7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.14 | Elka­imGer­brandt­Bouch­ier­PDF

Abstract | In this arti­cle, the author uses the pho­tographs of two artists (Nadia Bouch­i­er and Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im) in order to explore the expe­ri­ence of the mem­bers of Fort McK­ay, Alber­ta as well as west­ern-Cana­di­an visu­al dis­course. Three impor­tant per­spec­tives come togeth­er in this piece: Nadia, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er who has lived in the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay for most of her life; Aaron, the artist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who spent sev­er­al months in the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay; and the author as an anthro­pol­o­gist attempt­ing to do jus­tice to both pho­tog­ra­phers’ work and pro­vide some analy­sis regard­ing the larg­er issues of Indige­nous rights, envi­ron­men­tal issues, and west­ern-Cana­di­an visu­al dis­course. The pur­pose of this arti­cle is to explore answers to the ques­tions that are posed in its title: what can a pho­to say, what should it say, and how is these imag­is­tic utter­ances shaped by both the per­spec­tive of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the audi­ence? Explor­ing the polit­i­cal nature and mean­ing of art is impor­tant to the dis­ci­pline of pho­tog­ra­phy, to the study of visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, and to the way that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and out­siders con­ceive of the Cana­di­an West, the oil sands, and the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay, Alberta.
Résumé | Dans cet arti­cle, l'auteur utilise les pho­tos de deux pho­tographes (Nadia Bouch­i­er et Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im) afin d'explorer l'expérience des mem­bres de Fort McK­ay en Alber­ta, ain­si que le dia­logue visuel Ouest cana­di­en. Trois per­spec­tives impor­tantes sont unis dans cette pièce : Nadia, le pho­tographe qui a vécu dans la com­mu­nauté de Fort McK­ay pour la plu­part de sa vie ; Aaron, l'artiste et pho­tographe qui a passé plusieurs mois dans la col­lec­tiv­ité de Fort McK­ay; et l'auteur en tant qu'anthropologue ten­ter de ren­dre jus­tice au tra­vail de deux pho­tographes afin de fournir une analyse sur les grandes ques­tions de droits indigènes, les ques­tions envi­ron­nemen­tales, et dis­cours visuel de l'Ouest cana­di­en. Le but de cet arti­cle est d'explorer les répons­es aux ques­tions qui sont posées dans le titre : que peut dire une pho­to, que devrait-elle dire, et com­ment est cela affec­té par la per­spec­tive du pho­tographe et le con­som­ma­teur le l’art ? Explor­er la nature et le sens de l'art poli­tique est impor­tant pour la dis­ci­pline de la pho­togra­phie, à l'étude de la représen­ta­tion visuelle, ain­si que la façon dont les mem­bres de la com­mu­nauté et les étrangers conçoivent de l'Ouest cana­di­en, les sables bitu­mineux, et la com­mu­nauté de Fort McKay.

Aaron Elka­im | Photographer
Jen­ny Ger­brandt | Researcher
Nadia Bouch­i­er | Photographer


Mari­ta Sturken char­ac­teris­es the cam­era image as a sig­nif­i­cant “tech­nol­o­gy of mem­o­ry,” an object “through which mem­o­ries are shared, pro­duced, and giv­en mean­ing” (9, 11). When a friend and col­league asked me to par­tic­i­pate in the unique oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore west­ern Cana­di­an visu­al dis­course by bring­ing togeth­er pho­tog­ra­phers and schol­ars, I was excit­ed to explore the medi­um, the dis­course, and Aaron Vin­cent Elkaim’s pho­tographs of Fort McK­ay Alber­ta.[1] Loop­mans et al. explore the ways that “pho­tographs incite pub­lic debate about place and com­mu­ni­ty” (699). Cam­era images (as well as the con­ver­sa­tions and sto­ries that give them mean­ing) are an impor­tant part of the polit­i­cal and per­son­al ways we see and under­stand the world. I inter­viewed a Fort McK­ay First Nation com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber, Nadia Bouch­i­er, [2] about these pho­tos, and our con­ver­sa­tion forms the basis for this arti­cle. Nadia her­self is a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and a friend of Aaron’s from his time in the com­mu­ni­ty in 2011 and 2012. She has con­tributed 15 of her own pho­tos for this arti­cle. My goal in writ­ing this arti­cle as a con­ver­sa­tion between two pho­tog­ra­phers’ pho­tos is to explore what a pho­to can say; what it should say; how pho­tos con­nect to place; and the inher­ent con­tra­dic­tions and pol­i­tics present in pro­duc­ing and view­ing photography.

