Ian Willms

Fort Chipewyan


If anyone would listen, the First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan, Canada, would tell them about an ongoing ‘slow motion cultural genocide’. The isolated indigenous reserves of Northern Alberta are watching their land become unlivable as their communities are slowly poisoned by the world’s largest and most environmentally destructive oil extraction project.

The Alberta Oil Sands are the second largest oil reserves on Earth next to Saudi Arabia and are worth an estimated $1 trillion to Canada’s GDP over the next decade. This oil extraction involves an energy-intensive process of strip-mining and chemical upgrading. The liquid waste from Oil Sands production ends up in man-made tar lakes that are large enough to be visible from space. The Oil Sands have a larger carbon footprint than any other commercial oil product on Earth.

As the world entered the era of Peak Oil in 2003, Canada saw a dramatic boom in Oil Sands production. Since then, contaminated water systems, deformed fish, oil spills and alarmingly high rates of aggressive and fatal cancers have become part of life for the indigenous peoples of Northern Alberta. Industrial activity has all but wiped out the traditional economies of First Nations communities in the area. An important part of my work is to communicate how these problems now prevent people from sustaining themselves off of the land that has nurtured their lives for generations.



This work speaks to the disturbing truth that has been lost in a climate of misinformation. As part of their ‘Ethical Oil’ campaign, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) diligently publicizes industry-funded research and statistics that downplay or negate the environmental and health impacts of Oil Sands production. Meanwhile, First Nations peoples continue to lose their land, culture and lives. The Canadian government and the CAPP have made an individual and collective life expendable in the name of energy security and economic progress.




Born in 1985, in Kitchener, Canada, Ian Willms is an independent documentary photographer and a founding member of the Boreal Collective.

His curious and socially conscious nature has driven Ian to explore the fringes of our society, photographing abandoned environments and the people who inhabit them. From the depressed, post-apocalyptic suburbs of Detroit to the poisoned shorelines of Fort Chipewyan, Ian’s work is deeply rooted in the discussion of consumption, classism and social and political power struggles.

Ian’s work has been exhibited in North America and Europe, including solo exhibitions at Pikto Gallery and Gallery 44 Centre For Contemporary Photography and group exhibitions at O’Born Contemporary and Bau-Xi Photo. His work has also been supported and honoured by the Magnum Expression Photography Award, the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism competition, the Magenta Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council.


12 thoughts on “Ian Willms – Fort Chipewyan”

  1. Good strong work. People are always going to be shat on by big companies who don’t care. Good to see someone pointing a finger (camera).

  2. Solid work. Congratulations for the finalist’s place Ian. Great photography with a soul on a difficult issue. Thanks for this.

  3. Beautiful images telling a chilling tale. Thank you, Ian, for tackling the subject. It is more important than most people realize. Oil and jobs are not worth the cost. You are doing what the best documentary photographers do, and that is giving a face to issues that we read about in the newspapers. May your efforts open eyes and minds. I am not very hopeful that we can stop this environmental and human disaster, but we must try.

  4. This is quite a subtle and poignant presentation that lacks that final step as it sits in that limbo world of “work in progress” I feel that it would be better served as a completed photographic work, a fully resolved piece presented to the audience that says “look, learn and enjoy”
    The ability to complete a project is important to know when to stop and say well I am done here and go onto the next idea, subject, object etc This does not mean that Ian in this instance stops working on the First Nations peoples in Fort Chipewyan and their slow genocide far from it , bring a new aspect a new essay a new chapter to the forefront.

    With a few minor tweaks, moving image order, maybe reconsidering an image or two for a image more apt to the essay I see this as completed.

  5. Wonderful images, each and every one – and all so familiar even though I have never been to Fort Chipewyab. A quiet, yet powerful, essay, not romanticized or sensationalized but one that gives a feeling of the people and the life they live. The picture of the aurora over the graves just might be the best and most telling Northern Lights picture I have ever seen – balanced so well by the subtleness of images such as the girl in the water. Now, I think this might well have been my first choice.

    Although at its base, the subject matter is very familiar to me, I feel that in looking at these pictures I have learned a great deal – both about the topic covered and about photography itself.

  6. Ian! :))

    so proud of you, as I’ve told you 1,000,000 before…was thrilled to see it make the finals, even though this is VERY truncated version of the depth and breath of your on-going series and your trips up North…I’m not found of the order of pictures here at all…but then i’m partial, to the big, fat beautiful long sequence we worked together on while drinking last year..this is such an important story and i’m so happy what you’ve done and how you’ve inspired the rest of the Boreal crew to explore the entire issue of the Tar Sands and communities….its not been done well enough or honestly enough (while the rest of the photo world seems to just bring pack big, geometric pictures of the Tar sands, under the thumb of Burtinsky…but, i’m happy you’ve included some of the most beautiful pics (What Frostfrog said of the Norther Lights/Cemetary pic)…no need for me to talk photo critique here, we do that enough in person…just only this: so proud of you :)))

    and the hope is that others will see the big edit and the visual color-edit :)))

    sorry missed u friday….needed time alone…see u soon


  7. I didn’t want to let this one pass without mentioning how much I like it. Incredibly well done, very tasteful documentary photography. Personally, I’d like to see a few more distant shots to better establish the geography, but I suspect those exist. Also, it seems as all the shots are from the eye level of a person of average height. Might want to consider trying to vary that perspective a bit. But those are minor quibbles and they may well be moot given the existence of a much more expansive edit. Is there some recommended reading about the situation depicted in the photos?

  8. …..Also, it seems as all the shots are from the eye level of a person of average height. Might want to consider trying to vary that perspective a bit………WHAT?????

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