In Canada’s Arctic North, where temperatures barely get above freezing in the summer, the remote capital of the Nunavut territory is surrounded by little more than snow, sea and tundra.
The only way in and out of Iqaluit is by plane, and one of the only roads that lead away from the city is called Road to Nowhere.
“Everything is so white that on the cloudy days, it’s impossible to distinguish between snow and sky,” said Jerusalem-based photographer Vittoria Mentasti.
Mentasti has been to Iqaluit twice, first in August 2012 and again in the spring of 2013, for her ongoing project “A Woman with Two Names.”
‘“When I decided to go to Nunavut, I didn’t have in mind what I wanted to do or what the focus would have been,” she said. “I was curious to see how life was at the edge of the Western world.”
During her time in Iqaluit, Mentasti befriended a young woman, Asena, who became the central subject of the photographic collection. The title, “A Woman with Two Names,” refers to both Asena and the place she calls home.
Iqaluit was once Frobisher Bay, named after the English explorer Sir Martin Frobisher, who sailed into the bay in search of the Northwest Passage. But in 1987, its residents officially changed the name back to the traditional Inuit name meaning “place of many fish.”
Asena, like 85% of Iqaluit residents, is Inuit. She was adopted as a child and still owns two identity cards with different names. This dual identity is symbolic of the struggle that many Inuit face, Mentasti said.
“The tension between old values and Western civilization’s push to develop makes it difficult for Inuit, especially youth, to assert their own identity and find their place in the world,” she said.
On one hand, the community is deeply committed to the traditions of its Inuit ancestry.
“People have an extraordinary bond to family and to the land,” Mentasti said. “In the past, they had to be together to survive. There isn’t the extreme individualism of the Western world, but rather a feeling of belonging.”
One of the collection’s most striking photographs is a picture of Asena on her 35th birthday after a celebration at her sister’s home turned sour.
“After dinner and some drinks, they had an altercation and a fight,” Mentasti recalled. “Asena and me ran out of the house and hid ourselves behind a container.
“It was dark and I couldn’t see her face, so I took the picture. She was in shock and was bleeding. … The day after, her sister couldn’t remember what happened.”
Mentasti believes Asena’s story is a snapshot of the larger struggle that many of Iqaluit’s people face in their search for identity in the modern world. What she captured was the “chain of relationships that bond them, bringing light to the double aspects of love and violence that they experience.”
Asena has since left Iqaluit for Ottawa, where she went through a treatment program for alcoholism.
Mentasti hopes to return to Iqaluit and continue her project. She also plans to publish the “Woman with Two Names” collection in a book this fall.
- Julie Knaga, CNN