‘It’s amazing to me’: Meet the Inuk elder in this photo shared around the world

by - 3 min read

‘It’s amazing to me’: Meet the Inuk elder in this photo shared around the world

by - 3 min read

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Helen Konek enters her igloo, walking down the steps carved from ice. The 17-year-old stares ahead into the camera. She’s framed by the entrance, the Arctic sun shines through the opening in the door.

That moment — frozen in time in February 1949 near Arviat, Nunavut — is spreading across the internet after her grandson, CBC’s Jordan Konek, posted it on Twitter. It took just a few days for it to be shared thousands of times by people around the world.

Helen is 87 now and lives in the elders’ care home in Arviat. But she still remembers the photographer and his project two generations ago.

“I remember it very clearly,” said Helen Konek in Inuktitut. “He followed me everywhere I went … everywhere I went he was right there. We would wander around and just take many photos all the time.”

Today, Helen Konek lives in the elders’ home in Arviat, but maintains deep connections with her grandchildren. Here she is visiting with Jordan’s partner Angel, and their son Isaiah. (Submitted by Jordan Konek ) 

Richard Harrington, a freelance photographer who had an interest in the North, took the photos of Helen while travelling in the Arctic in 1949. He made six trips to the North in the middle of the 20th century as many Inuit transitioned from life on the land to life in permanent communities.

The Canadian Encyclopediadescribes his Arctic series in the 1940s as “probably his best known and most moving photo essay.” His work was purchased by Canada’s National Archives, the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

Helen says she’s happy her photo continues to resonate with people, 70 years later. It’s the second time Jordan’s shared her photo on social media and it’s gone viral, though he made a mistake with her age, saying she was 27 when in fact, she was 17 at the time of the photo. 

“Oh my! I am so happy. That is amazing!” she said. “There were so many others [Harrington] took photos of during our very hard times. But this … photo of me is being noticed. It’s amazing to me.”

Helen has a deep connection with Jordan, who spent a lot of time with her growing up in Arviat. 

“She’s one of those people who likes to get the work done, but she also cares so much about her grandchildren and her family,” said Jordan, who is a journalist for CBC North in Iqaluit.

Oh my! I am so happy. That is amazing!– Helen Konek

“I always looked up to [my grandparents] and how they raised us and told us a lot of different things,” he said. “To be hard working, being nice to people, all the things grandparents do. They were always the people we look up to.

“In the Inuit culture we are always told to respect our elders and that’s partly why I spent a lot of time with them.”

Helen Konek was 17 when photographer Richard Harrington visited Arviat in 1949. Now, she’s 87 and says she’s amazed the photos continue to resonate with people 70 years later. (Richard Harrington/Library and Archives Canada / submitted by Jordan Konek ) 

Traditional Inuit life on film

When Jordan looks at that photo today, he sees traditional Inuit life before his eyes.

“They’ve told me so many stories about being out on the land and trying to survive,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to see what it’s like out there … it’s something I’d really love to see.”

That photo, of a strong, confident Inuk woman, shows people outside the North a positive image of people in Nunavut, Jordan explained, and it’s why he wanted to tweet it in the first place.

“I’m glad the image went viral, because even up to today, Canadians don’t know where Nunavut is. They don’t know who Inuit are,” he said.

“It’s important for Canadians to know that Inuit are here, that we are part of Canada.”

Helen Konek retained a deep connection to Inuit values and passed them on to her family, including her grandson Jordan. (Richard Harrington / Library and Archives Canada / submitted by Jordan Konek ) 

This story originally appeared on CBC

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