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Authors: Carol Payne and Evangeline Mann

Joseph Idlout was a well-respected Inuit hunter and leader. As this exhibition shows, he was also a skilled photographer.

Idlout was born in the area around Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), in what is now Nunavut, likely in 1911 or 1912.  His mother was Agnowyah and his father was Akoomalik. Akoomalik was a successful hunter and lay minister with the Anglican Church. Idlout married Qillaq, and they had nine children together: Paul Ullatitaq, Rebecca, Paniloo, Leah, Moses (or Mosesee), Pauloosee, Noah (also known as Noahkudluk), Ruthie, and Susan. Idlout learned hunting skills from his father, Akoomalik, and succeeded his father as the leader of their camp, at Aloutseevik, on Curry Island at Eclipse Bay, which was about 50 kilometres west of Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) and included approximately thirty people. As a young man, Idlout also learned from his father, and other Tununirmiut, how to navigate encounters with southerners — Qallunaat — skilfully. Both Idlout and Akoomalik regularly traded with and periodically worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Although fur stocks had diminished by the mid-1940s, HBC records indicate that Idlout was one of the most successful hunters trading at the post. In May 1946, he is listed as the top trapper in the region with 103 foxes. 

Joseph Idlout was the subject of many films and photographs .  He starred in the 1952 NFB film Land of the Long Day, made by filmmaker, photographer, and Northern Service Officer Doug Wilkinson (1919-2008). Wilkinson and cameraman Jean Roy shot dozens of still photographs during the production of Land of the Long Day. One of these images present Idlout with several other male members of the camp, including Gideon Qitsualik, Lazarus Paniluk, Solomon Kalluk, Paul Ullatitaq Idlout and Elijah Erkloo, as they prepared for the hunt. It circulated widely as the featured image on the Canadian $2 bill.

Idlout’s image is well known but few are aware that he was a photographer himself.  The Nunavut Archives has about 300 images, all dating from the 1950s, credited to Joseph Idlout. In oral histories, Elders remember seeing Idlout photograph and visiting southerners took pictures of him with his Kodak Duaflex camera, one of his prized possessions.  Doug Wilkinson had given  Idlout the Kodak camera during the filming of Land of the Long Day (1952). In 1954, Wilkinson wrote an article for the magazine Photography about Idlout’s camera work. 

Most of Idlout’s surviving photographs were shot between 1951 and 1954 in the northern part of Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), during the years before Idlout and his family were relocated to Qausuittuq (Resolute) in the High Arctic. In these photographs, Idlout captures life at his camp. The most dramatic of these images depict the hunt and illustrate Idlout’s prowess as a hunter. But more frequently than any other subject, Idlout turned his camera toward the people around him. Before the hunter’s camera, all the members of the camp appear: Idlout’s wife, Qillaq, their children, and the other four family groups living together in the camp, as well as visiting families from Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay). These photographs show the close relationships at camp.  As this exhibition argues, Idlout’s photographs illustrate Inuit cultural values or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

The final years of Joseph Idlout’s life were traumatic for both him and his family, with the death of his wife, Qillaq, and his parents, Agnowyah and Akoomalik, as well as the painful experience of being relocated by the Canadian federal government from their home in Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet) to Qausuittuq (Resolute) in 1955. Idlout himself passed away in Qausuittuq (Resolute) in 1968. 

But during these later years, Idlout continued to photograph. He made about 77 snapshots during a trip to Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland).  Idlout and nine other Inuit men from across Inuit Nunangat were delegates on the trip sponsored by the Canadian Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources (DNANR).  Idlout published an article about the trip in Inuktitut magazine in 1959. Canadian government officials thought of Greenland Inuit as more assimilated into southern ways and apparently arranged the trip to encourage Inuit from Inuit Nunangat to adopt more southern ways.  But instead what Idlout and the other Inuit delegates noticed was how much authority Greenland Inuit had.  For years, Idlout remembered that trip.  He wrote to the government in 1965:

In 1958, I and several people went to visit Greenland [Inuit]. They had [Inuit] bosses there. Their people and the land was well controlled, better than what we are today.  

Idlout’s photographs from and recollections of Greenland were ways of advocating for Inuit in their own land.

Idlout’s photographs from and recollections of Greenland were ways of advocating for Inuit in their own land.
Joseph Idlout, “Resolute Bay Man Visiting Greenland,” Inuktitut magazine Spring (May) 1959 p. 11.