Greenland’s future rests on thin ice

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After following Inuit hunters and their dogs for four decades, Ragnar Axelsson has charted what could be the end of a 4000-year long tradition

“It was a hunter who taught me that you can see in a dog’s eyes whether it’s a good dog or a bad one. I’ve been trying to do that. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong – and then you get bitten.” Ragnar Axelsson has met many dogs in the Arctic. The husky-like Greenland sled dog is an integral part of Arctic culture, providing the mode of transportation for Inuit hunters. Over the last four decades, the Icelandic photographer has been venturing into Inuit Greenland, documenting a society and environment on the brink of major change and possible extinction. The result is his latest book, Arctic Heroes, published by Kehrer Verlag.

Arctic Heroes did not begin as a project centred on the Greenland sled dog. In the late 1970s, Axelsson began travelling to Greenland, the world’s largest island covered in a permanent sheet of ice, with friends who worked as pilots for ambulance planes. Eventually, Axelsson learned to fly himself, and was able to visit the region again and again, equipped with a camera and selection of Arctic explorers’ biographies.

From Climate Heroes, © Ragnar Axelsson.

In his images, the same faces appear, both human and canine. They shift, grow and develop throughout the series, a process that Axelsson describes as “a little story, a movie or something like that. It’s a story for people to see and think. There is a beautiful life there, but it’s changing”.

With an archive spanning decades, Axelsson shows the evident long-term effects of a warming Arctic. Alongside portraits, the book also displays the melting landscapes of Greenland. “I wasn’t thinking about climate change when I began, it was freezing all the time. But then two, five, six years along I saw it, and the hunters told me what was happening. I wanted to try and follow that for years,” Axelsson explains. “It’s difficult to photograph changes, but I have photographs of the same place with 20 years between them; it was all frozen, and now it’s an open ocean.”

“It’s difficult to photograph changes, but I have photographs of the same place with 20 years between them; it was all frozen, and now it’s an open ocean.”

Melted landscapes are not the only changes taking place in Greenland. New technologies and Inuit migration have led to a rapid decline of the hunting community, which in turn brings the threat of extinction for the sled dog. Without the same requirements for animal-led sleds, the dog population has dwindled from 30,000 to 12,000 within the last decade. “An old woman once said to me that without the sled dog, there wouldn’t be any Greenlanders,” remarks Axelsson.

It is clear that Axelsson is not just attempting to create an objective documentary of the diminishing Arctic hunt; he expresses deep concern and compassion for the Inuit way of life. “Some of the hunters I followed have passed away,” he says. Poverty, alcoholism, seasonal depression and isolation have all contributed towards Greenland’s very high suicide rate, especially amongst hunters. “It’s very sad. Some of them are still fighting to be hunters, and they are worried about what’s next. I go back over and over again, to photograph the expressions throughout the years. I’m still collecting, and I’m still taking pictures of life. It’s a great relationship. They have become very good friends.” Both the sled dog and hunter have been essential to Inuit life for 4000 years. It remains to be seen what Greenland will become without them.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.