Before last summer, Brittany Shuwera had never been to the North. Growing up in Vita, Man., 100 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, she had listened to her father, who worked for the federal government, tell stories of his travels to places as far away as Resolute, Eureka and Alert, in Nunavut. She had learned about aboriginal traditions from him and admired the bone and stone carvings he brought home. Later, as a geography student at the University of Winnipeg, she also learned about Yellowknife from her adviser Patricia Fitzpatrick, who had lived there for two years. So when Shuwera chose to pursue her undergraduate thesis fieldwork in Yellowknife — funded, in part, by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society — she was fulfilling a lifelong dream of visiting Canada’s North.

During her three-month stay in the Northwest Territories capital last summer, Shuwera explored Yellow knifers’ sense of their city through “participant employed photography,” a method that, she explains, “puts a camera in the hands of participants so that they may photograph elements of their community they feel adequately represent their sense of place.” By asking her new friends to record their emotional attachment to the city in images, she saw Yellowknife through the eyes of its residents.

When she distributed digital cameras to the subjects of her study — residents who were not raised in the North but have lived there for 20 or more consecutive years — “people were mostly concerned about what kinds of pictures they should be taking,” says Shuwera, whose instructions were intentionally vague. Among the 10 participants were a teacher, a writer, artists and a government official, all of whom have witnessed the city’s changing economic landscape over the past two decades.

The results were as varied as they were revealing and included urban scenes, people, animals and landscapes. Shuwera asked the participants to describe what appealed to them about each picture and inquired whether the photos held any symbolic meaning. The only trend, she says, is evident in the many landscape photographs that seem to celebrate “just being able to spend time outside and being so close to nature.”

Shuwera has presented her research at the University of Winnipeg and at the Canadian Association of Geographers’ annual conference and plans to publish it. Afterward, the young geographer intends to live and work in Yellowknife for a year or two, exploring her own deep emotional ties to the North.