Book Review: Arctic Heroes by Ragnar Axelsson
Photographer Ragnar Axelsson (*1958) hails from Island and has been documenting the Arctic (people, animals, landscapes) for more than forty years. The black and white photographs in this book were taken between 1986 and 2020 in Greenland; they give testimony to the extraordinary relationship between sledge dogs and hunters.
“Time and again, I visited small villages all over Greenland to collect stories of dogs and hunters. Sometimes I’d be lucky to get one story, other times none at all. I can safely say that it was just as difficult to squeeze stories out of these hunters as it was to photograph them out on the freezing cold of the sea ice.” People in cold climates are indeed given less to chatting than folks in warmer climates, I thought to myself and felt reminded of this Norwegian joke: Up in the cold north of the country, a traveller enters a bar where a lonely costumer is nursing his beer. After he had ordered a beer for himself, the traveller turned to the lonely customer and said: “Cheers!”, whereupon the other one said: “Wanna drink or wanna talk?”
The photographer’s encounters with the hunters weren’t always as anticipated and hoped for.
“’May I take your picture?’, I ask a man looking through a pair of binoculars out onto the sea ice in the little village of Cape Tobin. He looks up with a somewhat wary expression.
‘You may take one picture,’ he answers sharply. I snap a single photo of him and put the camera down.
‘Are you done?’, he asks.
‘Yes’, I answer. ‘You said only one picture’.
He bursts out laughing. We’ve broken the ice.”(a somewhat peculiar way to put it, given Hjelmer Hammeken’s text message from 10th March 2020 that introduces this tome: “Hi, there is no ice, the new layer is very thin, no one has walked on it yet, you can go over the mountain to Cape Tobin, no catch for a long time, Raxi, I miss the old Greenland.”).
“There is something inexplicable about the Arctic that speaks to you, a force that draws you to it like a magnet,” Ragnar Axelsson writes in the preface and that describes perfectly the sensations, powerful and overwhelming, I experienced when spending time with the pictures in this book. I imagine it’s to do with the vastness that makes one aware, and feel, that there’s something bigger than us – a realisation at the same time awe inspiring and frightening.
I love dogs. By this I mean that my attitude towards them is generally sympathetic. Needless to say, I can also be afraid of them. When looking at the sled dogs in this impressive tome, I experience only warm feelings full of affection. And, when I read Ragnar Axelsson’s accounts of his various encounters with hunters who told him of their experiences with dogs, my affection and respect for them gets even more intense.
Take Takku Takkuk, for instance, the lead dog of Tallannquaq, a weathered old hunter from Quaanaaq. When his master (who, like most Greenlandic hunters, had never learned to swim) fell into the crack in the sea ice and couldn’t manage to get out, Takku Takkuk “pulled him up out of the water back onto the ice.” The dog was also able to “intuit the condition of the sea ice and always found the right way through treacherous areas (…) ‘There would be no Inuit without the Greenlandic dog,’ said an elderly Greenlandic woman.”
Ragnar Axelsson isn’t into parachute journalism but spends time with, and participates in the life of the ones he’s documenting, including polar bear hunting. And, he asks for permission whether his pics can be published.
“’Hjelmer, I have pictures from this trip that maybe not everyone should see. If you want me to get rid of them I will, so you won’t have any trouble.’ After a pensive silence, Hjelmer says, “I want you to show everyone how my life is. It’s not always nice and it’s not always easy. It’s often a struggle to stay alive. There are so many that have been killed while trying to provide for their families. Life here is extraordinary. But it can also be perilous. Those who throw stones at us hunters should take a good look at themselves first. We can’t simply run out to the store and buy whatever we want. We have to hunt to provide for our families. This has been the legacy of the Greenlandic hunter for 4000 years. And this way of life is dying out. Our world is melting.'”
What this practically means was illustrated dramatically when Hjelmer and his nephew Age were one day on their way home from polar bear hunting. “The sea ice had begun to move like an ocean wave, undulating from crest to trough. There was no turning back at this point. The ice behind them had already become open ocean, and the water was gaining on them quickly ….”.
“Don’t stop taking pictures. You don’t know when you have the frame. Keep going,” photographer friend Mary Ellen Mark told Axelsson some years ago, when he put down his camera and thought he had the shot. And so he kept on going and experienced what many photographers experience, provided they do not give up. Eventually, he took the image that he thought would live on. “A frozen moment from Hjelmer’s life. A moment that has long since passed, but will live on into the future as an emblem of life on the sea ice, of the greatest heroes in the Arctic, of a hunter and his dogs. The picture I had taken earlier that day, the one I had thought captured the moment, turned out to be worthless.”
Arctic Heroes is not only an eye opener but also destined to alter one’s way of looking at the world – it surely has altered mine.
by Ragnar Axelsson
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2021