In the fol­low­ing sum­ma­ry and analy­sis of our dis­cus­sion, three impor­tant per­spec­tives come togeth­er: Nadia, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er who has lived in the com­mu­ni­ty for most of her life; Aaron, the artist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who spent sev­er­al months in the com­mu­ni­ty; and my own as an anthro­pol­o­gist hop­ing to do jus­tice to both pho­tog­ra­phers’ work and pro­vide some use­ful analy­sis regard­ing larg­er issues of Indige­nous rights, envi­ron­men­tal issues, place, and west­ern Cana­di­an visu­al dis­course. The dis­cur­sive for­mat that I have cho­sen serves these two pho­tog­ra­phers, their pho­tos, the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay, as well as the larg­er issues that the edi­tors of this issue have asked con­trib­u­tors to explore.

Interview and Discussion Context

As soon as I arrived in Fort McK­ay and the home of Nadia’s Aunt Rose, I was struck by the nat­ur­al beau­ty that could be seen from the win­dows and bal­cony of Rose’s home. Dur­ing our first meet­ing and our sub­se­quent inter­view, I took my own pho­tos of the sun shin­ing over the snow-cov­ered Athabas­ca Riv­er through the for­est (the same riv­er that is fea­tured in Aaron’s pho­tos). As we sat at Rose’s kitchen table talk­ing, eat­ing her home­made rice pud­ding and drink­ing tea, I com­ment­ed on the beau­ty of this scene to Nadia. Her response is instruc­tive regard­ing the issues this com­mu­ni­ty faces and the com­plex mean­ing and under­stand­ing of all forms of visu­al dis­course. She used this riv­er to speak about all of her pho­tos and her pho­to­graph­ic goals. She com­ment­ed that this water (the Athabas­ca Riv­er) is not the riv­er of her child­hood or of her ances­tors, but has been changed by the oil indus­try. She and her fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers can no longer drink, fish, swim, or bathe in the water. She explained, “I can’t do any­thing with it, and so there is a loss of con­nec­tion as a per­son you know, how am I sup­posed to care for this riv­er if it’s going to hurt me?” This is just one exam­ple of the com­plex nature of using pho­tos to under­stand a com­mu­ni­ty, a place, an issue, or a region­al iden­ti­ty. Even as I look at my pho­tos, I realise that with­out talk­ing to a com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber I could not have under­stood many of the mean­ings and emo­tions tied to this riv­er for those who have lived around it for generations.

Community Context

Many peo­ple iden­ti­fy Fort McMur­ray, Alber­ta with the Athabas­ca oil sands. How­ev­er, 50 kilo­me­tres north of Fort McMur­ray along the Athabas­ca Riv­er is the small com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay, which sits at the heart of the oil sands activ­i­ty in the region. There are approx­i­mate­ly 450 mem­bers of the Fort McK­ay First Nation and 800 peo­ple live in the com­mu­ni­ty. Oil devel­op­ment and extrac­tion has brought both eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty (e.g. the Fort McK­ay Group of com­pa­nies) as well as envi­ron­men­tal dam­age and health issues to the mem­bers of this com­mu­ni­ty (Elka­im & Bouch­i­er; Fort McK­ay First Nation). This com­mu­ni­ty has faced igno­rance, hatred, and dis­re­gard for their his­to­ry and well­be­ing as they nav­i­gate an eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, and envi­ron­men­tal con­text that has cre­at­ed depen­dence on the very indus­try that threat­ens their land, rights, and tra­di­tions. While fac­ing the effects of the glob­al­ized oil indus­try, the mem­bers of this com­mu­ni­ty also con­tin­ue to engage proud­ly in their tra­di­tion­al hunt­ing, trap­ping, gath­er­ing, and oth­er practices.

Photographic Goals and Audience

Nadia and Aaron have sim­i­lar under­stand­ings of the pur­pose of their pho­tos. “Sleep­ing with the Dev­il,” the title of Aaron’s larg­er work excerpt­ed here, reflects his artis­tic goals. Aaron argues that every­one, whether near or far from the oil sands, is respon­si­ble for the larg­er sys­tem that thrives on the extrac­tion of oil:

For the Fort McK­ay First Nation the sit­u­a­tion is much more per­son­al and imme­di­ate, but we are all part of this sys­tem that cre­ates wealth through the destruc­tion of our lands and ecosys­tems. We all par­tic­i­pate in glob­al warm­ing, in species extinc­tion, in water and air pol­lu­tion, no mat­ter how much we try not to.

The title of Nadia’s unpub­lished col­lec­tion of pho­tos, “Lost with Time,” also reflects her views about the land, places, knowl­edge, and tra­di­tions that could be lost in the future if we con­tin­ue exploit­ing the envi­ron­ment. Her pur­pose in show­ing her pho­tos is the same whether in Vic­to­ria where she stud­ies pho­tog­ra­phy or in her home of Fort McK­ay. She explains:

I want­ed to bring a piece of my his­to­ry to peo­ple. I want­ed them to under­stand that there are still things out there that are left to be seen and expe­ri­enced. You can still go back to your tra­di­tion­al ways and con­nect in some ways to the land. I want­ed also to show what could be lost if you we con­tin­ue on doing what you we are doing.

