Gwich’in life preserved in photos

It's a testament to the permanence of film, moments of Gwich'in life preserved long after their creator is gone. James Jerome was a photographer who spent most of his short life documenting remote communities in Canada's North.

It’s a testament to the permanence of film, moments of Gwich’in life preserved long after their creator is gone.

James Jerome was a photographer who spent most of his short life documenting remote communities in Canada’s North. Jerome was caught in a tragic house fire when he was 30. He didn’t survive but his images did, if only barely.

Now 14 of them are on display at Arts Underground, showcasing life in Gwich’in fish camps along the Mackenzie River with an intimacy and understanding impossible for photographers from Outside.

“He had his own personal way of connecting with the people,” said Cheryl Charlie, an archivist with the Yukon Archives who helped bring Jerome’s work to Whitehorse.

“He was well received by them. You can really see that connection in the photos. They really tell their own stories in a unique way,” she said.

Born in Aklavik in 1949, Jerome was the youngest of six children. He grew up with his father, Joe Bernard, and his mother, Celina Jerome, on the east channel of the Mackenzie River at Nichiitsii Diniinlee.

James’s father was an RCMP constable, a trapper and chief of the Gwichya Gwich’in Council in Tsiigehtchic.

James spent his childhood on the land with his family, and went the Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik.

He got his first camera when he was 12. After high school, he trained to be a welder, allowing him to travel across the country for work. Crisscrossing the country also allowed James to collect better cameras and equipment than what was available in the North in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

As his aptitude for apertures and shutter speeds improved, Jerome began to focus more and more on making photography his life’s work. He worked as a photographer for the Native Press newspaper, and later as a freelancer documenting life North of 60.

But tragedy struck when James was killed in a house fire in Inuvik in 1979. His photographs were almost destroyed as well, and many were badly damaged by smoke, heat and water.

The photos in Fish Camps through a Gwich’in Lens reveal a quiet dignity in the traditional ways of life that allowed many northern First Nations to survive for generations on the land.

The photos capture simple moments at camp, with families cleaning and drying fish or paddling the Mackenzie’s mighty waters. The body of work was shot in the late ‘70s, some of the last images James would make before his untimely death.

His partner Elizabeth Jansen Hadlari and his son Thomas Hadlari were able to rescue 9,000 of James’s negatives and donated them to the N.W.T. Archives. There, archive specialists were able to stabilize the collection and preserve the images for years to come.

But with their original creator dead, many of the photos lacked crucial information about the photos subjects, so the James Jerome Project was created. More than 3,500 photos were presented at workshops and interviews with elders to help identify the people and the places in Jerome’s pictures.

Charlie and members of the Yukon Archives first saw the photos when they were presented in the N.W.T. by that territory’s archives. So the Yukon Archives partnered with the Friends of the Yukon Archives to bring the collection to Whitehorse and showcase it to a broader audience.

Fish Camps Through a Gwich’in Lens is a travelling exhibit and is presented by the Yukon Archives with help from the N.W.T. Archives and the Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute. It runs at Arts Underground until July 31.

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