Nunavut photographer David Kilabuk: Documenting his community

    Nunavut Community Photographer DAVID KILABUK

    By David Reid

    Every time we open our eyes we catch a fleeting glimpse of life. We need to look, we need to open our eyes, we need to understand and appreciate just what is in front of us at this precise moment — the moment a camera goes “click”.

    Photographs are historical documents in every imaginable way. They shed illuminating light on the past and at the same time create records for which future generations will be grateful. They preserve what needs to be appreciated. The great photographs cease to be just photographs — they are so much more.

    What is a photographer? Is there such a thing? Perhaps, instead, there are storytellers. Stories that need, and should, be told. Like all great stories, they personify the simple essence of communication. Pangnirtung’s David Kilabuk is just such a storyteller.

    Growing up in one of the Baffin region’s most scenic communities, his fascination with cameras and photography began in early childhood. He recalls clearly seeing photographs taken by Peter Pitseolak in another community, Cape Dorset. These were photographs taken 20 to 30 years before. They prompted David to imagine what it would be like to take images that people would be looking with as much fascination as he had, decades into the future.

    David remembers how difficult it was to get film for cameras in the 1960s and ’70s in Pangnirtung. An especially fond memory from his childhood is of his father having a Polaroid camera that would produce finished photos as if by magic. For his 21st birthday, David’s sister Mary gave him his first 35mm camera and David hasn’t looked back since.

    Anyone who has been to Pangnirtung knows how beautiful the scenery is around the community. Located on the east side of Pangnirtung Fiord, nearby Mount Duval provides a stark and imposing backdrop. Stand in the community and look to your left and the view will take you towards the once-famous whaling grounds of Cumberland Sound, home now to a productive turbot fishery. Look to your right and the southern entrance to Auyuittuq National Park will hold your gaze and tempt you to venture into “The Land That Never Melts”.

    David found himself at times at the community airport and always took notice of the tourists arriving from all over the world. What was one of the first things they’d do after stepping off the plane? Take a photograph!

    Born and raised in Pangnirtung, David realized that people from very far away were keen to take photographs of his community and what he knew best. At first he thought; “What are they taking photos of?”Now he sees things through the lens of his (several) cameras and rarely does a day go by when he doesn’t think about taking a photograph of his surroundings.

    Well known in his community and beyond as a talented photographer, friends, colleagues and family don’t hesitate to call him (or just stop him in the street) to tell him of special or unusual events that are happening in the community or nearby. On one occasion, a (very lost) juvenile great blue heron was spotted outside the community. David was found and told; the resulting image a rarity in itself.

    David tells a great story about “the one that got away”.

    Recently a moondog had appeared in Pangnirtung’s vast night sky. A moondog is a relatively rare bright circular spot on a lunar halo caused by the refraction of moonlight by hexagonal-plate-shaped ice crystals. They tend to be rarer than the more common sundogs because the moon must be bright and full or near full for them to develop. David had heard of it when a group of local Elders went on the radio and talked about it.

    No one had ever seen anything like it before and talked about how amazing it was and how excited they were. David thought long and hard about what it would have meant to the Elders if he had seen the lunar event and managed to photograph it so they could have enjoyed it long after the event itself. He is also aware enough to understand and appreciate that the Elders in the community will not be around forever. He does feel the need to document, not only their faces and characters but their lives and living in general.

    He’s also witnessed change take place. Elders with grandkids hanging out together: the latter owning, what is quickly becoming ubiquitous, a cell phone and the subsequent “selfie”. David gets a kick out of seeing Elders take them.

    Many photographs do exist of life decades ago in the Baffin communities. Travellers, RCMP, HBC, Government officials, etc. often brought cameras with them and while at the time the significance of taking photographs wasn’t perhaps fully appreciated, they remain today as treasured possessions of many Inuit. Through social media, David recently heard from a gentleman in England who, believe it or not, had a photograph of David’s parents on their wedding day. One event, on one day shared by his parents and friends, captured all those years ago. It is clearly one of David’s favourite photographs.

    With a large family and a full time job in the community, David still finds the time nearly every day to take photographs. I recently had the chance to sit down with him and talk about what photography means to him and what he looks for when taking images. A quiet, polite and focused man, we sat and chatted at his kitchen table enjoying hot tea, Scottish shortbread and bannock (is there anything better?). I was curious to find out what draws or pulls him out in all weather and in all seasons to take photographs.

    He was quick to mention that even his youngest children are aware of his passion and the factors that contribute to taking great photographs. If the light entering their house’s large front picture window is particularly striking, his young daughter will often remark upon it, in a way pushing David to make the effort, regardless of temperature, to gather his gear and clothing together and venture outside. He enjoys enormously taking scenic images but explains that the process of capturing “light” is a challenge, but one he relishes.

    Opportunities also present themselves outside the community, whether it’s fishing, hunting and travelling with family and friends or being asked to be the official photographer during the bowhead hunt in Cumberland Sound. It was clear from the stories told that the capturing of the event in photographs was just as important to David as to the community as a whole. Photographers, like hunters, require patience.

    They both know what they’re looking for and it takes time to be in the right place at the right time, it takes skill and experience.

    That skill and experience has resulted in some of David’s work appearing in National Geographic and Canadian Geographic and this magazine. He’s in demand from government and Inuit organizations alike. David is the first to tell you that he’s still learning each and every time he goes out to take photos and that there is a process involved. He sees himself almost as a constant apprentice — the land and all that it holds being the teacher.

    One thing is clear, David is very proud to be a Pangnirtungmiut. More than anything, he wants to share his beloved community and all that it has to offer with everyone. He’s keenly aware that there are Inuit all over the world, some with roots and family in Pangnirtung, who welcome the chance to see “home” and all that it is.


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