Photo-talks RAX

Ragnar Axelsson (RAX)

Mr. Axelsson, you have traveled and documented the Arctic region for over 30 years. Do you still remember your first journey to the North? 


The first time I was there, in Greenland in particular, I was assisting my friend as his co-pilot. I was collecting flying hours and experience as a beginning pilot and was assisting my friends who where flying ambulance flights.  We had to be ready to go and fly in any weather conditions and save people who where sick or injured and had to be brought to the hospital. One of those flights was to Greenland where we were supposed to pick up a man with a gunshot wound. We waited for three hours at the airport for the patient and he could not be found, because he was drunk somewhere in the village. And this was my first impression – not too positive (laughs).

But, the fact is, is that I have always been fascinated with Arctic explorers – I have been reading books about their journeys to the North since I was a child. In spite of that, when I started working as a photographer, I wanted to go to Africa, like everyone else. Africa was also far away from Iceland, and when you are a young photographer, you think that the further away you go, the better picture you will take. Being in Africa, I figured that there were many others like me. You had to fight for a shot and you always loose at that game. So, my second thought was that I wanted to go to the place with not that many people, but where the environment would be challenging to photograph.


And you found that place… Except extreme temperatures, – 30, -40 degrees, you have to deal with snowstorms, heavy wind, weather shifts. How are you able to take such good photographs in these conditions?  


I like bad weather. It’s a challenge to work in these conditions and very rewarding when you get good photographs. The blizzard and the snowstorms also reflect the extreme conditions people live in every day and are reflected on the faces of the people I photograph. And when you managed to take a good photo in such conditions, it feels like a kick of energy and a real accomplishment.


You photograph mostly on analogue. Is this also because the digital can’t handle the cold? 


Yes, digital cameras sometimes don’t handle the extreme conditions. I wouldn’t be able to be out for weeks, I would have to come back and reload the batteries. But, I also have to be very careful with the film, watch every move. The film can crack and break from the cold. You have to wear very warm clothes, and two layers of gloves and cannot make mistakes. Sometimes, when I change film, it feels like I am in space, wearing my spacesuit and try to put a thread through a needle, but wearing boxing gloves (laughs). It can be challenging.


Facing those difficulties, did you expect that you would keep coming back to the Arctic for so many years?


No, at first I thought I would go there for one or two trips. But then, I felt I had to return over and over again.  I got to know the hunters, live with them, spend time with them – and I started learning about their culture and traditions that have been present in the region for hundreds of years. I also wanted to see more of Greenland, because it’s so different on every part of the island. When you go up further north, and to the East coast, then you see remote villages with people hunting. And that was something that fascinated me. I already thought  back then, that this was a culture that might be changing and I wanted to document those changes.


What has changed there over the years?


There are fewer hunters, the young generations don’t want to live in the traditional way – it is a beautiful life, but it’s hard.  They want to live a „better” life, which perhaps is not so much better in the end. But they watch TV and see on the internet another life that they want much more. They consider their old culture to be old-fashioned. The changes are visible in every aspect of their lives – hunters don’t wear their traditional clothes made of skins anymore, but instead they wear Danish brands. The skin boats they used to have are replaced with plastic kayaks.


In your projects, you also emphasize the influence of global warming on the whole region and on the lifestyle of the indigenous people. Is it possible that the hunters want to keep their culture, but are not able to because of climate changes? 


People are very worried by the fact that the hunters cannot hunt in some of the villages as they used to. They might have gone out hunting in September and the ice was already frozen, but now it freezes much later – even in January or February. I myself also see the changes from journey to journey: when I went to Tule 25 or 28 years ago, the ice cover was 1-1.5 meters thick. Recently, at the same time of the year, the was so thin, that if a dog jumped there, it would fall through the ice. The amazing thing is that they could sense the changes, before scientists even spoke about global warming. I remember one scene from many years ago – an old man looked up in the air and said: „There is something wrong. I don’t know what it is, but the big ice is sick”. When I talk to the hunters, I feel that they have more knowledge that we can imagine, and we should accept this knowledge, respect it, and listen to it.


How did your travels influence you personally?


In Greenland, people feel they are a part of nature, especially the hunters – they are part of the landscape. Spending time with them makes you think much more about life itself, and our planet. It’s our home, and we should show it respect. When I come back from there and I look at the people in cities, I always think how stupid we are. Why are we always running? Can’t we live our lives in an easier, but perhaps a bit more generous, way – thinking about others and the environment? But, it also fuels me to come back and keep capturing it.


The way you capture their life is very poetic, also because you use mostly black and white. Why have you chosen to avoid color? 


I like black and white. Everything in real life is in color. So, when I look at color photographs, it has to be a really great image and I sometimes combine color with black and white, even if the feeling of a black and white photograph is completely different to me. Sometimes, I say that my world is in black and white (laughs). This has also something to do with analogue photography. I get a kick out of seeing a photograph coming out in a dark room, and this is where my passion for photography began. This feeds my inspiration to work. Even when the conditions are unbearable, I still see the light at the end of the tunnel – and this light is the next photograph. I always try to get a good photograph. I’ve never gotten it, but I keep trying.

Ragnar Axelsson has dedicated his career to the subsistence hunters, fishermen and farmers of the circumpolar area that live on the fringe of the habitable world. Since the early 1980’s, he has travelled to the Arctic, documenting the lives of the Inuit hunters in Northern Canada and Greenland, the farmers and fishermen in the North-Atlantic region and the indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia and Siberia. His stories have appeared in print media publications such as Time magazine, Life, Stern, GEO, Polka, Wanderlust, Geographical and Newsweek, and are the subject of his major photography books: Faces of the North (2004 – republished in an extended version in 2015), Last Days of the Arctic (2010) and Behind the Mountains (2013).  The Faces of the North series was widely exhibited, including exhibitions at the Recontres d’Arles Photo Festival (2001) and Alfred-Ehrhardt-Foundation, Cologne (2005). The Last Days of the Arctic exhibition has been travelling around Europe since 2010 and has, among other venues, been shown in Reykjavík, Dublin, Bergen, Lübeck, Milan, London, Saarbrücken and Brussels.

Photographer bio photo
Return to top ↑