Two years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to recount the tragic story of the sinking of the Solway Harvester, in January 2000. Many on the Isle of Man knew the background to the disaster, but few, it seemed, had any real notion as to the human cost of the tragedy. The final exhibition, which ran for several weeks, proved to be a powerful reminder of an event that still remains the worst maritime disaster in Manx Waters. Reducing grown men to tears and even eliciting a quivering lip from a passing BBC journalist, the project tested mine and Phil’s relationship to the limit. It was a journey that I don’t think either of us were really considering undertaking again. But time, as they say, is a great healer. And so, two years on, here we are again, about to embark on an even more testing journey, this time to the wilds of northern Canada!
As with most journeys, this one started simply enough. A casual remark, a few scrawled notes on the back of an envelope and suddenly we were bound for the northern shores of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. The subject of this latest collaboration is the city of Yellowknife, the capital and pretty much only city in the territory. Lying some 500 kilometres to the south of the Arctic Circle and over 1500 kilometres from the next city of any real size (Edmonton in neighbouring Alberta), Yellowknife is home to around 20,000 hardy souls, a population which, remarkably, constitutes about 50% of the entire population of the Northwest Territories! This is a city very much on the edge…It was perfect.
Lying along the Canadian Shelf, surrounded by small lakes and forests of pine and birch, the city enjoys a reputation for eccentricity that only added to its appeal. The traditional homeland of the Yellowknives Dene, one of Canada’s First Nations people, the community today is an eclectic mix of characters and contrasts, with Mounties and miners sharing the lakeshore with truckers, huskies and, apparently, the largest collection of ravens in North America. Even its streets warrant more than a passing glance. ‘Ragged Ass Road’, one of the city’s most famous thoroughfares, made the cover of a Tom Cochrane album, whilst the ice roads that lead north out of Yellowknife, towards the diamond mines beyond the Arctic Circle, are amongst the longest and most famous in the world. The more we learned about this place, the more we liked it!
Yellowknife today is the self-styled ‘Diamond Capital of North America’, but it began life as a gold mining town back in the late 1890s, when prospectors on their way to the rich seams in the Klondike staked claims along the shores of Yellowknife Bay. Back then though the settlement was too remote even for gold-hungry prospectors and it wasn’t until the 1930s that any serious mining took place. As the gold began to run out the city’s prospects then took another turn for the better, when the discovery of diamonds at Point Lake in 1991 started the largest staking rush in Canadian history. This is a city whose pedigree and character is constantly evolving, being forged by the very landscapes that surround it. This is also a place that consistently refuses to lie down and take it easy and, after the intensity of the Solway Harvester project, this was just what we needed to reenergise our collaborative endeavours.
One of the greatest explorers of the last century, H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman was once asked his advice on how to have an adventure. His reply was as succinct as it was simple: “Put on a good pair of boots and walk out the door”. Time constraints, alas, dictate that Phil and I have had to be a little more focused in our travel plans, but our philosophy once we get there still remains refreshingly uncluttered. How can you plan an agenda around a city that doesn’t actually seem to know what it is doing from one day to the next! The ultimate aim is to produce a series of photographs and stories that perfectly encapsulate ‘life on the edge’, documenting a way of life that, even in today’s social media obsessed world, still exists on the fringes of human habitation.
If nothing else, this promises to be interesting…
…To be continued.
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