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If you read The New York Times, you’ve likely come across his name in a photo credit or two. Ed Ou, a Canadian photojournalist just shy of 30, continues to capture front page shots and more for the publication, and has been awarded for some of them — including first prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category at the World Press Photo Contest and the City of Perpignan Young Reporter’s Award. He is supported by Reportage by Getty Images. Adam Gamble caught up with him after photographing the after effects of the Feb. 14 Copenhagen shooting to talk about how he became a photojournalist, and a project he did closer to home about Inuit in Nunavut, Canada, which was published in TIME magazine.


Adam Gamble: As a teenager you started your career covering the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the fall of the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu, Somalia while you were a student. Since then you’ve also worked in the former Soviet Union, the Americas, and now you’re in Copenhagen. How did you end up where you are today, working as a photojournalist?


Ed Ou: Basically, I was an Arabic student. I didn’t study journalism, but I studied international politics with a focus on the Middle East. While I was studying in Jordan and Beirut, the war happened. It was in the midst of a lot of things that happened. The Danish cartoons came out, there was a Jordan bombing. I guess I caught the Middle East at a particularly busy time for news, and so I guess I kind of just started shooting.


AG:With your background of mainly working on the other side of the world, how did you end up spending four months in 2013 documenting the lives of the Inuit in Nunavut, a project you titled “The North”?


EO: I’ve been working in the Middle East for a long time now, almost a decade. I don’t want to say I got sick of it, but I just realized that I’m Canadian and I know nothing about so many parts of Canada. After a particularly troubling time covering Egypt, I decided I wanted to do something a little more peaceful and a bit less dangerous. I really just had always wondered what’s up in the north, and so kind of on a whim I bought a ticket to go to Iqaluit, and rented a house for a few months and started to find stories. The stories just came to me, and within a while you just get a grasp on a region — and it’s really fascinating. There’s a lot of really interesting stories, but also a lot of tragic, social issues as a result of post-colonialism. I grew up in Vancouver and we’re simply not taught these things. I’ve been working mostly abroad for most of my career, and when you’re working in Egypt or Syria or wherever, you don’t have a say in the things that you do. You’re not from there, and what can you really change? But what I realized in being Canadian, we have almost a responsibility to show social issues in Canada, because this is the place that we can actually change public policy, and change the politics of how things are. I just realize this is the one place I can be a responsible citizen and actually make a real change.


AG: Was your goal for this project to make that change?


EO: The goal first off, for most Canadians and people abroad, is to show what Inuit life is like. That was goal number one, because most people see Canada and the north as a blank on a map. Their perceptions are Eskimos and igloos, and that’s about it. I think the first goal is to show that this is a place where people are coming through immense changes, where literally two generations ago people lived out on the land—they lived, they grew up hunting and in a subsistence nomadic lifestyle, and their world has changed so much in two generations.More importantly, there’s a lot of issues in the north that people don’t think about. Nunavut, every city there is completely cut off from the rest of Canada — there’s no roads leading up there. As a result, everything needs to be flown in, from milk to diapers, to literally everything. It is one of the most expensive places in Canada, and the world, to live. When I was living there, you’d spend fifteen dollars on a carton of milk, and you would spend like twenty dollars on a hot dog, and I think people don’t really know how difficult it is for the Inuit because of the residential school experience. People don’t connect that traumatic experience to the highest suicide rate in Canada or issues of alcohol and domestic abuse.  They don’t connect the fact that all the issues the Inuit face are as a result of 100 years of subjugation at the hands of Canadian colonials.


AG: Would you say you accomplished these goals?


