Northern Lights documentary shows how photography is helping Inuit youth

A new documentary chronicles how a youth-run organization is using photography workshops to help young Inuit talk about the challenges they face, from the loss of their cultural identity to the high rates of suicide across the North.

'Our participants have changed their focus to something positive,' says Betsy Etidloie of the workshop

The Northern Lights workshop leaders spent an afternoon with students in the pre-college class, creating pictures using the technique of light painting. (Submitted by North in Focus)

A new documentary chronicles how a youth-run organization is using photography workshops to help young Inuit talk about the challenges they face, from the loss of their cultural identity to the high rates of suicide across the North.

  • Scroll down to see the video

Gabrielle Foss and Eva Wu first came up with the idea of using their love of photography to promote good mental health when they were in high school. 

They later developed North in Focus, based in Ontario, and now run photography workshops in Northern communities.

"The fact that it's youth communicating with youth, I think that's very powerful," said Foss, now an undergraduate Health Sciences student at Western University in London, Ontario.

About a dozen youth in Kangiqsujuaq took part in the workshop and Betsy Etidloie says many are still taking photos. (Submitted by North in Focus)

"Obviously no one program is going to single handedly solve such an intensely complex issue, with so many factors... but it's one step in the right direction."

'It opened up our eyes'

The documentary follows Foss and Wu, as they run a one-week photography workshop called Northern Lights in Kangisujuaq in February, with the help of Patrick Hickey and Madeline Yaaka, 15-year-old students from the Nunavik community.

During the week, the group taught young Inuit how to take different kinds of photos, including night images and portraits.

"They were also being taught about learning to love themselves and to love life," said Betsy Etidloie in Inuktitut. 

One of the techniques taught in the Northern Lights workshop was 'light painting,' where the shutter is left open for a longer period of time so that light trails are captured. (Submitted by North in Focus)

Etidloie, who worked as a substitute teacher at Arsaniq school in Kangiqsujuaq, was an interpreter at the workshop. 

She says she saw the youth change over the week — and the program's effect is still being felt today. 

"As a community, it opened up our eyes," she said. "Our participants have changed their focus to something positive."

Documentary looks at difficult history

The 16-minute documentary, created by Foss' father, Eric Foss, a retired photojournalist, also looks more broadly at the community's past and present.

Eric Foss, a retired photojournalist, created a documentary about the Northern Lights workshop, which was developed by his daughter Gabrielle Foss and two other university students. (Submitted by North in Focus)

"We would teach about mental health and just raise awareness about the root causes of suicide, including intergenerational trauma," said Gabrielle Foss. 

In the film, residents talk about the pressures facing young people, often describing how they are "caught between two worlds" — modern society and Inuit traditional life. 

"It's a tough, uphill battle," said Yaaka Yaaka in the film. 

Marion James, a local mental health advocate, said in the film that she spoke with elders about the challenges.

"They said 'Our community is wounded. It's bleeding. We have been through so much trauma, so much tragedy. If you can help, just put a little Band-Aid on this cut, maybe together we can close the wound of the past.'"

Kangiqsujuaq students made signs with positive messages like 'Don't give up' during the photography workshop in February. (Submitted by North in Focus)

North in Focus heads to Nain

The Northern Lights program was sponsored by Western University, the Makivik Corporation, Students on Ice (both Foss and Wu have been on expeditions with the group), as well as Polar Knowledge Canada. 

This October, North in Focus will visit a second Inuit community. 

The Nunatsiavut Government is funding their trip to Nain, where Foss says they'll produce another photography workshop, specifically aimed at tacking mental health issues in the Labrador community.

But the team hasn't stopped its work in Kangiqsujuaq. 

Etidloie says the group continues to share beautiful photos of the community.

"It's been very helpful," she said. "I hope they're going to come back."