Photographer digitizes hundreds of never-seen images of Inuit communities

While travelling across the Eastern Arctic in the 1970s and 1980s, Jake Ootes took hundreds of images that he has begun to digitize. He hopes people will assist in naming and identifying the people and places in those images to preserve Inuit history.

Jake Ootes is seeking public help to identify people in over 300 digitized images

One of 327 images Jake Ootes is hosting on to identify people he photographed during his travels of the North. (Jake Ootes)

Photographer Jake Ootes is looking to connect Nunavummiut with more than 300 images he took while on tours with former N.W.T commissioner Stuart Hodgson between 1960 and the 1980s.

"I felt that I'd taken all these photographs of people but they had never seen the pictures themselves," he said.

"It needed to be provided so that people can see their ancestors to see their relatives, even themselves … and hopefully it proves to be of significance for people."

In 1964, with a 35 mm Pentax SLR in tow, Ootes had traveled to every Nunavut community with the territorial government as part of his work to spread information about government programs.

(Jake Ootes)

In 2019, while looking through his personal photographs, Ootes began to pore over hundreds of images of community members, children who are now adults, and people's ancestors who may have already passed on.

"I took the time [to digitize them] because I felt an obligation and I'm proud that I did this," he told CBC North's Salome Awa.

Ootes, who is now 79, said he hopes to identify people in 327 images he is hosting on to help with future archiving efforts. 

(Jake Ootes)
(Jake Ootes)

Like many archival collections, Ootes' collection of photos was stored among personal images for decades, unseen. 

Last summer, Ootes showed his images to Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson who encouraged him to post as many as possible on social media. 

Now, he is working with Betty Brewster, a well-respected Elder and interpreter.

The two have garnered $5,000 in financial support from the Nunavut government's culture and heritage department, which paid for the purchase of scanners and to help with the labour of digitizing the images.

(Jake Ootes)

The photos on the website are numbered so people can specify which one they are looking at when they submit a response form to identify people in the photos, where they are from and any other important information. 

"There is no doubt that people would be very interested in seeing those photographs because they may be of themselves, they might recognise themselves, or they may be of a relative, a parent or a brother or sister or a mother or a father or a sister or an auntie."

Arctic 'close to my heart'

(Jake Ootes)

Ootes, who has authored a book called Umingmak: Stuart Hodgson and the Birth of the Modern Arctic, said the Arctic is "still very dear and close to my heart" and that he spent his career documenting a time of significant changes in the North between 1964 and 1979.

Ootes was previously a news photographer in Ontario and continued it as a hobby, snapping photos of Hodgson's travels across the North and slice-of-life photographs. 

At the time, getting images back to families was difficult, he said.

(Jake Ootes)

Ootes says families can request images though he hopes there will be some help from the government to manage the archive and reunite people with the images.

Ootes said often people don't make the effort to share images with the subject of a photograph.

"It has been very important for me to try and get these on the Internet so that people can see them."

Interviews by Salome Awa, written by Avery Zingel