Circuit Life for the Photographer

It seems to me that photography has always been an important part of my life. That cannot be a completely accurate memory – I did not have a camera growing up and I certainly did not willingly submit to being photographed. But looking back, I cannot imagine life without my cameras. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t analysing light and angles, or just noting items of interest in the landscape.

Canada’s north offers endless discovery for photographers. No community is the the same – each having its unique blend of elements to put to film (or digitally capture). Every season (okay, there are only two seasons) redecorates the landscape and the people. The light here in any season is different than the light anywhere else on the planet.

As a circuit lawyer, I travel throughout the Territory to conduct Court in communities from the Alberta border to Banks Island. What could be better for an amateur photographer than to have opportunities to photograph the places and the people of Canada’s Arctic?

When I began taking photographs here I was immediately enamoured with the land – the Arctic is rugged and beautiful, clearly a place where Nature has firm control. The photograph above is an ice pillar over the MacKenzie River at Norman Wells, the pinks are the normal colour of a sunrise in winter in that town. Left is an inukshuk built on the shore of Cambridge Bay, in Nunavut Territory. And in the title of this blog, is a spectacular stream of aurora borealis at Norman Wells, slightly up river from the ice pillar photograph.

Being enamoured with the land has its own dangers – and I have not escaped them. I have suffered my share of frost bite, wind burn, falls, and wildlife encounters.

One of my most memorable encounters with danger occurred when I was taking the photograph in the title – the Northern Lights above. I was so focused on the skies, that I barely noticed when a large dog passed within 10 metres of me on the shore. At least, I thought it was a dog, based on my peripheral vision. Once it passed me, I realized that its hind quarters were too large in relation to the rest of its body for a dog. It was also too close to the ground. As it moved into the range of central vision, I realized that it did not move like a dog either and my focus was finally taken off of the skies above me. The wolverine made no sound, it did not look back at me and it showed no other signs of aggression. I walked away happy with my shots, chiding myself for my close call with the animal, and thanking the fates that kept this story from becoming a warning about animal encounters.

 

The nature of my photography changed that night in October, 2003. I was still enamoured with the majesty of the land but I began to notice more than the just the granite and ice, water and trees, the sun and the moonlight and my beloved aurora. I noticed the life that filled what was seemingly endless stretches of barren ground.

Years later, encountering a (thankfully) uninterested black bear who rose from the brush on my way through the woods to a favourite fishing spot and a river that I love to photograph, I would recall the wolverine. As my friend Dana and I backed up quietly to higher ground, providing the bear right of way and wide berth, I felt only respect for the large, wild animal. When we were safely on high ground, I lifted my camera and Dana whispered “What would your little green men have to say about this?” (She was referring to my jade Buddha statues) Having lost my opportunity to capture the bear (it had moved behind a hill), I whispered back “Buddha would tell you that life is chaos and you live in accordance with your fate.”

In the very few hours away from my work, I searched for recent tracks and other signs that wildlife was nearby. Through my cameras I began to connect with and admire the struggle for life in the harsh climate and the rugged land. I appreciated like never before the strength and resourcefulness it takes to live in the Arctic.

I do not get many hours away from work on a circuit. I have to review files, prepare for trials and preliminary inquiries, read case law, interview witnesses, request and provide disclosure and attend court each day. The work day often extends well into the evening and, occasionally, deep into the night. I had learned early though to make effective use of the opportunities to explore and capture my surroundings.

Over time, though, my photography began to change again. It would be the next phase that would have the most impact on my art and the deepest impact on my soul (I can assure you, Karan, that neither my art nor soul was “impacted”).

You are taught as a lawyer to be objective and to me, in the beginning, that also meant dispassionate and disconnected. As I dealt with the criminal conflicts within the community, I began to understand somewhat, a limited set of experiences of the people. And, as I would pick up my camera in the same community, I would be gifted with a deeper understanding of the experiences of a larger community.

I began to analyse the faces of the people I dealt with, their body language, their expressions with a photographer’s eye. I listened more closely to their stories. During lunch breaks and other breaks in the day, I began to communicate with the people I saw on a different level.

The man who is sharing a smoke break with me, who may be a witness or an accused or just in Court to watch the proceedings, is a hunter/trapper who lives on the land for months, carefully checking trap lines or tracking a herd of caribou. He supplies his family and elders in his community with moose meat, caribou, seal, char, or whale. He is a provider and he is proud of his skill. His eyes reveal his pride, lighting up as he goes on. He is self-reliant and teaches young people how to be as resourceful as he is. He may also be a carver or a guide, a wildlife specialist or a miner. He is raising a generation that will continue their traditions into the future. As he tells me about the recent hunt and gives me tips on where I might find some good vantage points for my photos or where I might locate items of interest; while he shares a little of his knowledge and culture with me, I realize that it is okay to be a prosecutor who feels compassion and empathy, who tries not to pass judgement, who tries to help the community find workable solutions to criminality. Often I find that the person I am talking with begins to understand that my job is not personal – that I am engaged and interested and their personas soften.

A community is not the criminal behaviour of a few, it is not only the social difficulties it faces, it is not a struggle with alcohol – it would be so easy for a criminal lawyer to see only those aspects of any place. It is the land, and the people – it is strength and resilience, resourcefulness and skill, pride, and the struggle that we all face – no matter our circumstances – to survive and thrive. Through the lenses of my cameras, and the opportunities provided by the circuits to engage and connect, ultimately, I am improving as a lawyer in ways the Courtroom cannot alone teach. And through my work in the Courtroom, I am improving as a photographer.

I find a sense of peace in each photograph that I take and I now have a new understanding of the tenets I whispered to Dana as we watched the bear saunter away. Though life is chaos, peace is attainable – if you connect, engage and are accepting of your fate.

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