In terms of audi­ence, both Aaron and Nadia are aware of the need to attempt to inform but not judge and the need to allow ques­tions but not to force opin­ions. They have obvi­ous­ly made their own judge­ments about the oil indus­try and its influ­ence on the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay. How­ev­er, the goal of these pho­tos is not only to be hon­est about these opin­ions, but also to encour­age hon­est reflec­tion in view­ers of the pho­tos. Aaron is not try­ing to con­vince peo­ple or to change their minds, as that would be unfair. He explains:

Audi­ence is a ques­tion that I have always found dif­fi­cult to answer. It sup­pos­es that I know how peo­ple think, and that I should wish to change their per­spec­tive, or that I may know what is right and wrong and am try­ing to con­vince some­one. While my work is based on envi­ron­men­tal issues, I don’t have the answers. My job is to focus my lens on places where these issues exist … I want peo­ple to con­front the real­i­ties of our life on this planet.

Nadia explained that the audi­ence for her pho­tos includes her com­mu­ni­ty, the wider world, and even herself:

My goal would be the same [no mat­ter the audi­ence]. The whole idea is, this is what you are going through and this is what I’m going through … My work speaks from me, from my heart and grow­ing up and liv­ing here and hav­ing been effect­ed by it [oil] for so many years … There is no right or wrong way [to con­nect to a pho­to] … Who am I to impose that on some­one and say, well you are sup­posed to be look­ing at it this way?

The ways that both Nadia and Aaron strug­gle to answer ques­tions about audi­ence are instruc­tive in terms of their con­cep­tions of their own iden­ti­ties, bod­ies of work, and respon­si­bil­i­ties to the land and to their local, nation­al, and glob­al com­mu­ni­ties. How they see their pho­tos and the places and issues they rep­re­sent are infor­ma­tive about how they view them­selves and their roles in their pho­to­graph­ic, artis­tic, and Abo­rig­i­nal communities.

A Thematic Discussion of Nadia and Aaron’s Photos

Two pho­tos bring up themes of change, loss, inevitabil­i­ty, and the huge timescale of nature: Aaron’s pho­to of the orange scare­crows on a tail­ings pond (Fig­ure 5) and Nadia’s pho­to of an ink cap plant among bright­ly col­ored leaves, twigs, and berries (Fig­ure 1). Nadia inter­prets how Aaron’s pho­to could (and per­haps should) make view­ers feel guilty and embar­rassed at what has been done, con­trast­ing to the plant pho­to that rep­re­sents “some­thing I would like to see more of.” She sees Aaron’s scare­crow pho­to as an exam­ple of what has been lost and can nev­er be regained, while her plant pho­to rep­re­sents to her what still remains nat­ur­al but could eas­i­ly be lost. We dis­cussed whether recla­ma­tion of extrac­tion areas was actu­al­ly pos­si­ble and if so, what that would entail. Nadia used both of these pho­tos to explain why recla­ma­tion (or return­ing land to its pre-indus­tri­al state) is impos­si­ble for many rea­sons, includ­ing a mis­un­der­stand­ing of the timescales involved. In ref­er­ence to what used to exist where the tail­ings pond sits now, she says, “You can’t replace a muskeg, you can’t actu­al­ly make a muskeg (that took thou­sands of years to form)! Recla­ma­tion is a word they [oil com­pa­nies] use to make them­selves feel bet­ter.” These pho­tos do not imme­di­ate­ly pair togeth­er in my mind, but they do for Nadia. Dis­cussing them togeth­er is impor­tant to under­stand­ing her view of the issues fac­ing her com­mu­ni­ty and the place that she loves. It is impor­tant to Nadia and Aaron to depict both the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al aspects of what has been lost, what is being lost, and what could be lost in the future. It is also imper­a­tive not to allow the per­ceived (and actu­al) pow­er of the oil indus­try to pre­scribe a future that involves an irrev­o­ca­bly changed or dam­aged landscape.

