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Fort Smith photographers explore relationship with land in new book

A pair of photographers from Fort Smith are shedding light on life in the North in a new book

Karl Johnston and Thomas Koidhis are photographers from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories and in the next few weeks, they will be releasing their first book, titled Motion. The idea to write a book came from a conversation they had a few years ago.

The Aurora Borealis. Photo courtesy of Karl Johnston & Thomas Koidhis Photography.

“At the time I wasn’t talking to Tom, we had drifted apart,” Johnston says. “But in 2016 I got back in touch with him, and I asked him do you remember when back up North, we used to do photography… do you remember all those crazy adventures we used to have?”

That conversation inspired the premise of Motion; sharing their stories of life in the North, their time out on the land and the stories behind the photographs they took together.

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“When we first started talking about it, it was taking the form of what you might think of as a coffee table album,” says Koidhis.

“Just some photography, a little bit of writing. We weren’t sure where we were going with it. And eventually, over time, we sort of arrived at this idea to write a novel,” he says.

Their upcoming novel, titled Cruise, is still in the works, but they plan to release it in the next year or two. There’s no photography in that book, but will be a story of growing up in the North.  Motion will introduce the reader to the photographers, their photographic storytelling, and set the stage for the world of their novel Cruise.

“Through those images and through text it will just discuss that scenery, the sort of energy of the land and our experiences in it,” he says.

At first, when they started writing about their experiences, they considered the title of Northwest, which was going to be a set of volumes with different concepts. Then the title, Cruise came to them kind of serendipitously.

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“Sometimes life gets you down,” Koidhis says. “And just driving around with people that are close to you, and going out to some of these places, we’d get out of the car and walk. And just having that atmosphere of closeness and feeling of safety was always very therapeutic. And it always felt like we were going somewhere, we were moving towards something…We’d always call or text each other, or MSN messenger at the time like, ‘Hey you wanna cruise?”

Going for cruises is part of the culture in the smaller communities and it’s a way to meet people too, Johnston explains.

“We didn’t really have a place to hang out except on the land or down at the rocks or whatever,” he says.

“And when we came of age to drive, what we found was that a lot of our experience was guided by this vessel of the cruise and the philosophies that we had and the introspection into ourselves came a lot through cruising.”

In the foreword for Cruise, Koidhis writes about some of the adversities and blessings that come with growing up in the North.

“There are some social and cultural issues that are uniquely northern, and there’s a lot of history to that, and I’m not sure how much we’ll go into that history,” he says.

“But we will sort of go its ramifications and our experiences based on that, living up here, growing up here. There are adversities like social and mental health issues here, there are everywhere obviously. But substance abuse and suicide is very ripe in the North, I find and have found.”

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Some of the challenges come from the isolation end of the road communities experience and the attitudes that accompany that, Johnston says.

“We’ve been here for 25, 30 years, so we’ve experienced and seen a lot of it first hand,” he says.

“And I think growing up here, a lot of youth have a lot of challenges. We certainly did, and we’d like to come out and talk about that stuff.”

Johnston attended university in southern Alberta and says one of the noticeable differences is how connected the smaller communities down south are.

“Even in a highway town, a small community, growing up there you’re more interconnected and that has a lot of influence on how you grow up within Canada,” he says. “The rest of Canada is very connected, but the North is very isolated.

Their upcoming novel, Cruise will touch on some of that, as well as coming of age and growing up in the territories.

“The blessings are a little easier to tack down,” says Koidhis.

“We have this land – this land has been our muse in so many ways. We just love and respect it so much, and it keeps bringing us back. The rapids, the skies, the boreal – there’s so much here. So much content and wildlife.”

Johnston agrees, their relationship with the land has greatly influenced them and their work.

“We’ve got a strong spiritual connection to the land around here, especially the river,” he says.

The Rapids of the Drowned in Fort Smith, NWT. Photo courtesy of Karl Johnston & Thomas Koidhis Photography.

Another name for the community of Fort Smith is ‘Thebacha,’ a Chipewyan word meaning “in the shelter of the rapids.”

“The river is the lifeblood of the people and the land of this region,” says Johnston.

“When you put your hand against the rocks bordering the rapids, you can feel the heartbeat of the land, and it’s something that has really moved us growing up and has stayed with us no matter where we go.”

In terms of a specific message, or theme of their books, Motion will be lighter reading, sharing the anecdotes behind the photos, whereas Cruise has the deeper message and philosophy, he says.

“Our philosophy is really built on our experience and being conscious of the world around us, in the North and within this town and this region,” Johnston says.

“But wherever possible, helping people form their own relationship with what they value in nature and maybe communicating this respect and preservation,” Koidhis says. “But everyone connects with things in their own way.”

Motion is mostly about their personal experience and how their identities have been shaped by the land around them, Johnston explains.

“The land here really takes you and grabs ahold of you,” Koidhis says.

He’s had friends move away from the town because of issues, like substance abuse. But when they come back to visit, they don’t want to go out into town, he says.

“They want to go out on the land…these places have become as comfortable as our living room and we love them.”

Koidhis recounts being moved to tears the first time he went down to the rapids after returning from two years living in B.C.

“It just came out because we have such a love for these places, ” he says.

That kind of emotion is something you have to be there to experience, Johnston says.

“I’ve travelled around a lot, I just used to cruise. Like in Alberta I would visit different towns, in B.C., Saskatchewan, I’ve been to Ontario and Quebec, I’ve been overseas, and there’s no place that offers the kind of experience that you really experience in the regions of the North.”

Small northern communities like Fort Smith are really the core of the territory, and each have their own unique character, he says.

“There’s a lot of spirit in each of the communities of the North, and this is just a couple stories about one of them,” Johnston says.

“Imagine all the other 33 plus communities out there that have other stories to tell as well.”

“Just a little thread in the bigger history,” says Koidhis.

Motion will be available for sale on their website, once it is complete and released sometime in mid-September.

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