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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Pictures of the past

BY Xavier Kataquapit Apr 23, 2021

One of few benefits of social media is the sharing of old photographs from the past. Recently, I’ve come across several black-and-white photos that highlight my home community of Attawapiskat from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I remember seeing some hard copies of these old photos when I was a boy. I recall my parents and my aunts and uncles commenting on these old images in our family gatherings and doing their best to remember the names of the people pictured. 

I’ve always had an interest in Mee-see-naw-pees-kee-eh-kan, the Cree word for camera. I enjoy the way a photograph preserves a moment of the past to show future generations what life looked like back then. 

My parents Marius and Susan did their best to preserve a record of our family history and my family still has a collection of photos of our past. They did their best to keep some sort of camera around the house, but the difficulty was in getting those images in print. There were several steps involved. The camera had to be in good working order, you needed to have a roll of film handy, and after taking pictures, someone had to send them south to be processed with the hope the photos wouldn’t be lost in the mail on their return. All those steps meant that getting any images at all was a big deal. 

It got a little easier in the 1980s when disposable cameras became available. But even then, there was nowhere to process a roll of film in the North. Even though we took many pictures most of them never came to be because they were never sent out to be developed. 

When I travelled to Toronto on my Grade 8 school trip in 1988, mom and dad gave me money to purchase disposable cameras. As a naive 13-year-old, I bought a dozen cameras and snapped pictures of everything. Then I brought the used cameras back North without realizing I could have developed them while I was away. Mom had to randomly select some film rolls for development as the cost was too great to do them all.  

In the 1990s, photography got even easier as more people were moving back and forth between the city and Attawapiskat, so there was always someone we could count on to drop off films and then bring them back. In the 1980s and 1990s, many of us discovered Polaroid cameras. It was like magic for us to take a photo and instantly have it appear in our hands.  

When I started working in media in the late 1990s, I purchased a 35mm film camera. I had to learn about lighting, ISO, aperture and shutter speeds. Once I shot photos, I still had to visit Royal Studio in Timmins to have my film developed. Every picture was precious to me because of the amount of work and care it required. 

When it came to media printing, this was a science that I left to the professionals who manually cropped, processed, treated and scanned my best pictures before embedding them in the layout for a magazine, newsletter or newspaper. 

I felt like I had entered the space age with my first digital camera, a two-megapixel Fujifilm. I still had to limit my photography as it only had an eight-megabyte memory card. Soon after, I graduated to a three-megapixel camera and then a ground-breaking 10-megapixel Olympus Digital SLR camera in 2006. 

Today, much has changed in terms of memory capture and storage. My Nikon camera and my latest Android smartphone camera dwarfs anything I used in the past. My digital library has grown to thousands of images stored on multiple hard drives over several terabytes. 

I now snap as many pictures as I desire. The problem these days is in taking the time to review and observe the images I’ve captured, which are stored in a hidden digital world, instead of in visible, physical form. Sometimes I miss the old days when a visit to someone’s home often ended up sitting around looking at family albums. 

As much as I enjoy new technology, I am still amazed when I discover an old and faded black-and-white image online of my community and the life and people it captured from so long ago. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.