Nadia con­nect­ed two pho­tos in par­tic­u­lar to the con­cepts of home and con­nec­tion: the pho­to of her Aunt Rose cook­ing (Fig­ure 2) and Aaron’s aer­i­al pho­to of the Athabas­ca Riv­er (Fig­ure 6). For Nadia, both images rep­re­sent val­ues and prac­tices that are tra­di­tion­al­ly impor­tant but also increas­ing­ly rare. Nadia explained the moti­va­tion for pho­tograph­ing her Aunt in her home by talk­ing about the love that her Aunt con­tin­ues to put into her hard work as a cater­er in the com­mu­ni­ty. Her aunt is a high­ly sought-after cook who pre­pares tra­di­tion­al foods in tra­di­tion­al ways, which is pop­u­lar with Elders and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. This pho­to pulls Nadia towards her phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al home as it rep­re­sents what is spe­cial about her Aunt and her com­mu­ni­ty but also what is sad­ly changing:

It’s real­ly rare to find some­one that wants to put their whole heart and soul into help­ing the com­mu­ni­ty the way she does. It’s rare to find that in this com­mu­ni­ty, some­one to put out their life like that and to feed up to 1500 peo­ple … You watch her in her kitchen and get that love, because real­ly that’s what she puts into her food, is all of her love … It makes peo­ple feel like home.

Nadia explained that Aaron’s aer­i­al pho­to of the Athabas­ca riv­er (Fig­ure 6) also speaks to her about com­mu­ni­ty and home in the same way. For Nadia, this beau­ti­ful pho­to evokes peace­ful­ness, mind­ful­ness, and con­nec­tion to the place she calls home. She com­ment­ed that “the riv­er when you are in a boat, it’s just peace­ful and puts you in a trance almost as you are mean­der­ing around these points and try­ing to get your­self through the riv­er.” Nadia says that this pho­to evokes a sense of con­nec­tion and home that is being lost because of oil devel­op­ment. Nadia described an instance when she tried to trav­el by boat from Fort McK­ay to Fort McMur­ray but was forced to turn back because she had dif­fi­cul­ty breath­ing amongst the fumes caused by the near­by oil extrac­tion and pro­cess­ing sites along the riv­er. Because of the oil devel­op­ment, she and her fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers no longer trust the health and safe­ty of the riv­er. Nadia calls the envi­ron­men­tal effects “a total and com­plete loss, a loss of con­nec­tion to your heart and what the riv­er rep­re­sents.” She argued that the riv­er rep­re­sent­ed in the pho­to is an exam­ple of beau­ty, free­dom, as well as the obvi­ous dis­con­nect from the riv­er and the land among mul­ti-nation­al oil com­pa­nies, many local oil com­pa­ny employ­ees, and even some mem­bers of her own com­mu­ni­ty. One can­not irrev­o­ca­bly change or destroy some­thing if they under­stand and respect it.

Figure 3: Nadia Bouchier 2013

Fig­ure 3: Nadia Bouch­i­er 2013

Nadia’s pho­to of the shore at Moose Lake (Fig­ure 3) reflects her strong emo­tion­al response to the envi­ron­men­tal changes in her com­mu­ni­ty. This place has long been vital to the lives of the Fort McK­ay com­mu­ni­ty, and its impor­tance grows as devel­op­ment moves clos­er. Every time Nadia leaves Moose Lake, she says, “I always shed a tear … It’s like I’m leav­ing a piece of my heart behind and I’m leav­ing the land and the for­est and then fly­ing over this [oil mines] and com­ing back to real­i­ty.” Moose Lake is a place that rep­re­sents what is still present, what has been lost, and what could be lost in the future. It is a chance to slow down and recon­nect with nature and his­to­ry. For Nadia, this pho­to of Moose Lake rep­re­sents where she belongs, the strug­gle to live a life con­nect­ed to the land while sur­round­ed by seem­ing­ly unstop­pable oil devel­op­ment, as well as the respon­si­bil­i­ty to defend this place and way of life. Like many of her and Aaron’s pho­tos, Nadia sees this one as rep­re­sent­ing hope, strug­gle, and duty. She explains:

My chil­dren are from here, they are Treaty and going to have to con­tend with the oil indus­try when they grow up … If I could leave a last­ing lega­cy that would be this is what I’m leav­ing behind for you, it’s up to you to take care of it. I’m not think­ing for me, I’m think­ing for them, when they have babies, because there are only 800 of us.

Nadia feels a per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty to fight for her com­mu­ni­ty and to pro­tect Moose Lake not only for her­self, but also for her chil­dren and future gen­er­a­tions. She also feels that this respon­si­bil­i­ty extends beyond her, her fam­i­ly, and her com­mu­ni­ty. It is all of our respon­si­bil­i­ty to keep these places unspoiled and avail­able for future gen­er­a­tions of Abo­rig­i­nal and non-Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ples. For Nadia, this pho­to sig­ni­fies the place where her heart belongs and also the duty to defend the rights of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and the land for future gen­er­a­tions, even when it is eas­i­er and even safer to stay quiet.


