“I didn’t want to do an ‘on a boat, kill a whale’ story, I wanted to do something a bit wider than that,” says Marcus Bleasdale of his story Last of the Vikings, which has won third prize in the Contemporary Issues Stories category at the 2014 World Press Photo awards. “[Whaling] is a very ancient, 4000 to 5000-year-old activity that has been sustaining the community that does it for all that time… [but] economic changes mean that young people don’t want to be whalers anymore, so the communities as a result are changing and the tradition is coming to an end. I thought it was an interesting point at which to look at it – at the beginning of the end.
“I was also keen to do something closer to home – I have spent years covering conflicts in Africa and Asia. Little did I know I would end up stuck on a whaling boat for three months!”
In fact, Bleasdale lives in Oslo and says that being a local, and knowing some of the people involved on a personal basis, was essential to getting access. “No one has been on a whaling boat for 30 years. No one can get on because they [the whalers] know how the international community will use the images,” he says. “It took me two years to get on the boats, and the fact that I live here, and had acquaintances and friends who could vouch for me, was essential. It was a long process that started in 2010.”
Bleasdale worked on the story for a year before approaching anyone with it; it then took two more years before National Geographic could publish it, in May 2013. “They just invest the time in everyone they work with,” he says. “Unfortunately, they are one of the few [publications] that can still do that… I was on a boat for three weeks without seeing a whale. I phoned them and they just said, ‘Stay on it.’ Most other publications wouldn’t be able to support that.”
Even so, he prefers to start projects without a commission, arguing that doing so offers more freedom. “I much prefer to have that freedom, without anyone telling me what to do and how to do it,” he says. “Once I have built up a body of work I’m proud of, I can see if anyone wants to take it further.”