an important era in their history.

Nick Newbery would particularly like to acknowledge Dr. Doug Stenton, Director, Culture and Heritage, Government of Nunavut, without whose guidance and support this website project would not have been possible and Brent Crooks, VP, NCC Properties, whose assistance with fundraising for the Inuit Naming Project in four communities was invaluable.