Figure 8: Aaron Vincent Elkaim 2011

Fig­ure 8: Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im 2011

The themes of sim­plic­i­ty, respect, heal­ing, and tra­di­tion are impor­tant to the way that Nadia speaks about her and Aaron’s pho­tos. Three pho­tos sparked the most con­ver­sa­tion about these themes: Aaron’s pho­to of the trail­er guest­book (Fig­ure 7), Aaron’s pho­to of the par­tial­ly butchered deer (Fig­ure 8), and Nadia’s pho­to of fresh­ly cleaned fish on a table (Fig­ure 4). Nadia described the mean­ing of the guest­book as well as the impor­tance of its loca­tion, Poplar Point. The water in this place is still use­able and “it’s a place to heal your­self, to recon­nect with the Athabas­ca, and to dis­cov­er your­self again, after being away for so long.” The book is a repos­i­to­ry for the his­to­ry, con­nec­tion, heal­ing, and inter­act­ing with nature in the trail­er at Poplar Point that com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers (and even Aaron him­self) share. Nadia con­nect­ed Aaron’s guest­book pho­to to the one of fish being cleaned on a wood­en table (Fig­ure 4), which also rep­re­sents tra­di­tion and puri­ty: “that is good fish that is pure fish. It’s free from con­t­a­m­i­nants, fresh out of the lake and ready to eat.” This pho­to brings for­ward strong sen­so­ry mem­o­ries for Nadia. When she looks at the pho­to, she can “still feel that fish in my hands, and scal­ing it, I can still feel and taste it. When it comes fresh off the fire like that, oh my gosh!” This fresh, clean fish sit­ting in the sun­shine stands in stark con­trast to the fish that she and oth­ers have encoun­tered that have been con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by the oil indus­try. The abil­i­ty to col­lect and con­sume tra­di­tion­al foods from the land and water is a sign that the envi­ron­ment and the peo­ple are healthy. In this case, the fish is sig­nif­i­cant because it is an exam­ple of the pow­er that this place still has to pro­vide and to heal, but also the fact that because of oil devel­op­ment, places that can still be called healthy are becom­ing few and far between.

Final­ly, we dis­cussed the pho­to of fish-clean­ing (Fig­ure 4) in com­par­i­son to Aaron’s pho­to of a par­tial­ly butchered deer with red blood drip­ping on white snow (Fig­ure 8). For Nadia, the deer-butcher­ing pho­to rep­re­sents an inabil­i­ty to heal and a depar­ture from what she sees as tra­di­tion and puri­ty. It also rep­re­sents the neces­si­ty of being open to both dif­fer­ing ways of butcher­ing meat and inter­pret­ing pho­tos. She remarked, “I take offence to that pho­to because it’s dirty hunt­ing to me … It should be cleaned, put away, and ready to go right away.” Nadia also made clear that, although she thinks of this pho­to as an exam­ple of mov­ing away from tra­di­tion and respect for nature, hers is not the only inter­pre­ta­tion of this pho­to or this prac­tice. In ref­er­ence to this pho­to in par­tic­u­lar, Nadia com­ment­ed that it is impor­tant to “keep an open mind. That is the best way to be.” There is noth­ing wrong with prac­tic­ing one’s tra­di­tions as one can with­in the con­text of rapid change and envi­ron­men­tal dam­age. There is also noth­ing wrong with this pho­to being used as a com­ment on the way that oil devel­op­ment encroach­es on tra­di­tion­al lands and uses of that land. Nadia voiced her opin­ion on this pho­to to Aaron, who used this pho­to in his own col­lec­tion to com­ment on the fact that the oil indus­try is restrict­ing Fort McK­ay com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers’ use of trap lines and access to ani­mals.[3] The per­spec­tives that both Nadia and Aaron bring to this pho­to in par­tic­u­lar, and in rela­tion to their oth­er pho­tos, are evi­dence of the com­plex and urgent nature of the issues affect­ing this com­mu­ni­ty and its traditions.

Discussion and Conclusion

My goal in writ­ing this arti­cle as a con­ver­sa­tion between two pho­tog­ra­phers’ pho­tos is to pro­vide some answers to the ques­tions I pose in this title: what can a pho­to say, what should it say, and how is that affect­ed by the per­spec­tive of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the audi­ence? The first phrase in this title, “poke you in the heart,” comes from my con­ver­sa­tions with Nadia, and speaks to my goal of explor­ing how and why pho­tos effect and inspire those who take them and those who view them. The per­spec­tive of those who take pho­tos and those who view pho­tos are often dif­fer­ent, but that is the point: every­one has their own inter­pre­ta­tion of pho­tos and none are more or less valid than oth­ers as long as ques­tions are asked. The act of tak­ing, describ­ing, and dis­play­ing a pho­to, is inher­ent­ly polit­i­cal (like any oth­er act), and one fraught with con­tra­dic­tion. The point is to present ideas but not force the view­er of a pho­to in a cer­tain direc­tion; the pho­tog­ra­phers’ act of tak­ing cer­tain pic­tures and not oth­ers and dis­play­ing or explain­ing them in a cer­tain way leads but does not shove the view­er in a cer­tain direc­tion or to cer­tain ques­tions. The ques­tion of the polit­i­cal valence of art is impor­tant to the dis­ci­pline of pho­tog­ra­phy and the study of visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion and place, as well as the way that both com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and out­siders con­ceive of the Cana­di­an West, the oil sands, and the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McKay.

