Angela Gzowski is an award-winning Northern photographer. Born and raised in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Angela earned a BFA in photography from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
Equally at home doing portraits in her Yellowknife studio as she is bouncing on the back of a snowmobile at -40 in Canada’s Far North, her photojournalism has taken her all across the NWT, Nunavut, and Yukon. Her stunning landscapes and evocative portraits have appeared in Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, Maclean’s, VICE, Maisonneuve, Up Here, MoneySense, Photo Life, and the Coast.
What ignited your interest in photography?
My late father came to Yellowknife in the 1970s, where he started Arctic Divers, a commercial diving business. They worked all across the Canadian Arctic doing underwater diving and welding, mainly underneath the ice. A lot of his work entailed videography and photography, and he always had a passion for photography, even outside of the diving world. We had cameras around the house ever since I can remember, and I guess I just sort of picked it up by osmosis.
Whose work has influenced you most?
It’s always hard to just choose one artist who has influenced me, because artists have helped shape my work in different and specific ways. Off the top of my head, Joey L. is a major one. His travel portraits blow my mind, and his use of light is incredible. I love the lighting and the humour in John Keatley’s work. Irving Penn is the studio and portrait master. Brian Adams is also a favourite, especially the work from his I Am Inuit series.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
I hid behind my camera, thinking more about the technical aspects than the story or person I was shooting. I didn’t engage enough and ask questions. Connecting with your subject or story is so important, and when I started to be more present, it drastically changed my work, and also who I am as a person. I’m always learning, and my work evolves and changes with me.
You have travelled across the North to capture people and places. Is there a specific story that sticks with you?
One story that sticks out is my trip to Inuvik, NWT, in 2016. After a stopover in town, I met up with local reindeer herder Lawrence Amos, and we snowmobiled out to visit the 3,000+ herd he manages. Our plan was to harvest one of the animals.
I grew up in the North, so I consider my tolerance of cold conditions pretty high, but the hour-and-a-half ride out there happened to fall on the coldest day of my visit. It must’ve been about -40 degrees Celsius, and I was sitting on the back of the sled with my knees sticking out and nothing to shield them. I felt like there were knives repeatedly stabbing my limbs; I have never been that cold.
As well, I’d recently broken my wrist while playing soccer and had a cast on my right arm. I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity so I was trying to hide it from him. Eventually Lawrence caught on, laughed when he saw my cast, and lent me his polar bear mittens halfway through the long trip.
When we finally arrived, it was pretty magical. There was a lot of fog. (Lawrence told me this was a new thing, which he figured was the result of climate change.) It was so beautiful seeing this huge group of majestic reindeer roaming among the frost-covered trees. It was dead quiet, except when Lawrence would whistle at the herd to get their attention.
While I was changing my lens, I heard a shot. Lawrence had seen the reindeer he wanted. The strange part was that the reindeer herd didn’t really react when he fired his rifle. They didn’t even move, really. They just kept on doing what they were doing as though nothing had happened. The first thing he did was to drain the blood. Then he showed me step by step how to butcher it. While the journey out was nearly unbearable, the experience as a whole was a magical one and will stick with me for a long time.
For your portraits, what do you seek to capture in your subjects?
One thing people notice when they see me shooting in person is that I shoot very close to my subjects, normally with a 35 mm lens. I hate being far away from the person; I want to engage and get to know them. It’s difficult to connect with the subject in the same way when there’s physical distance between you. I try hard to create that connection and capture the intimate moments I share with my subjects through my portraiture.
Among your works and series, which one is your favourite? Why?
One project that really sticks out for me is the work I did for Canadian Geographic on the recently created Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve. The Sahtuto’ine Dene of Déline created the Tsá Tué Biosphere Reserve, the world’s first such UNESCO site managed by an Indigenous community, and Canadian Geographic sent me and author and journalist Laurie Sarkadi to document its creation.
I had been to Déline a couple of times before this project, but this was the longest I’d spent in the community. We were there for a week, working and getting to know everyone. I spent a lot of time boating and fishing on Great Bear Lake, and I can still remember how clear the water was. You can literally see the fish swimming near and around the boat!
Here in the North we have unlimited light in the summers, so you’re really able to put your camera down and get to know people, slowly building trust before shooting what you’re ultimately there to capture.
I also really loved shooting my Peru Portraits series — a portraiture collection I shot while travelling throughout that beautiful country in 2018. This was purely a personal artistic project, which I think is so important for full-time commercial and editorial photographers to do for themselves. The process on this project was very different from the one I just described in Déline. These images were captured during very brief encounters with people by way of a translator. Even though I wasn’t able to spend a long time with each of my subjects, and the language gap made communication tricky, I do feel the portraits show their personalities and energy.
Are you involved in any social initiatives that you would like to tell us about?
If you’ve ever spent time here in Northern Canada, you’ve probably seen some form of traditional Dene and Inuit games. There are hundreds of these, created by the Indigenous people of the North as a means of survival, for recreation, and as competitions to see who was the strongest. Aboriginal Sports Circle is an Indigenous sports and culture organization that promotes and teaches these games across the Territories. Over the past five years I have helped ASCNWT on a number of initiatives and events, working closely with them to build their profile and document each sport in detail for future generations. In addition to this work, I also donate prints every year to help raise money for the organization. While I was always more of an artistic kid than a star athlete, I think it’s really important to give students as much opportunity as possible, whether on the sports pitch, classroom, or in the studio.
I’m also closely involved with Skills NWT and Skills Canada. I photograph their events and competitions, but also teach and judge photography during the territorial and national competitions. Skills Canada is a Canadian non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of careers in technology and skilled trades. Here in the NWT we teach and prepare high school students for territorial and national competitions. A lot of smaller communities in the NWT don’t have the access to resources to share this knowledge with students, so it’s very important that they get a chance to come to these events to learn from other like-minded people. This really hits home for me, as someone who was always more comfortable with a camera or drill in my hand than with my head buried in a biology textbook. I want to help these young people realize that these trades and careers are just as important as their academic counterparts.
What three Instagram accounts inspire you?
Joey L. is a Canadian portrait photographer. If you’re obsessed with light, this is your guy.
I would also recommend checking out the “Dudes with Cameras” video series he put together on his website from his travels around the world.
Women Photograph – Showcases women photojournalists around the world.
Brian is based in Anchorage, Alaska, and specializes in environmental portraiture. While I love his social media presence, I also have his I Am Inuit book on my coffee table at home!
Where to find Angela: