Aaron Vincent Elkaim – Fort Mckay: Sleeping with The Devil

Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Fort McKay: Sleeping with The Devil


For thousands of years the Cree and Dene people of the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta have watched, as the tarry sands along their banks oozed into the river and stuck to their feet.

In the 1950s Premier Earnest Manning was devising a plan to detonate an atomic bomb underground, in an attempt to extract these difficult deposits of oil. At that time the Reserve of Fort McKay, situated 63 km North of Fort McMurray, had no roads connecting it to the rest of Canada. They lived from a traditional lifestyle of hunting and trapping, but as 83-year-old elder Zackary Powder says, it’s not like it used to be, everything has changed.



Today the worlds largest and most environmentally destructive oil extraction project, the Alberta Oil Sands, surround them. Where trappers cabins once stood are now toxic lakes of mine tailings, and endless moonscapes that have been stripped of their bitumen-laced sand with electric shovels five stories high.

Aware to the futility of resistance, the people of Fort McKay decided to partner with industry in 1986. Entrepreneurial endeavors, employment and industry compensations have provided economic prosperity the likes of which few Canadian First Nations have experienced. It is said to be the richest reserve in Canada, but the people here know their prosperity is not without consequence. As elder and former Syncrude electrician Norman Simpson says, sometimes you have to sleep with the Devil.

Stories of moose hunts and life in the bush are told with enthusiasm and pride, but, as industry grows, the land succumbs. The rivers and fish are poisoned, their tap water is no longer potable, the animals are keeping their distance, and the quality of wild meat is in question. Cancer, respiratory disease, drug addiction and other illnesses plague the community. In a country where the norm for reserves is high poverty, unemployment and dismal housing, Fort McKay is marketed as a success story, but the people here know the truth is much more complicated.




Aaron Vincent Elkaim (b.1981) is a documentary photographer, whose work has earned international recognition.

Aaron received a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Film Studies in his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada, before he found photography.

Currently based in Toronto, Aaron approaches his subjects through an anthropological lens with a focus on cultural and historical narratives that reflect and inform his own sense of the world. Though born of individual experience, Aaron’s work seeks to provide its audience with new and varied perspectives on the complexities of humanity and its environment.

His work has been exhibited at Fotographia International Photography Festival in Rome, Voices Off Rencontres d’Arles, the NY Photo Festival, and the Reportage Photography Festival in Australia. His Clients include the Globe and Mail, The Canadian Press, and the Wall Street Journal.

Aaron is a founding member of the Boreal Collective.


Related links

Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Boreal Collective


31 Responses to “Aaron Vincent Elkaim – Fort Mckay: Sleeping with The Devil”

  • This essay seems unfocused. The dead animals seem gratuitous, rather than integral. It’s hard to see the photographers statement in the photos. What’s the point?

  • !!!!!!!! :))))

    I LOVE Aaron Vincent Elkaim!

    (ok, he’s a close, personal friend, so I had to get that off my chest!)

    The story:

    This is powerful, lyrical work that is so accomplished on so many levels as documentary reportage and story telling that I am simply caught frozen in my tracks at the absurdity of the first commentators perspective (but, i’ll get to Mr. Powers later).

    To begin with, the pictures themselves are extraordinarily beautiful. Aaron knows how to carriage light and knows exactly the importance of shaping and dream-catching light and color as not only pictorial elements but essential characters that shadow and hilight his story and the people’s lives. He is one of the most lyrical and poetic of the young photographers I know. I’ve seen these pics in the flesh and they’re even more beautiful in front of your eyes. But let’s have alook shall we: that stunning opening pic with the windy relationship between all those variations of red, both natural (sunset, blood, fur, snow) and man-made (chair, bucket, paint, string) that not only heightens the versimilitude of the moment but visceralizes the impact of the actuality of what has happened: the kill for food and fur. And Aaron’s red continues throughout the story, frame after frame, a motif and I may add a very important color to both Cree and Dene communities). This kind of visual, lyrical AND cultural cue is (clearly) beyond the observation of the first commentator (which is unfortunate). There is nothing extraneous in this essay and for those who have the patience to look but also for those who know something about these native communities, the depth of intelligence and research that Aaron has put into this project, uncut the assertion “this essay seems unfocused.”