The ques­tions that have most influ­enced my writ­ing this arti­cle revolve around the way that we cat­e­go­rize pho­tos, pho­tog­ra­phers, view­ers, and the unique per­spec­tives and expe­ri­ences of place that influ­ence them. Before I spoke with these two pho­tog­ra­phers, I cat­e­go­rized Aaron as an artist who had spent sev­er­al months get­ting to know the land and peo­ple of Fort McK­ay in late 2011 and ear­ly 2012. I cat­e­go­rized Nadia as a com­mu­ni­ty mem­ber of Fort McK­ay and an insid­er. I char­ac­ter­ized both of their pho­tos and the place in which they were tak­en from my own per­spec­tive as an aca­d­e­m­ic out­sider. As I cor­re­spond­ed with Aaron and spoke with Nadia it became clear that this sim­plis­tic cat­e­go­riza­tion was inac­cu­rate and belit­tles the sig­nif­i­cance of their pho­tos and the impor­tant work that both of them have done with­in and out­side this com­mu­ni­ty. Though Aaron is an out­sider, he is an ally of the com­mu­ni­ty and he has a clear respect for the land and peo­ple of the Fort McK­ay First Nation, which Nadia her­self acknowl­edged. Nadia has lived, trav­elled, and stud­ied in many places, such as Vic­to­ria and Edmon­ton, but Fort McK­ay is the place she comes from and calls home. Obvi­ous­ly these two pho­tog­ra­phers have dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives, goals, audi­ences, and under­stand­ings of the places and issues they pho­to­graph. Both of these pho­to­graph­ic explo­rations of Fort McK­ay are impor­tant to under­stand­ing the com­mu­ni­ty and the issues it faces and con­vey the urgency of atten­tion to the peo­ple, the envi­ron­ment, and the place we call Fort McK­ay. In his 1996 book, Wis­dom Sits in Places, Kei­th Bas­so states that “places pos­sess a marked capac­i­ty for trig­ger­ing acts of self-reflec­tion, inspir­ing thoughts about who one present­ly is, or mem­o­ries of who one used to be, or mus­ings on who one might become” (55). We can­not and should not be forc­ing places, pho­tog­ra­phers, or their pho­tos into par­tic­u­lar cat­e­gories or box­es. Doing so is yet anoth­er exten­sion of the colo­nial influ­ence on the dis­cus­sion of places, Indige­nous issues, and visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which both of these pho­tog­ra­phers are try­ing to combat.

Anoth­er ques­tion that aris­es from this project involves who has the right to judge the cor­rect way to inter­pret or con­nect to a pho­to or the place it rep­re­sents. Fur­ther­more, who has the right to judge how the Cana­di­an West is por­trayed or under­stood, and how best should we include both Indige­nous and non-Indige­nous per­spec­tives? We all assign legit­i­ma­cy by our explic­it and implic­it under­stand­ings of pho­tos and oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Cana­di­an West. As the pre­ced­ing dis­cus­sion dis­plays, these pho­tos do not have a sin­gle author­i­ta­tive mean­ing, even if they seem to be com­ing from an “activist” or “Abo­rig­i­nal” point of view. As Loop­mans et al. point out, “pho­to­graph­ic projects are com­plex process­es which tend to cre­ate unpre­dictable effects in rela­tion to the per­spec­tives and moti­va­tions of the cura­tor” (714). We should be ques­tion­ing how we under­stand and ascribe legit­i­ma­cy to mul­ti­ple points of view. The way we assign or deny legit­i­ma­cy to cer­tain per­spec­tives says as much about the con­scious, some­times uncon­scious, and always polit­i­cal ways that we judge Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, the oil indus­try, and the envi­ron­ment, as it does about the pho­tos, the pho­tog­ra­phers, their place, or their mes­sage. The com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay is not sim­ply an idyl­lic nat­ur­al space or a waste­land beyond sav­ing. This arti­cle is an attempt to chal­lenge these judge­ments and view­points and con­sid­er why some pho­tos, issues, and con­cep­tions of the Cana­di­an West receive much more atten­tion and legit­i­ma­cy than oth­ers. Doing so is imper­a­tive to under­stand­ing pho­tog­ra­phy, place, and the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McKay.

