Wednesday, February 1, 2012

CultureLab - Capturing the heart of the disappearing Arctic

Kat Austen, CultureLab editor
(Image: Ragnar Axelsson)

Photographer Ragnar Axelsson captures an austere waning world beautifully in his exhibition Last Days of the Arctic
"THE big ice is sick." These words, spoken by an old Inuit hunter, capture for photographer Ragnar Axelsson the tragedy of the disappearing Arctic. Over the last 25 years Axelsson has made many visits to the frigid wilderness from his home in Iceland. His new exhibition, Last Days of the Arctic, is his attempt to document a dying land.
Axelsson travelled the austere landscape of remote Greenland and Canada by traditional dog sled, often crawling at 5 kilometres per hour at -40 °C. "You're fighting the cold and wind, just watching white ice over and over. It's a long time between some action." The temperature posed gruesome challenges, he recalls: "Your fingernails get loose when you're trying to open the camera."
The region has changed dramatically since Axelsson first started visiting. "Twenty-five years ago the ice was one metre thick," he says. "Last year, it was so thin you couldn't even jump off the dog sled."
The ice is now inaccessible for long periods, changing hunting seasons and methods. Its retreat has opened isolated villages to tourism, changing the aspirations of the younger population and saddening those who wish their traditional culture to persist. Combined with a decreased demand for hunting products, the changes are causing Inuit hunters to lose hope. "Two of my friends have committed suicide," Axelsson tells me. "They think there is no light at the end of the tunnel."
Axelsson captures this complex dynamic in his photographs: a sled dwarfed by the glacier it passes beneath, hunters trapped by a snowstorm, the weathered face of an old man clutching a husky puppy. He provides breathtaking insight, before the subject melts away.

Last Days of the Arctic by Ragnar Axelsson runs at the Proud Chelsea gallery in London until 11 March

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