    Light: notice the heartbreak #5 and #6 (again, the refinement with which Aaron uses 2 very different types of light and light sources in order to convey both moment (solitude) and wonder in 2 profoundly different moments of life inside a home–that’s what it means to use light in the service of photography and documentation of life) and those 2 disparate and extraordinary domestic moments of stillness and quiet. And notice how the child’s expression is many is connected to the woman’s expression at the funeral and both connected to the pack dog’s howl…its all there, not only in the clear narrative (life in the nothern community that is all too rarely depicted other than through cliche and tv mediated historical bunk) but in the gernosity of these moments and their intimacy….

    Follow the color red through each photograph….

    from the point of view of documentary work, what I love about this series (and this series contains a lot alot more than 24 pics) is its full documentation of the lives and living of these communities. Aaron was granted a rare intimacy and allows us, the viewer, an opportunity to spend time (mostly quiet) amont these communities that fully represent the way their lives are managed daily: hunting/killing for food, time spent in bars and in front of televisions, weddings and funerals, silent starring into skies and walks through neighborhoods and woods. In other words, these lives (so often represented in ‘heroic’ cliched tropes, are NO different from the way each of us spend most of lives, only without the dessimation of our land and community…But, i think the most important part of this series, besides the compassion and humanity that Aaron brings to this community and their stories, is that THIS is a story about the Tar Sands….This is a story about Evironmental degredation, This is a story about the excavation and evisceration of land and tradition and not ONE direct picture of the Tar sands themselves…

    in other words (only like so many photographic depictions of the Tar Sands I see), this story focuses on the people and contextualizes what those Tar Sands and their exploitation really mean….For that alone, I would cherish this work….

    and finally, it is impossible not to feel (look at that final image) as if you too are a part of this community and you too are of the land and you too have generationally belonged and hunted and carved up the land not for fossil fuel but for entrenchment and sustenance when looking through these picturres…in that final picture, are not the spirits of the killed dear and rabbit and fox and the howl of the dog and all that petroleum and spirits of ancestors and dissipated dance up there atwirl…is that final picture not each of us and our falling away selves….

    so very happy to see this important and sustaining work Aaron! I’m also happy to see it get a wide audience and hope others take the time to see the longer edit as well in order to really understand the depth with which you’ve committed yourself to these communities.

    Wise, Lyrical, Humane poetry that is derived from the observations and connection to these communities lives. !

    just as a side note: Aaron is a member of the wonderful Toronto-based photo collective Boreal. The crew themselves have each been working on projects that document these communities (Ian Willms a finalist for this year’s Magnum EPA) and those interested should check out their work. A fine fine group of talented and wonderful young men.


    and those who want to see Aaron’s prints in person, he’s currently exhibited (part of a body that Aaron had published at BURN 2 years ago, and now in a slightly different variation)


  • Jim Powers:

    sometimes I dont honestly know whether to laugh or cry when i read one of your comments. Sometimes, honestly, i wonder how deeply you actually LOOK at other photographers work rather than clicking through it like so many television channels. but, that’s your problem not mine.

    However, i will say this about your comment “The dead animals seem gratuitous, rather than integral.” This is so ironic considering your comments earlier about ‘guns’ and all that stuff, a kind of training and birth right. this is a story about Native communities who hunt and for which the hunt is both ceremonially important, culturally and narratively critical (just like when your daddy taught you how to safely handle your gun when you were a youngin), but also provides sustenance to the communities. One CANNOT do a story on these communities without their inclusion. Far from ‘gratuitous’ they are essential. How much do you know about the Northern, native Canadian communities? I wonder….research Jim. Besides documentarily important parts to t his story, they are serve as important aesthetic and narrative signifiers….and if you dont get it, i’m at a loss to have to explain why.

    What’s the point? and so what was the point of those ‘day in the life’ books that you once extolled so vociferously here?….

    open your eyes Jim, open your eyes…

  • and as far as aaron’s work, in general, though he is way too humble to call this to folks attention, i will….just sayin’ ;)


  • Your lyrical prose about the essay describes something that is not visible, to me at least, in the essay. And I’m not convinced the dead animals have anything really to do with THIS essay. So, you are saying the viewer needs to understand the entire back story of the culture to understand the photos? That would be a failed essay, to me.

  • Great color, important story. The indoor shots suffer a bit in comparison to the outdoor, which are on a fantastic level all their own, but all-in-all a substantial achievement, imo.

  • Agree about the outdoor versus indoor shots, MW. Though I do like 6, 14 and 17.

    To the other comments: The photographer speaks of traditional lifestyles of trappers and hunters and concern for wild meat. I don’t believe Bob said you needed to understand the “entire” backstory. A simple reading of the statement makes it clear why the dead animal photos appear in this essay. Nothing difficult to grasp here… hardly “gratuitous.”

  • An important story, with many compelling images. Of course, one needs to know some of the background on these courageous people to understand their struggles and moments of achievement.

    I especially enjoyed seeing their efforts to make some use of an increasingly hostile environment.

  • To say pictures of dead animals are gratuitous in an essay on a hunting culture is kind of like saying pictures of race cars are gratuitous in an essay on NASCAR – especially when photographed so subtly and delicately as Aaron has done here. I agree with MW. Congratulations, Aaron. Good start to a most important story.

  • Ah, see, I thought the essay was about environmental issues, not hunting culture.

  • Had the animals been killed by the polluted environment, dead animals would have fit right in.

  • “Stories of moose hunts and life in the bush are told with enthusiasm and pride, but, as industry grows, the land succumbs.”

    He just buried the lead. That’s all, Jim.

  • It is very interesting how Elkaim has carried the colour orange through every image (save “dead moose” and “smoggy sky”). It ties the essay together. Orange is the colour used to warn others on the construction site, as either clothing or signage; it can be viewed here as a metaphorical caution for the people of this land, and as a warning to those of us who will eventually exploit the resources of the North. (Perhaps it was intentional, but the hue may have been used to transform an actual red, with its racist connotations and inflammatory anger.)

    This is the second essay of Aaron’s I have seen here; it has secured his position with me as my second-favourite Winnipeg-born photographer. (First place is for me…held in reservation. Hahaha!) He shoots square format with an amazing eye, style and technique. I swoon both at the sumptuousness of his compositional skill, and the silent observation he shows here (and had showed us in his previous essay).

    Alas, I have to take Jim’s side here against Bob. Elkaim’s artist’s statement doesn’t flow from the pictures. “Fort McKay is marketed as a success story” he says, and that is exactly what I see…without the complicated and opposed truth these people sense, and which in all likelihood exixts. Indigenous folk carrying on their lives to the fullest; plenty of meat hunted; weddings at the town hall; birthdays and the like; funerals. With the exception of the image of the town covered in smog – which on its own could have contained Elkaim’s argument just fine, thank-you very much – I don’t see the dark mystery and other-sidedness of the resource issue.

    Yet that image alone does make my anger seeth. Think of how, when the particulates settle on the snow, it will blanket the North that much darker, and the reflective ability of the insulating surface will be that much worse, and the warming cycle that much quicker! There is such a fine-tuned ecological balance at play in the North, so similar to the balance these people make to survive the environment. Wrecking that equilibrium will affect us everywhere else, but these people will be the frontline, beta-testing witnesses. Is that the complicated truth these people speak of, I wonder?

  • “Ah, see, I thought the essay was about environmental issues,”

    I thought the story was about the Cree and Dene people and how their lives have been affected by oil sands project. This includes their hunting trapping lifestyle. He may or may not have succeeded in one persons mind or the other… but to suggest the animal photos don’t fit somebody has to be trying very hard not to see.

  • Look, something bothers me all too often here. Collectively we tend to focus on the intent of these essays and we remark upon them as so many anthropologists, sociologists, fiction writers and politicos of varying factions. This is a vehicle for emerging photographers, and yet we don’t spend enough time looking at the images presented in an appreciative or even critical way; we don’t look upon them simply for their photographic intention and pleasure.

    I love these pictures; I think Aaron is remarkably gifted and there is much joy here. Just concentrating on his pictures and enjoying them as things upon themselves is enough for me. I just had to say that, in case my previous thoughts were misconstrued.

  • Jeff,

    I get where you’re coming from but, “Just concentrating on his pictures and enjoying them as things upon themselves is enough for me.” Your first comment is in some conflict with this one.

    Besides isn’t it more interesting when discussions get into the anthropology and sociology a little bit as well?

