The Arctic Refuge, a battleground between oil interests and environmentalists, has become a symbolic struggle over the last 30 years in America. Aside from all of that, it’s of particular interest to me because the people with the most vested interest in the Refuge are the indigenous people that live within it, the Gwich’in, who depend on the caribou for their way of life. This is a story I’ve long been interested in.
There’s no need for me to expound here, as writer Brooke Jarvis has already done a terrific job at weaving together the different perspectives on ANWR and why, at this moment in time, we need to leave at least one corner of this vast wilderness for the caribou and the indigenous peoples who have kept this place beautiful for millennia.
Many thanks to Jason Marks for the story, Sam Murphy for a great edit, and my fellow expeditioners who made our journey safe and brought human warmth to the Arctic.
It was an honor to speak at the George Eastman Museum in October about my work with indigenous communities of the Arctic. The recording of the entire talk is now on Youtube. I spoke about the importance of deep cultural immersion in photography as well as the range of indigenous issues that we face in the North- then end with a message of hope for our communities!
It’s increasingly important to help people visualize the Arctic as a living ecosystem with people and wildlife together. This is especially true in the case of the coalition working to ban the use of heavy-fuel oil for ships in the Arctic.
Heavy fuel oil is a cheap, viscous and dirty source of energy for large ships and has long been used as a primary fuel source in shipping. Both the International Maritime Organization and indigenous groups from the Iñupiat community of the Arctic Slope to the Inuit Circumpolar Council. At a meeting late October, the IMO pushed the issue of a ban forward and it’s a great step towards ensuring that marine mammals and the ocean ecosystem of the Arctic will not be decimated by a spill.
I donated photographs for the exhibition ‘The Arctic- On Our Watch’, put on during the IMO meeting in London, and it was heavily viewed by meeting participants. One more step towards listening to the voice of those who understand the Arctic the most– its indigenous peoples
How Greenlanders preserve their heritage through kayaking
CLOAKED IN SEALSKIN suits, a flock of kayakers cuts across a steely expanse of frigid water. A close observer might catch signs of modernity in the vessels’ construction and the kayakers’ attire, but from a distance, the image appears timeless.
After returning from working on a downer of a story on suicide, I found myself in Greenland only to find my spirits uplifted by what the Greenlanders have achieved in their communities. Despite centuries of colonization that has visited horrors upon Greenland’s Inuit population, Greenland is forging ahead with a new and unified national identity.
But I wouldn’t say it’s been easy. Greenland had an anti-colonial revolution in the late 1970s that pushed it achieve self-rule from Denmark. Today’s modern thriving economy and high standards of living are directly the result of farseeing elders and the hard work of the Greenlandic community.
You can find also more images from my Greenland Renewed project. Thanks to writer Abby Sewell for lending her empathy and writing talents to this story, and photo editor Jeff Heimsath for his compassionate eye.
The George Eastman Museum is the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography. In June I was honored to be invited to speak there, on a topic of my own choosing. Though exciting, I began to think about my work with indigenous issues– how to frame them for a general photographic audience who is generally unfamiliar with cultures as different as those of the Arctic?
The Personal Journey
The strongest photography is often deeply personal. After consulting my partner Addie, it made sense to address my own individual journey into the medium of photography and into indigenous subsistence communities. But here’s the rub:
If I want to speak about embedding within Native communities to a primarily non-Native audience, then I will have to address the complex issues of outsider photography.
On some level, unless the work is deeply personal and of one’s self or family, you can refer to all photographic endeavors as outsider photography. I think the bigger question is how do you develop true empathy when you are photographing another person, another community, and especially a different culture?
What is outsider photography then?
I think it has a lot to do with time and space. There must be time to overcome one’s personal cultural beliefs. There must time to experience things when they naturally occur. There must be time to listen and observe and experience without the camera. And finally, when you begin to shed your own cultural skin, I believe you must participate.
It’s like learning language. At first you are translating words in your head, and then the one day, one fine day, you begin to think in this new language. Concepts only understood in this new language begin to make sense. And even when you switch back to your native tongue, you are different, you are changed. That’s cultural immersion, and that is the bar I would like to set for documentary photographers.
Polar Bears, of course
I will of course, be showing and speaking about my specific projects, from whaling with the Iñupiaq and enduring polar bear attacks, to supporting suicide-prone teenagers on remote outposts in the Arctic. We’ll also the responsibility of creating new narratives of indigenous communities. I hope that talking about my process will engage and deepen the audience to the cultures of the Arctic.
There are interviewers and there are great interviewers. Lou Noble of The Photographic Journal not only has a distinctive vision in fine art photography, but he’s also a terrific interviewer.
We spoke at length about growing up as mixed-ethnicity child, about the struggles of Native peoples, and of course, about how photography has the power to illuminate and bring hope to those who are the most in need of it.
I would say most of the time, almost all of the work happens before I put my eye up to the viewfinder. I tend to be looking at light, I tend to be looking at gesture, at what people are doing, and of course the meaning of things. Meaning is always in the background, for me, so I’m always thinking about why is this important?
It’s a long interview. But if you have the patience to read it, it’s a great capture of how I think about storytelling and how our current storytellers will need to work to make the world hopeful for coming generations.
My recent series on Iceland has been featured on TIME.com. Îslandia is a series that looks at Iceland from a distinctly fine art perspective and tries to get away from the grand touristed vistas.
More than 1 trillion photographs are made every year, according to some estimates, an unthinkable figure that compounds a longtime problem for photographers: How do you make your work stand out in such a crowded field?
I think this is a very good question, and also asks an even more important question– how do you make work that is deeper, that is a unique personal response to subjects that have been photographed an infinite number of times?
I spoke to TIME’s deputy editor Alex Fitzpatrick and multimedia editor Josh Raab about my approach. Find out my response to this question at TIME.com.
Today Survival International published a roundup of indigenous criticism of photographer Jimmy Nelson, and his book, Before They Pass Away. I get asked how I feel about Jimmy Nelson’s book all the time, and this is a deep conversation that often makes my day feel darker. Let me be clear– while I believe that Jimmy Nelson has good intentions, his work is classic colonization.
As indigenous peoples we are tired of being seen as having existed only in the past. We are still here, and suffering great traumas at the hands of settlers and colonial governments at this current moment. Jimmy’s work casts indigenous peoples as A) only beautiful in the past and B) nearly extinct. We are clearly nowhere near extinct (there are over 600,000 Maori living in New Zealand, and 150,000 Iñuit across the Arctic), and in the modernization of our traditional clothing and outward appearances there are the obvious signs of globalization’s effects on our communities.
I’m excited to announce that my debut as a film director will be premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival on Monday, May 28th. This for my short film Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale. It will be screening alongside several other short films in a series called Legends of the PNW.
Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale is the story of an Iñupiaq whaling crew, living where the vast plain of ice meets the waters of the Arctic Ocean. During whaling, their lives are interminable periods of silent observation, punctuated by moments of terror. The ice hides its dangers—desperately hungry polar bears hunting humans, massive icequakes when sheets of ice collide.
Here on the sea ice, the Iñupiaq wait for the whale. When the whale does offer itself, it will take the courage and skill of the whaling crew, riding on the icy waters of the Arctic by a skinboat, to catch it. But in the long moments standing on the ice, protected from the wind inside a fur-lined parka, a timeless gratitude develops. In those moments, the patient act of waiting transforms into a prayer for the whale.