It all started with primary care nurse Dre Erwin, who took up the hobby during a difficult season of his life.
“I try to use photography to try to help people who may have also had the same kind of pain as me,” Erwin said.
“Photography saved my life.”
One day Erwin brought along a high school student Jonah Natomagan, who had been inspired by Erwin’s work, and almost instantly they shared the same passion.
“If I hadn’t gotten introduced to photography, I probably would’ve been with some of my peers, out doing drugs, drinking alcohol,” Jonah said.
High school teacher Stephanie Sonnenburg said she’s noticed a big difference in the students involved in the club.
“Photography allows the kids to find an outlet for some of their feelings and emotions,” Sonnenburg said.
The group gathers in the village of Pinehouse, located over 350 kilometres north of Saskatoon, and over 100 kilometres away from the next nearest community, creating a unique set of challenges.
“There’s not really much to do here in Pinehouse because there’s so much alcohol and drugs,” said Laura Smith, who is a Pinehouse photography club member.
“Isolation leads to a lot of other problems — a lot of coping problems, a lot of mental health problems,” Erwin said.
A report on high suicide rates was released by Saskatchewan children’s advocate Corey O’Soup on Tuesday and highlighted the importance of youth having their voices heard in their communities.
“Their calls to action is to people in their everyday life — their parents, their peers, the youth, their families, the community – people who can impact them daily,” O’Soup said Tuesday in La Ronge.
WATCH BELOW: Coverage of the youth suicide crisis in northern Saskatchewan
Pinehouse’s mental health social worker of 17 years, Caroline Ratt-Misponas, said she has seen significant improvements in the health of the community since the photography club began.
“I fully endorse the photography club because I feel that it’s a positive outlet for children and youth especially who can have a positive outlet for grief, depression, loneliness,” Ratt-Misponas said.
“I’m really really proud of how far they’ve come in their mental health and well-being.”
“By photos you can communicate non-verbally in a safe way,” Grade 8 student Jerrika Natomagan said.
“I’m always thinking – how can I make this community the healthiest it can be,” Erwin said.
And the healing is spreading to the rest of the community.
Brain tumour survivor Trish Natomagan said, “it motivates me to go further in life instead of just focusing on where I’m at.”
Laine Boyd started drinking every weekend and entered a period of depression when her husband left her to raise a child alone, but was inspired by seeing Erwin’s photography on social media.
“It made me think a different way, that life can be beautiful.”
Erwin believes the focus on having a healthy, positive lifestyle has helped his village learn positive coping mechanisms and hopes they can be an example for other isolated communities.
“There’s no greater satisfaction for me as a photographer or me as a nurse to hear that you’ve helped someone, no matter what it is,” Erwin said.
“I just want to be a role model with this photography to show the kids younger than me that there’s so much more to life than drugs and alcohol,” Jonah said.