EO: I don’t know. It’s really hard to tell. On one hand, it’s really difficult because if you’re doing journalism right, you’re showing a lot of truth, and the bottom line is there are a lot of things in the north that are issues — like alcoholism is a really big issue, domestic abuse and sexual abuse is a really big issue.But again, I try to explain to people this comes from a century of colonial trauma, so it’s really hard because in order to show the issues the truth hurts sometimes. A lot of the Inuit have criticized the work I have been doing. On one hand, I’m perpetuating a lot of the stereotypes, but on the other hand I’m trying to show the context behind it. One big issue I’ve been looking at is the ability hunt specifically polar bear and whale, and seal. The thing people don’t know is that organizations like Greenpeace or Sea Shepherd or World Wildlife Fund, they have a vested interest in saving polar bears, saving seals — and seals are not endangered in any shape or form — then Inuit have been hunting them, and surviving off them for thousands of years. These environmental groups will go up there and try to demonize what they’re doing. It’s like neocolonialism under the guise of environmentalism, which I think is so unfair. The Inuit have been told what to do for almost 100 years. They were told not to speak Inuktitut, they were told not to practice shamanism, they were told all these things to be ashamed of their culture. While we now come to terms with how unfair that is, at the same time, Greenpeace is saying how the Inuit should feel. It’s ironic because people in Toronto or Vancouver or Saskatchewan, they don’t see how that can be construed as neocolonialism. In that way, I don’t know if I’m succeeding, but I’d like to think that I’m trying.


AG: What was the most challenging part of capturing the lives of the Inuit over those four months you were there?


EO: The thing is, in the north, there are hotels, but you really don’t want to stay in them. In order to do your job as a photojournalist you want to embed yourself with the culture that you photograph. For me, I go out of my way, anywhere I work, not to stay in hotels. I try to live with the people I photograph. The challenging thing is when you live in people’s home, you literally become a part of the story, and you become a part of people’s existence. It’s really hard, especially living in Rankin Inlet or Iqaluit, or wherever you’re living in Nunavut. A lot of the issues that people face like the high cost of living, poverty, alcoholism, all these things you are seeing first person, and it’s really tough because in order to capture it right, you literally need to be right in the middle of it. A lot of times, you just get in these really, really ethically ambiguous situations where people will ask you for money, you’ll witness crimes, you’ll be a witness to date rape, and you’re then thinking, ‘Do I call the cops? Do I do something about this?’ At the same time, there’s been such a long history of tension between the Inuit and the police that to call the cops would be such a betrayal of trust. What’s the line between being a responsible citizen and meddling in a story too much where people trust you to show their lives and then you betray that trust? It’s really, really difficult. But at the same time, I’d like to think I would rather have to deal with those issues, than stay at a hotel and not be embedded with the culture, and not have to deal with it.


AG: What did you do that enabled you to immerse yourself within those five communities, photographing polar bear hunts and butcherings, and even going inside people’s personal lives, for example?


EO: You just have to be a person. You make friends and you connect with people. There’s no rules to this. You go to people homes, and you tell people what you want to do, and you connect. That’s it. There isn’t much more you can do but put in the time. If you’re going to be a photojournalist that should be the standard in which you look at things — literally immersing yourself. Once you start getting work, you don’t get sent on assignments to cover ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ ‘Z.’ The ideal is, what’s the point of going to a place and staying in a hotel, when you should be immersing yourself into the daily life of people? I really believe in that. Even when I’m on assignment, and I’m not paying for hotels, and it’s not my money, I still go out of my way to never stay in hotels. If you’re being sent somewhere to document culture, then you have a responsibility to immerse yourself in that culture so you can speak relatively authoritatively about it.  


AG: The photo you took of Kelly Amaujaq Fraser from Iqaluit is very intimate, and came after a conversation about her past. How did you work your way up to talking about her past, which led to this photo of her?


EO: With someone like Kelly, we’re really good friends, so we’re very, very close. We became very close because I spent a lot of time with her photographing her, but also being a friend. For me, when I am photographing, it’s not like, ‘Well, I’m working.’ In my mind, I’m hanging out with a friend. We were just talking and things came up very organically and that was it. It wasn’t an interview. A lot of time, I’ll explain to people what I’m doing from the very beginning. Once we have that conversation, essentially the fact that I’m a journalist basically disappears and we just become friends.


AG: What are the pros and cons of immersing yourself within communities for four months?


