When I meet people who have spent time in the Arctic, I seldom find they are indifferent to it. They either love it, or hate it. I definitely fall into the first category.
When I first travelled to North Greenland in 1971, I was in struck by the beauty of the area. To begin with, it was the landscape that impressed me. Its vast ice cap with glaciers flowing down into frozen fiords, and the surrounding sea studded with icebergs. I found it awe inspiring.
Once I had settled into the community and began travelling by dog-sled with the Inuit hunters and living at camps out on the tundra, it was the people that impressed me most. I came to increasingly admire how they managed to live in, and master such a challenging environment.
It also struck me how the Inuit have a very different attitude to the Arctic than most Europeans who visit from the South. Accounts of Arctic expeditions written by explorers often portray the Arctic as just an inhospitable icy wilderness. They tend to stress the dangers. How cold it was, how strong the winds were, and how hazardous it was travelling on ice. Most Inuit, and other native peoples from around the circumpolar north, view the Arctic not as somewhere dangerous, but simply, as home. As one native Siberian friend of mine told me recently, “we don’t survive here, we live!”
The Arctic does have its dangers - and its climate needs to be treated with respect. I have only had a few, of what I would call, bad experiences. These ranged from falling through thin sea ice, floating out to sea for five days on an ice floe, while travelling on new ice with three Inuit hunters; fortunately, we were found by a helicopter air search. Another time the snowmobile I was travelling on broke down, I ended up having to walk for 20km, through snow at -40̊ Celsius with wet feet. Considering the time I have spent working in the Arctic, I consider that I have got off lightly.
I am very fortunate that I have been able to return to the Arctic every year since my first trip there in 1971. Having started in Greenland, I went on to work in the Canadian Arctic, Alaska and Scandinavia and Siberia. The trips that I have enjoyed most have been when I was travelling on long hunts, of a month or more, with the Inuit, as well as reindeer migrations with herders in the Siberian Arctic. I find travelling on these long journeys rewarding. Not only because I have more time to take photographs, travelling day after day across the Arctic’s frozen sea or tundra with the same people allows me time to get to know them better and learn more about them and their way of life. They also become accustomed to having me around taking photographs.
I felt frustrated during the 1970s and 1980s at not being permitted to visit native communities in the Russian Arctic. At that time, they were ‘closed’ to foreigners, and also to most Russians as well. There were about a dozen different native groups that I wanted to visit in Northern Siberia, but I was unable to. That changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and by the beginning of the 1990s I began working in native communities in Arctic areas of Siberia.
The trips I have made vary in length. One book assignment enabled me to spend seven months in North Greenland. Nowadays, I usually make a couple of trips a year to the Arctic, each one lasting between one and two months. My favourite times for visiting the Arctic are in winter, just after the sun has returned, and also, in the early autumn. They are both times of the year when the light for photography can be stunning.
It goes without saying that to keep warm in the Arctic, especially in the winter when temperatures can plummet as low as -60̊ Celsius, you need layers of very warm clothes. What are the right clothes depends very much on what you are going to be doing and how active you are going to be. It’s always one’s hands and feet that are the most vulnerable in extreme cold. It’s easy for fingers and toes to become frostbitten, if they are not well protected.
On winter trips I take with me a very warm down parka with plenty of pockets, large enough to take camera lenses and accessories, a pair of warm sheepskin gloves, soft enough to enable me to operate a camera with. I also wear a double mitten over the gloves for when I am not working. On my feet, I sometimes wear traditional native footwear made from reindeer or sealskin. It’s usually the warmest and most comfortable option. On some trips I also wear modern insulated boots that were originally designed for the Canadian military.
The one item of clothing that I always take with me, on both winter and summer trips, are Rohan’s Winter Bags. I can’t remember exactly when I discovered them, but I have worn them on all my Arctic trips for more than 20 years. Apart from the fact that I find them warm and comfortable to wear, I find the large pockets very useful with zips making them more secure.
Winter Bags certainly punch above their weight when it comes to warmth. On summer trips into the Arctic, I wear my winter bags on their own. On winter trips, I tend to use them as an intermediate layer, wearing thermal longjohns underneath and well insulated external over trousers on top.
Another good feature of winter bags is that the outer material is made from a cotton/polyester mix. I am not a great fan of outer clothing made entirely of man-made fabrics. Polyester and similar man-made materials may be light and dry quickly, but they also can melt when they get too close to heat. You can be sitting on a beach around a campfire with friends and if a spark from the fire lands on your new expensive polyester trousers, you are likely to end up with a hole in them and quite possibly, a burn on your leg! That has happened to me in the past. Natural fabrics like cotton and wool are more fire resistant.
Today the Arctic is the centre of scientific and media attention. This is partly due to the fact that it is being seen as a focus for climate change. The warming climate is also unlocking the regions vast minerals resources, particularly oil and gas. What that means for the Arctic’s native peoples remains to be seen. Over the past 70 years or so, their lives have changed dramatically. I feel privileged to have been able to document a part of that period of change.
About Bryan Alexander
After studying photography for 3 years at the London College of Printing, British photographer & writer, Bryan Alexander, used a Royal Society of Arts travel bursary to visit North West Greenland in 1971. There he spent four months photographing the life in a small Inuit community. That was the start of what became a lifetime’s work of documenting the Arctic and its people. Bryan has spent over 12 of the past 47 years living in isolated native camps and villages around the Arctic. You can view more of his work at www.arcticphoto.com
Text & Photos: ©Bryan Alexander