Thomas Koidhis is a talented amateur photographer living in Fort Smith, a small town of around 2,500 residents in the remote South Slave Region of Canada’s Northwest Territories. He is perhaps best known for his stunning photographs of the Northern Lights, but his landscape and nature photography is equally inspiring. Today www.LetsBeWild.com sits down with Thomas to ask him about his philosophies on photography, nature, and life in the Northwest Territories.
Thomas Koidhis: I’ve more or less always had some sort of point and shoot camera in my hand, much like anybody. I’ve always been drawn to taking images, painting and drawing impressions of the world around me. When I was roughly 18 I experienced the suicide of my father. Needless to say the impact this has had on my life is pretty much indescribable. What has happened to me since then I can only describe as a transformation. I suppose you could say that I’ve always been fascinated by every small nuance of the reality we inhabit. However when my Dad died and I moved back to Fort Smith, NT, somehow instead of falling deeper into depression I only, as each day passed, became more amazed and sedated by the richness of things. The way that the diamonds of sunlight trickle through the leaves of a forest ceiling, the way that a distant treeline austerely sways in the wind, how the cloud patterns evolve and manifest throughout the day. Simple visions and visuals and all things I associated with them painted a beautiful, colorful mandala of images and understanding in my mind.
About 5 years ago I didn’t really know anything about photography. I did have a strange desire to own “one of those cameras that you could switch the lenses of” and voiced the thought to my Mom. She surprised me that Christmas with my first DSLR – an Olympus E-410. I began to work at expressing my visions and feelings through this medium, pouring my thought and passion into the images until it became almost an obsession. In some way it was probably also an escape but fundamentally I would say it was my feelings and thoughts about the reality we inhabit that drove me to learn the medium. A very smart man once told me that over 90% of our brain is devoted to processing some sort of image. When we look out into the world we are, often without realizing it, creating images and visages in our mind about all we are percieving. The world coming to us is essentially just information, it is our brain and sensory input that transforms all of the sense data into a usable form that we can interpret our world with. To me that’s what photography is – an interperetation. A little slice of reality as one frame of reference experienced it at one moment. Photography like many other things can teach you and it has been the experience and reward of learning all that I possibly can in general that has driven all of my passions, photography or otherwise.
Let’sBeWild: Tell us about your primary job as a weather observer and air traffic communicator. Has working in that field had any affect on your photography and your understanding and appreciation of nature and the sky?
Thomas Koidhis: Oh yes, in a powerful way! My job as an Observer/Communicator entails two jobs wrapped up in one. My primary priority at work is to help coordinate the safety of air traffic by communicating details of current weather and air traffic situations to pilots. This isn’t to be confused with air traffic control. I cannot tell a pilot what to do; I simply provide an information service to help air carriers and general air traffic conduct their operations safely. It is often what you see in small communities and is known as a Community Aerodrome Radio Station (CARS). The second part of the job is the weather observation. Every hour I go out, look at the sky, divide it in half and into tenths mentally, note how much of the sky is covered with cloud, how many layers of cloud there are, what type of clouds are in the sky, the heights of the clouds and the opacity of each layer. I also take temperature, wind, pressure and precipitation data. I code all of that data and send it off for the world to make use of.
It’s affected my photography on many levels. When I’m not talking to aircraft, doing hourly or special observations, I am to “maintain a constant listening watch” of the aerodrome. This means that if a cloud moves, rain starts, the wind changes or anything significant happens within 5 miles of my office, I need to know about it and to be constantly interpreting it. This has provided me with a lot of knowledge and experience in weather and cloud patterns. I can look at pre-morning clouds and usually tell you what the sunrise is going to look like. Also, because I have to be paying such close attention, every sense in a way is heightened for me through constant use.
I realized something important recently which ties into what I mentioned about our brains creating the images and truly not the cameras themselves. I have been practicing photography even when I haven’t picked up my camera in a week. My brain is automatically visualizing everything I see photographically on top of the other ways I need to interpret at the time. Watching the landscape change with the seasons and with the weather systems has afforded me a great deal of insight into the rhythms of nature and even on an aesthetic level, I know what moments to wait for and which ones will look the best. It’s uncanny to me that I would find a job that would allow me to interweave it with my other work in some way. Night shifts are my favorite of course – we have some of the best dark skies around and in the summer the air is so fresh here that when you step into the night air you are flooded with energy and good feelings. So, yeah…It’s been huge for me.
Let’sBeWild: What are the challenges and benefits to living and working in the Northwest Territories and in Fort Smith in particular. Do you plan to stay in the area in the future?
For me there are only two pitfalls to living where I do. One of them is typical small town politics and drama. The other comes from the long winter and is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The two situations often exasperate each other. You should see how the tension gets blown off here when the cold finally breaks and gives way to (more) partying and often really silly fights and grudges. You definitely need to have an amount of character, patience and most importantly humor to not be driven crazy by some of these antics if you have to be around them for any length of time. I’ve realized it isn’t just Smith though. Smith is a microcosm of the rest of the world, however we do have our unique conditions that make things just a little different. As a result, when I’m not doing photography or working or hanging with friends, I’m basically a professional hermit.
The benefits usually outweigh the challenges for me. The wilderness is something I have a very deep personal connection to. That is in great quantity where I live; Fort Smith is essentially the gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park and even the towns new branding scheme will never hope to fully portray just how special this place is. There is something in the air, maybe it’s how clean it is, that can take your mind to far-away heights and heal you in some strange way. It’s hard to imagine that the whole Earth was once this way. I will likely move yonder and occupy another place eventually but Fort Smith will always be my home.