For over two decades Ragnar Axelssson has been documenting the working life of Greenlandic hunters, a tradition now under threat due to climate change. Here the Icelandic photojournalist tells IdeasMag how he works in freezing weather conditions and what keeps drawing him back to the Arctic…
I have been going back and forth to Greenland for 25 years.
The first time, I just went by myself; I didn’t even speak the language. I learned a few words so I could say some sentences that they understood, but it was a difficult language. I was usually with them hunting on the ice for two to three weeks at a time but they’re there for two or three months. Once I gained the hunters’ trust, I was always welcome. We’re good friends now; whenever they pass through Iceland they call me and I drive around with them and show them around.
I loved the wilderness of the Arctic. It was like going into a book one hundred years back in time – it was so spectacular. The landscape and the environment there is such a unique thing. You’re the richest person on earth – you see billions of stars at night and it’s all yours.
It was was difficult photographing in the Arctic but it’s like a state of mind – you focus your head on something and you get used to it. You have to be careful – you could lose your fingernails by opening your camera. It sometimes made me wonder what it would be like to be on the moon. You’re wearing gloves, trying to take pictures and it was hard because it’s minus 30, 35, 40 degrees sometimes, and windy, so it’s very cold. I used manual film cameras – it’s not worth using batteries when you’re on the ice because everything freezes when you’re out there.
Sometimes I really had to fight not to stop. I would promise myself I’m not going back but after being home for 10 days it was like a magnet dragging me back again. The America photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who is a good friend of mine and was my teacher many years ago, always told me one thing “don’t stop, keep on taking pictures”. One time when I was on the dog sled, it was minus 35 and I was packing my gear down, saying “I’m finished” and she popped up in my head saying “keep on taking pictures” – that kept me going.
At first I had just wanted to go to a remote place to get something special. I wasn’t thinking about anything, I was just getting good pictures, like a painter. But after 10 years I realised that something was happening, that the Inuit hunters were worried about the ice getting thinner and thinner. I go every fifth year to Qaanaaq and the ice was thick when I started 25 years ago, but last year it was thin. You could hardly go up there with the dog sled – you would fall through the ice.
It’s hard to use photography to show that change because the surface of the ice looks the same but I wanted to document the life of a 4000-year-old tradition that might be near its end.
Ragnar Axelsson was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.
Last Days of the Arctic runs until 11 March 2012 at Proud Chelsea, London.
All images © Ragnar Axelsson.
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