Anoth­er ques­tion that must be asked by pho­tog­ra­phers, audi­ences, and aca­d­e­mics involves what a pho­to or any form of visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion can and should be expect­ed to do. As I vis­it­ed with Nadia and cor­re­spond­ed with Aaron, I real­ized how much of my under­stand­ing of these pho­tos is informed by per­son­al inter­ac­tions and my own per­spec­tive as anthro­pol­o­gist, aca­d­e­m­ic, and out­sider. I was struck by their pho­tos as soon as I viewed them, but their mean­ing deep­ened as I was able to pair them with a face, a sto­ry, and a his­to­ry. Nadia explains that “you have to real­ly look into the sto­ry and ask ques­tions … There is a give and take, knowl­edge is learned and you have to try.” The pho­tog­ra­ph­er has a duty to dis­play and explain their pho­tos in a way that leaves open­ings for ques­tions to be asked and for thoughts and emo­tions to be elicit­ed. Pho­tos cre­ate para­dox­es in the minds of pho­tog­ra­phers and audi­ences because it is often dif­fi­cult to cul­ti­vate pas­sion­ate view­ers of pho­tos while not forc­ing them into cer­tain opin­ions. Again, the act of tak­ing, explain­ing, and dis­play­ing pho­tos, as well as inter­act­ing with them as an audi­ence is an inher­ent­ly polit­i­cal act. As Wendy Ewald points out, the mean­ing of a pho­to or col­lec­tion of pho­tos can change with time and with world events, despite the work of an artist or pho­tog­ra­ph­er to make clear their goals and per­spec­tive (Ash­ford et al.). Soon after the attacks on the U.S. on Sep­tem­ber 11th, an exhib­it Ewald’s pho­tos of veiled Sau­di Ara­bi­an women opened at the Addi­son Gallery in New York; the mean­ing that her audi­ence ascribed to this col­lec­tion was marked­ly affect­ed by fear and grief (Ash­ford et al. 80). The impor­tant and pow­er­ful abil­i­ty of pho­tos to say a great deal, but also to leave so much to the imag­i­na­tion, points to the pos­si­bil­i­ty for vari­able interpretations.

As Wendy Ewald notes, “It is aes­thet­i­cal­ly inter­est­ing to see an image made by some­one who lives in a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion … where she [or he] stands in the world and lit­er­al­ly where she stands to make the pic­ture add oth­er lay­ers of mean­ing to the image” (Ash­ford et al. 73). Of course, the eight pho­tos I have includ­ed in this arti­cle do not rep­re­sent the com­plete pic­ture of these two photographer’s col­lec­tions, the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay, or the cul­tur­al, envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal issues it faces. I chose to present Nadia’s, Aaron’s, and my per­spec­tives on these eight pho­tos because they encap­su­late my goal of explor­ing the visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Cana­di­an West. Nadia’s and Aaron’s choos­ing, explain­ing, and describ­ing their pho­tos is crit­i­cal to my and oth­ers’ under­stand­ing of their pho­tos and the issues they rep­re­sent. Their and my own choic­es in writ­ing this arti­cle are inher­ent­ly polit­i­cal and inher­ent­ly con­tra­dict our shared goal of not forc­ing the audi­ence of these pho­tos or this arti­cle. Many may see Nadia’s and Aaron’s pho­tos and this arti­cle as a form of activism. How­ev­er, dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tions, Nadia told me that she does not like the term “activism.” She said that her pho­tos are “about real­iza­tion not activism, to show my life and my peo­ple and how we are cop­ing, and to ask ques­tions about how we will grow and be self-sus­tain­ing in the future.”

Aaron’s goal in his pho­tog­ra­phy is to cre­ate aware­ness of and inspire inter­est in and ques­tions about a com­mu­ni­ty and a place he deeply respects. Nadia’s goal is one of heal­ing and pro­tect­ing her own com­mu­ni­ty, as well as telling a sto­ry about what remains, what has already been lost, and what could be lost if the destruc­tive changes con­tin­ue. No pho­to or col­lec­tion of pho­tos can con­vey the com­plete mean­ing of an event, place, com­mu­ni­ty, or tra­di­tion. The goal and per­spec­tive of every per­son who views any pho­tographs will be unique to that per­son and the par­tic­u­lar moment in time that they are view­ing it. Both groups of images hon­our the com­mu­ni­ty of Fort McK­ay and nei­ther fit into dis­crete cat­e­gories such as pho­tog­ra­phy, activism, or art. It is impos­si­ble to pre­dict how an audi­ence will react to or con­nect to a pho­to or the con­cept of west­ern dis­course or how that could change over time. Nei­ther pho­tog­ra­ph­er is try­ing to “change or force the minds of oth­ers,” but rather they are try­ing to use pic­tures to spark sto­ries, emo­tions, ques­tions, and mem­o­ries in order to inspire much need­ed reflec­tion about the mean­ing of the lands they pho­to­graph and the ways they are chang­ing. Nadia declares “that you can­not force a per­son to expe­ri­ence a pho­to a cer­tain way, or the same way each time they view it,” but also that “you can­not un-see what you have seen [with your heart].”

