A social anthropologist and a photographer from Toronto are working on projects aiming to dispel common myths about life in the North.
Dr. Lindsay Bell of the University of Toronto and her research partner, Jesse Jackson, were in Hay River last week to examine various public spaces and analyze how people interact within them.
They were looking for common patterns that could link daily life in Hay River to bigger, southern cities.
Part of the reason they came is the way the North is portrayed in national media.
One of the things Bell found while researching for her PhD thesis – entitled ‘When Diamonds Aren’t Forever: An Ethnography of Tomorrow Making in Canada’s Industrial Sub-Arctic’ – is that stories and images from the North usually fall into two categories.
“I discovered that it was either empty but beautiful landscapes or some kind of suffering, whether it’s the housing shortage, suicide, mental health or other issues,” she said. “It’s a very polarizing representation of the North. Rather than write a criticism of these images, I wanted to provide an alternative story.”
During a presentation they recently gave at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where Jackson teaches, Bell showed images of Hay River houses located in the affluent neighbourhood near Chamber Park.
Students were stunned, she said, when they noticed that houses in the North were similar to those in suburban Toronto.
“This is a gateway for me as an anthropologist to start talking about the different kinds of cultural practices for a place like Hay River,” she said. “The houses may be similar, but the people who live in them have different cultural practices than people in southern Canada. This opens up that discussion and allows us to erase some of those stereotypes.”
Bell and Jackson spent a few days driving around Hay River, looking for busy areas where pedestrians and motorists interact. Jackson set up his tripod and camera at the corner of Woodland Drive and Commercial Road, and also at The Rooster convenience store.
One of Jackson’s ongoing projects is called Timespace. After taking between 10 and 25 images of a specific place over time, he can layer them on top of each other and create a single photo, one that tells a story.
“If you think of Lindsay as providing written information about new ways of looking at the North, then as a photographer there’s a spectrum of things I can use such as pictures, video or a combination of the two,” he said. “The weakness of a single image is that it only represents one thing at a time, while a video always has a narrative structure. I’m trying to mix some of those elements and turn it into a collapsed video product, and show others how these busy spaces are used as anchors for the community.”
They also spent some time documenting the inside and outside of the Mackenzie Place highrise, where Bell once lived.
She said her thesis was somewhat driven by the year she spent living there, and how it represents a microcosm of Canadian life.
“It was a way of making the town modern in the 1970s, but now it has a different set of connotations,” she said.
Jackson also has an interest in tower buildings and how they bring people together.
“It’s something that links Hay River to every city of a certain size in the world,” he said. “It has the exact same structural problems that any apartment building in Toronto would have.”
The duo hopes to return to Hay River and present a multimedia show of their work.
“We’re very curious to see what reactions these images generate in the South, and here,” Jackson said.
They have applied for funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in order to do the same research in other urban locations of the NWT.
— Myles Dolphin