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Vuntut Gwitchin Elders snapshot in time

Yukon photographer Mark Kelly has been busy shooting portraits of Elders as they want to be seen.

80 year old Ben Charlie gets his photo taken (photo by CHONfm/Dylan MacNeil).

Award winning photographer Mark Kelly has spent the last two days with his Fujifilm medium format camera in hand at Northlight Innovation in downtown Whitehorse capturing portraits of Vuntut Gwitchin Elders.


Kelly has done work in the Vuntut Gwitchin traditional territory of Old Crow off and on for the past 20 years and has often found himself in the community hall. It was there he found inspiration for the project. The walls were adorned by professional eight by ten black and white portraits of Elders in the community who lived most of their lives on the land. Kelly said the photos have to be decades old; he got an eighties feel from them.


Shooting new portraits for Elders is a project Kelly has wanted to do for a long time.


“I think it was about ten years ago, I asked if I could do it and Megan, the manager over at VGG heritage, I don’t know if she tucked it away or not but I got a call almost ten years later saying, ‘hey, want to do this thing?’,” Kelly told CHONfm after a shoot.


The new portraits are done with minimal lighting. Kelly set up just two pieces of equipment – a high key light and an accent on the hands, giving the photos a lot of contrast and depth, which is amplified by them being in black and white. According to Kelly, hands tell a person’s story.


“Folks who are Elders, they’ve done things, and it usually includes their hands. Hands are worn and soft and wrinkly and they’re beautiful,” said Kelly.


Kelly asked Elders to show up to the studio as they wish to be seen. James Itsi came straight from the woodpile, decked out in his high visibility jacket and Porcupine Caribou Management Board touque. CHONfm’s own Ben Charlie, came from the radio station after his show “Vuntat Njiik Nakaii,” dressed in his light black coat and blue polo. The legendary Yukoner is no stranger to being in front of the camera, he recently did a photoshoot for a magazine article and he used to be a television host for Northern Native Broadcasting Yukon.


“That’s good!” Charlie said when Kelly showed him his portrait.

Mary Jane Moses (photo submitted by Mark Kelly).

Kelly spent a week in Old Crow last month photographing about 20 of the Elders who live there. He said between Old Crow and Whitehorse there are still about 25 Elders he wants to shoot portraits for.


“I feel pretty honoured to be asked. A lot of these folks that are getting their photos done, I’ve known for a long time and it’s really lovely to reconnect in this way,” said Kelly.


“We’re adding to the documented history of the community. It’s a snapshot in time,” he added.

James Itsi came straight from the woodpile, decked out in his high visibility jacket and Porcupine Caribou Management Board touque (photo submitted by Mark Kelly).

The portraits now need a little bit of post processing and then they will be hung on the walls of the new Old Crow Community Centre when the Elder passes. They will join the old photos that inspired the project, which are currently in Whitehorse being scanned so they can be touched up and restored.

Portraits will adorn the walls of the new Old Crow Community Cerntre (photo from

The new community centre received $15 million in funding in 2019. Construction was completed earlier this year on the 913-square meter facility which includes a commercial kitchen, administrative offices, an Elder’s Hall, game’s room, meeting spaces, and more.

Andrew Charlie and Shirley Kafkwi pose for a portrait (photo submitted by Mark Kelly).

Kelly hopes the endeavor can continue and more Elder portraits can be taken as generations age. On his most recent trip to Old Crow, Kelly put on some photography workshops with locals so they are able to take the reins from him some day.


Published December 10, 2021. 

Written by: Joe Author

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