Sarah Houle

Story by Kendall Bistretzan
Photo by Quin Hauck

Paddle Prairie is a Metis community 12 hours north of Calgary. Local multidisciplinary artist Sarah Houle, who calls Paddle Prairie home, will tell you it’s a beautiful place: lush with wildlife and farms, abundant in animals, and, most importantly, family oriented. Family, along with Indigenous culture, are just a few of the inspirations behind Houle’s photo series, entitled ‘The Girls.’ After the birth of her nieces, Houle returned from Nova Scotia to Paddle Prairie, and has been taking pictures of them ever since.

Houle is an artistically-inclined person. After attending high school in Victoria, Houle studied at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. However, it wasn’t her education that inspired her to pursue her photography, but rather a 1956 Yashica Mat 120, gifted to her by her boyfriend.

“I don’t consider myself a photographer,” declares Houle. “I just like to experiment with different mediums. I was really interested in vintage gear and using it to make stuff today.”

Houle’s photos are heavily influenced by her home and, of course, her family. Her nieces, Janae and Tiarayne, are the girls behind the series. What started out as something fun – taking spontaneous pictures or planning a shoot – eventually accumulated into the project it is today.

“They’re very good at being directed,” Houle says of her nieces. “It just grew over the years as this huge body of work that I thought fit as a whole piece after looking back over the negatives I had accumulated over fifteen years of taking the photos.”

The Girls’ seeks to demythicize Indigenous culture while offering glimpses into the lives of modern-day teenage girls.

“As Indigenous women, they have a strong voice. In our society, they are a voice that needs to be heard. And this is my way of giving them some kind of a voice.”

That voice is especially important in today’s era of technology. When Houle was a child, she found ways to entertain herself. She didn’t have a cell phone, and wasn’t allowed to wear makeup. Her nieces, however, are experiencing a very different world.

“There’s a lot of focus on media and celebrity culture,” says Houle, “and when you’re a kid growing up, that must be a challenge to find your own identity and stay connected to your culture. I feel like that’s been challenging for them. And challenging for me to see. How much do you conform to your friends, or bullying, or all this kind of stuff that happens nowadays?”

Almost anyone coming of age in this time will be able to relate to ‘The Girls,’ and that is exactly what Houle hopes for.

“Being able to relate to some artwork that is Indigenous for a non-Aboriginal person really helps bridge the gap and helps nurture some understanding of our cultures. We are all so different, but we are still so proud of our traditions and where we come from, and that’s kind of where it’s been a part of our truth and reconciliation that’s a movement happening in Canada right now.”

Her nieces have had to overcome some tough problems over the years and Houle is amazed with the bright young women they are today. Watching their growth through the camera lens and being able to reflect on their memories through the photographs has been the most rewarding part of the series for both Houle and the girls. And since Janae has just become a new mom, Houle hopes to continue the series for many years to come.

View’The Girls’ on Houle’s website.

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