  • Thank you all for the comments, very much appreciated. This is a work in progress and an early edit from a first trip (submitted months ago for the EPF), there are images I can’t believe are not included here! as is the nature of editing though right?

    Aside, all criticisms are much welcomed as they can help inform me of how the work is being interpreted and how possibly to continue with project, which is valuable. I think this is one of the great aspects of Burn, that it can offer dynamic dialogue.

    The dead animals are meant to illustrate a continued practice of a way of life, while being symbolic of of a loss.
    Jim: In more recent edits there are not as many…. but they are definitely integral :)

  • I’m glad to see this here. This is masterfully done, just amazing. Congratulations Aaron.

    As a Canadian Metis, born in Alberta, I’m utterly disgusted, ashamed, and appalled by the oil sands project. Some folks refer to Fort McMurray as “Fort McMoney”. I have lots of relatives working in the oil patch making obscene amounts of money.

    Shame on all of us. While we decry the destruction, the pollution, the global warming, the pipelines, but we are addicted to oil. We drive bloated vehicles that waste too cheap fuel, we fly around the globe in jet aircraft for pleasure, we demand cheap food from anywhere around the globe. Virtually any product or human activity you can think of depends on oil.

    The sad truth is that we won’t change our behavior unless we are forced to by economic collapse or ecological disaster. Meanwhile, all we can do is try to document the rape of mother earth as best we can as a warning to future generations.

    I wonder what the world will be like in a few hundred years.

  • there are images I can’t believe are not included here! ………………… Aaron you needed to state to the burn editors that the piece is complete and please present it as a finished product. Stating that it is work in progress give a green light for editing.

    Essays of this nature can be small completed units but still part of a larger body of work that is in progress.

  • I wonder what the world will be like in a few hundred years……….. different but no less interesting

  • Gordon, how I wish the current generation would heed the warnings of essays like this one and change their behavior!


    as we have stated here many times, we cannot publish what the photographer does not show us…..you may be absolutely correct…

    later….now i see that some pics eliminated ..i don’t know why…i have been on road trip and did not edit this story…i will look again now….if i see something that i think should have been included, i will put them back in…


    i did not edit your essay…let me look at it carefully again…let me know soonest what you feel should have been included…normally we clear all essays with the photographer…not sure why this did not happen this time….we are not beyond reproach here at Burn….i have been traveling and just did not see the edit..what i see here looks brilliant , and i saw this final…but just don’t remember from the EPF what was not included here now….my editing team is in a time zone that has them at about 4am..when they wake we will discuss and see if changes can be made…if we change we will give you an extra day or two on top with the essay to your satisfaction….

    cheers, david

  • Jim – The photographer made it very clear the story is about a hunting culture living in the midst of one of a huge environmental issue.

    Aaron, I will be sure to come back and see what images might get added back in.

  • some additional coverage here:

  • David, I went back to look at what I submitted and 2 images were left out.
    In terms of my comments on the edit… I was in the early stages of editing when I submitted to the EFP with a limit of 25 images. With deadlines and limits You make choices but they change as you spend more time with the work. There are just a few images that aren’t here that I am used to seeing.

    Imants: “Essays of this nature can be small completed units but still part of a larger body of work that is in progress.”

    I totally agree and think that’s what I have. I’m just not done with the story.

  • JEFF:

    i think that is what i was suggesting in my 1st post….it begins with the pics themselves and the strength (or ideas) within the pictures and from that comes the story….and btw, the pictures are even more beautiful in real life :)

  • Incredible use of color, these photographs are astounding.

    The captions I found more problematic. Referring to Poplar Point as uninhabited while showing the people living there doesn’t make any sense. The caption to #7 references “facts not in evidence”–an issue (the dangerous road) which is unseen, not part of the photo and not otherwise discussed in the essay.

    #9 looks more like winter haze than smog. Smog is more orange colored.


    cool..thanks for writing…i just wanted to make sure we had not somehow made a mistake at our end…keep going…this is great work you are doing….

    cheers, david

  • Gorgeous work – a strong document that, like the best photography, evokes mysterious undercurrents and a riddle that can only ever be partially understood.

  • These are incredible–my favorite work to come through burn in a long time. The continous red is just entrancing, I can’t help but ooo and aaa at the beautiful compositions

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