Inuk photographer Robert Kautuk’s images offer a glimpse into his world as seen through his eyes—a portal transporting landscapes, skies, perspectives, traditions and ways of life to the forefront.
Based in Kangiqtugaapik (Clyde River), NU, Kautuk became interested in photography as a child by taking pictures with disposable film. Since then, his passion for capturing moments in time has only continued to grow, evolving into taking photographs with an SLR digital camera and drones.
In this 5 Works, Kautuk explains the meaning behind some of his most striking captures of the sky, sea, ice and land.
Robert Kautuk Light Within (2020) Photograph on archival paper 53.34 × 90.8 cm © THE ARTIST
The sheer expanse of the night sky captured in Kautuk’s photograph Light Within (2020) is enough to stop you in your tracks. There is a sense of solace, peace and awe evoked in this image, illustrating just how vast the night sky is and how small we really are. There are more stars than can be counted, dotted across the black canvas, drawing the eye up and away from the lone figure standing on the stark white ice below. That figure is Kautuk himself, the photograph showing his love for the beautiful night skies visible in his hometown. “It's a self-portrait of myself,” says Kautuk. “You can see the Milky Way [and the] Northern Lights in the bottom.” 
The picture was taken during a dark period, in the winter, and Kautuk was outside in -50°C weather to snap this moment. Photographs of the night sky, such as this one, are a favourite of Kautuk’s, especially if they involve the northern lights. “I really like shooting the northern lights, because it’s dark and so it takes planning, which I enjoy doing,” says Kautuk. “When I step out the door, I see the lights and then I almost always have my gear ready to just head out.” 
Robert Kautuk Sikut (different layers of ice) (2018) Drone image on lightbox 68.26 × 117.79 × 13.1 cm © THE ARTIST
Sikut (different layers of ice)
Many of Kautuk’s works capture his homeland and other areas of Inuit Nunangat from above using drones. His photographs of ice at various stages of freezing are particularly captivating. In Sikut (different layers of ice) (2018), shades ranging from white to slate grey illustrate the varied layers of ice and their simple beauty. These are “different formations of ice, like young ice,” says Kautuk. “We call [young ice] grey ice.” 
This layering of ice is not only visually alluring, but plays an important role in the movement of Inuit across the land. This photograph was taken during a polar bear hunt—looking closely at the image reveals Ski-Doo tracks in the icy snow. “On this day, we were near the water flow edge,” says Kautuk. “It is almost too thin to work on, so we dragged [the polar bear] up further, where the ice is thicker.” 
Robert Kautuk Kangiqtugaapik (2019) Drone image on archival paper 53.34 × 90.8 cm © THE ARTIST
Kautuk loves his community and uses his photography to share the beauty of the lands that surround him. In this photograph, Kangiqtugaapik (2019), Kautuk captures the sun peeking over the mountainous horizon with his homelands situated in the foreground. The peachy pink sky gives the mountain range and the frigid lands below an almost purple-blue colour, creating a pleasant contrast between these two complementary hues.
On the left of the photo is the freshwater river for which the community gets its name, Clyde River, which runs into the Davis Straight, which is saltwater. “That’s why there’s ice forming on the river and no ice [farther out],” says Kautuk. “They freeze at different temperatures.” 
Robert Kautuk Spring Ice Break Up (2019) Digital photograph © THE ARTIST
Spring Ice Break Up
The coming together of water and ice, almost as if in a dance, also appears in Kautuk’s Spring Ice Break Up (2019). Kautuk uses his work to bring attention to the importance of water and ice for Inuit, and the real implications that climate change and environmental destruction can and will have on Inuit and their lifeways.
Kautuk captured this moment during the springtime, when the ice begins to melt, bringing a shift in mobility and way of transportation for Inuit. The variety of colours, from white and grey to teal and evergreen, create an aesthetically pleasing pattern that shows the wide range of states that water can be in—states that must be acknowledged and respected. “A lot of times, where there's a river that runs into the ocean, [ice] opens up that way,” says Kautuk of the dangers of ice changes. “Away from the river, you can travel around that open area [of ice].” 
This photograph also represents a major step for Kautuk in his career, as it is currently on display as a mural on the outside of OCAD’s Onsite Gallery in Toronto, ON, as part of their Up Front series in partnership with the Inuit Art Foundation.
Robert Kautuk After Cutting Up Two Walruses, Iglulik (2016) Digital photograph © THE ARTIST
After Cutting Up Two Walruses, Iglulik
Kautuk aims to capture and celebrate Inuit cultural traditions and knowledge in his photography, emphasizing the importance of Inuit ways of life. His photograph After Cutting Up Two Walruses, Iglulik (2016) won him Best News Photo and the Outstanding Photojournalism Award at the 2017 Quebec Community Newspaper Association Awards. The image shows the aftermath of a walrus hunt—for the culture school Piqqusilirivvik—that took place in an area that is a three-hour boat ride away from Iglulik, NU. “I was invited as one of the photographers,” says Kautuk. “I took [this photograph] after we butchered the two walruses and we were ready to pack it into the boat.”
Through this photograph, Kautuk is able to take something that isn’t readily understood or accepted by southerners and shed a light on its importance. The crimson red weaves across the white ice floe, tracing the lines of movement that have happened moments before. There is a sense of orderliness, balance and peace in this image, speaking to the way Inuit honour the lives of the animals who give themselves as sustenance for the community.
 Robert Kautuk, interview with Rebecca Basciano, November 22, 2021
 Robert Kautuk, interview with John Geoghegan, November 7, 2019
 Robert Kautuk, November 22, 2021