Spe­cial thanks to Nadia Bouch­i­er and Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im for shar­ing their pho­tos and sto­ries. Thank you to Rose Bouch­i­er for wel­com­ing me into her home and for shar­ing her sto­ries and her won­der­ful cook­ing. Thank you to Andriko Lozowy and Peter Fort­na for your assis­tance, ideas, and per­spec­tives which helped in the research and writ­ing of this article.

Works cited

Ash­ford, Doug, Wendy Ewald, Nina Felshin and Patri­cia C. Phillips. “A Con­ver­sa­tion on Social Col­lab­o­ra­tion.” Art Jour­nal 65.2 (2006): 58-82.

Bas­so, Kei­th. Wis­dom Sits in Places: Land­scape and Lan­guage Among the West­ern Apache.

Albu­querque: Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co Press, 1996.

Bouch­i­er, Nadia, Per­son­al Inter­view. Jan­u­ary 18, 2016.

Bouch­i­er, Nadia, Peter Fort­na and Andriko Lozowy. Per­son­al Inter­view. Jan­u­ary 16, 2016.

Elka­im, Aaron Vin­cent and Nadia Bouch­i­er. “A Close Up Of The Oil Sands In Canada.”

The Sto­ry, by Dick Gor­don, 2013. Amer­i­can Pub­lic Media.

http://​www​.thesto​ry​.org/​s​t​o​r​i​e​s​/​2​0​1​3​-​0​1​/​c​l​o​s​e​-​o​i​l​-​s​a​n​d​s​-​c​a​n​ada. Accessed Jan­u­ary 20, 2016.

Elka­im, Aaron Vin­cent. Per­son­al Email Cor­re­spon­dence. Jan­u­ary 19, 20 2016.

Elka­im, Aaron Vin­cent. Sleep­ing with the Dev­il. Pho­to­graph project web­site.            http://​www​.aaron​vin​cen​telka​im​.com/​s​l​e​e​p​i​n​g​-​w​i​t​h​-​t​h​e​-​d​e​vil. 2012. Accessed Jan­u­ary 20, 2016.

Fort McK­ay First Nation. “Moose Lake: Home and Refuge.” A Kwusen Research & Media

Pro­duc­tion. 2013. https://​vimeo​.com/​7​2​7​1​5​280. Accessed Jan­u­ary 16, 2016.

Maarten Loop­mans, Gillian Cow­ell, and Sti­jn Oost­er­lynck. “Pho­tog­ra­phy,

Pub­lic Ped­a­gogy and the Pol­i­tics of Place-Mak­ing in Post-Indus­tri­al Areas.” Social &

Cul­tur­al Geog­ra­phy 13.7 (2012): 699-718.

Sturken, Mari­ta. Tan­gled Mem­o­ries: The Viet­nam War, the AIDS Epi­dem­ic and the Politics

of Remem­ber­ing. Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 1997.

Photos referenced:

Fig­ure 1 Ink cap plant Nadia Bouch­i­er 2013

Fig­ure 2 Aunt Rose Cook­ing Nadia Bouch­i­er 2014

Fig­ure 3 Moose Lake Nadia Bouch­i­er 2013

Fig­ure 4 Fresh­ly cleaned fish on a table Nadia Bouch­i­er 2013

Fig­ure 5 Scare­crows on a tail­ings pond Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im 2013

Fig­ure 6 Athabas­ca Riv­er Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im 2012

Fig­ure 7 Trail­er Guest­book Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im 2012

Fig­ure 8 Par­tial­ly butchered deer Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im 2011


[1] Aaron Vin­cent Elka­im is a Toron­to-based doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­ph­er and pho­to­jour­nal­ist who spent sev­er­al months liv­ing in and learn­ing about the Fort McK­ay com­mu­ni­ty in late 2011 and ear­ly 2012. For infor­ma­tion on his work, please see his web­site: http://​www​.aaron​vin​cen​telka​im​.com/

[2] Nadia Bouch­i­er is a mem­ber of the Fort McK­ay First Nation who cur­rent­ly stud­ies pho­tog­ra­phy in Vic­to­ria, BC. She has lived the major­i­ty of her life in Fort McK­ay and con­sid­ers home this com­mu­ni­ty and the larg­er tra­di­tion­al lands of the Fort McK­ay First Nation.

[3] Please see the project descrip­tion and full dis­play of Aaron’s pho­tos tak­en at Fort McK­ay at http://​www​.aaron​vin​cen​telka​im​.com/​s​l​e​e​p​i​n​g​-​w​i​t​h​-​t​h​e​-​d​e​vil.