EO: The pros are you get to immerse yourself within a community for four months and see exactly how life works, and the interactions and stuff like that. The cons are you have to deal with many sticky, ethical issues like getting too close and being too embedded into people’s lives. At the same time, I don’t think that’s a con. You should have these issues, because if you don’t, then you’re not getting close enough.


AG: According to TIME magazine, given the isolation of the communities you went to, you helped offset the high costs of embedding with the Inuit by contributing money for groceries, heating, Internet and other things. Do you always do this?


EO: Not necessarily. It really depends on the situation. In the north, I did because if you didn’t do that, you would essentially be exploiting people, and that’s pretty unfair. In Nunavut, I have no problem doing that. When a carton of milk cost fifteen dollars, it would be wrong to not help offset costs. That said, that’s very specific cases in the north. If I’m working in Iraq, or Israel, or Palestine or Egypt, and it’s a very contentious issue of conflict, that’s something that I will absolutely never do. I work a lot, for example, in Israel and Palestine, and if there’s ever any perception that we’re paying people for access, or we’re helping people, that would jeopardize, literally, the foundations for what we do as objective journalists, and that’s something that we can never ever compromise.  


AG: Adding to that, why do you work mainly overseas?


EO: It just so happens that the regions that interest me are the Middle East, Central Asia, parts of Africa. There’s no rhyme or reason as to the places I choose to work. Especially starting out as a journalist, I don’t think you should make this delineation between working domestically and working abroad, because at the end of the day, what we do as journalists is journalism and we tell stories. There are stories to be told five minutes away from where you live in Saskatchewan, and there are stories to be told across the Atlantic. At the same time, when I approach any story I am assigned to do, or that I want to do, I don’t really think to myself, ‘Okay, this is a foreign assignment.’ It’s the ultimate issues that I’m looking at; this is a community and this is the community that I’m photographing. When you are working abroad there are other complications, which are sometimes you don’t speak the language — you have to deal with stuff. But at the same time, the ideal access that we would ever hope for is intimate stories about people in their homes and in their lives, wherever that may be — and it can be in Regina or Jerusalem, or a war zone in Iraq, or Nunavut.


AG: You mentioned you are interested in some regions overseas, so what interests you about the Middle East, for example?


EO: What’s interesting about the Middle East is that it’s a region in constant flux. Working in Israel and Palestine is absolutely fascinating because it captures the passions and the angers and the imaginations of the Muslim world and the Jewish world, and that spans everywhere. Right now, I’m in Copenhagen covering the aftermath of the shooting that just happened two days ago or three days ago. It’s weird because I came from the Middle East and the same undercurrents of tensions are very evident here. On one hand, it’s really unfortunate that the passions and the disagreements of the Middle East can make its way to the most peaceful corner in Europe. We live in a global community where the clothes that you buy, the choice of phone that you buy, the shoes you wear, to the car you drive, the oil you use, and all that stuff, has absolute implications on someone halfway around the world who you’ve never met. This is why I’m interested in this part of the world, because so much of what we do in Canada has an affect on this part of the world, and vice versa.


AG: What advice do you have for aspiring photojournalists?


EO: I think right now, we’re at such an interesting intersection between interconnectedness and a changing of mediums. I would say the key thing is to be open and understand that we are part of this global community now where the things that you do have consequences.  You can do so many stories wherever you go, and technology is at a point that you can basically self-publish and share everything — and if it’s a good enough story, it will be seen. For aspiring journalists, just go out there and find strong stories, whether that’s in your neighborhood or somewhere around the world. It doesn’t make a difference. Just find stories that interest you, because what makes a good journalist isn’t technical skills, it’s more a passion for telling stories and uncover truths. If you’re an aspiring photojournalist, you really have to ask yourself what is something that you are legitimately passionate about, what is something that you are legitimately curious about, that you want to know more about, what’s an issue that you feel strongly about that you want to expose and uncover to the world. Let that be the guide for the stories that you choose to do, because if it’s not, then you will never be as invested as you need to be.

This interview has been condensed.