Inughuit – Bryan Alexander celebrates 50 years of Arctic photography
British photographer and writer Bryan Alexander has been documenting life in the indigenous communities of the Arctic since 1971. His latest book, “Inughuit” (Great People), depicts the traditional activities and life of the Inuit of the Avanersuaq region in Northwest Greenland. This beautifully illustrated photo book has a limited edition of only 75 signed copies and can be ordered here.
Bryan is currently in Northwest Greenland and we asked him to give us an update on life in the region and how it has changed over the last half century. We also asked him to tell us the story behind some of the bookplate images and why they have a special meaning for him.
“It’s a great feeling to return once again to this remote Arctic community. The fact that that this year is exactly 50 years since my first visit, adds a certain significance to the occasion. It has been wonderful to get together with old friends and reminisce about earlier times and long journeys and hunts that we made together, but I suppose that is what old people often do!
Of course like everywhere else in the World, life has changed in this remote region of Northwest Greenland. The traditional hunting life is slowly disappearing as it is in many other Arctic communities. There are far fewer hunters and consequently, less sled dogs in Qaanaaq nowadays, compared with 50 years ago.”
Sleeping on a hunting trip
“This photo of Kigutikak Kivioq asleep on his father’s sled was taken at a hunting trip to the floe edge in June 1971. It is customary for boys to travel with their father on hunting trips so they can learn the necessary skills of being a hunter.
Kigutikak and his father were part of a group of hunters spread out along the floe edge in Hvalsund as they waited for seals and narwhals to surface close by.
There is very little difference in the light between day and night in June, so the hunters just slept whenever they were tired, regardless of whether it was day or night.”
The perils of hunting on thin ice
“This photo of hunters hauling a dead walrus up onto the ice was taken in March 1977. Walrus meat is highly prized by the Inughuit.
Hunting walrus at their breathing holes on new ice is one of the most difficult and tiring of the Inughuit’s hunting activities that I have photographed. It often involved walking for many hours a day on very thin ice. It was also dangerous at times.
On one trip in March 1977, I was out with three hunters from Siorapaluk when the sea ice broke up around us. We were 30km from land and we slowly drifted out to sea towards Canada on an ice floe. After several days adrift we were blown back towards Cape Chalon by a severe storm. The wind, which gusted over 70 mph, blew out a lot more of the sea ice.
After the storm subsided and the people of Siorapaluk saw how much of the sea ice was gone, they alerted the local authorities. We had been away for over a week and my wife Cherry, was told that I was missing and assumed dead. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case, all four of us survived and were found after a lengthy air search by two helicopters.”
Midday in the polar night
“I took this photo of the village of Moriussaq at midday in January during the polar night. In this part of northwest Greenland the sun sets in October and doesn’t appear above the horizon again until the middle of the following February.
I was based at Moriussaq for 6 months on an assignment in 1980 and it quickly became my favourite village in the district. At that time about 50 people lived there and it was a thriving hunting community. During the 1990s, its fortunes changed and more and more people began drifting away.
The village finally closed in 2010. Today, apart from the graveyard and some of the buildings which are still standing, there is little left to show that Moriussaq was once a vibrant Inughuit hunting community – only photographs and memories remain.”
Ice floe raft
“This photo of Orfik Duneq and his wife and daughter on an ice floe has been published many times to illustrate climate change in recent years. In fact, it was taken 50 years ago and really has nothing to do with climate change. The Inughuit have always used ice floes as rafts when leads in the sea ice open up as the summer thaw sets in.”
Drinking sea ice
“This is one of my favourite photos from my first visit to the Inughuit in 1971. I was travelling with Kigutikak by dog sled in June. It was a warm day and I was mystified when he suddenly decided to drink from a melt pool on the sea ice as I thought it would be salty. What I didn’t know at the time was, that as the thaw sets in, salt in the sea ice sinks through the ice leaving melt water on the surface fine to drink.”
Traditional hunting – hares, auks and polar bears
Children and clouds – part of the changing face of the Arctic
Left: “Inughuit children are given a lot more freedom to explore for themselves, even if at times it appears dangerous. This photo taken in 1997 of kids climbing on a pile of empty oil drums in Moriussaq, shows a scene that would likely be reported to the police or social services if it occurred in the UK.”
Right: “In October 2008 I was staying with Hans Jensen, an Inuit friend of mine in Qaanaaq. In the morning, as I was packing my bags to leave, Hans came and told me to take a look at the sky. I went outside and my jaw dropped. I rushed back indoors and grabbed my camera and for the next two hours I photographed this amazing Asperatus cloud formation. It was one of the few occasions in my life, when I have stopped photographing and just watched in awe.”
The effects of our warming climate are very visible here, and it has had a considerable impact on the lives of the Inughuit who hunt and travel in the region. For example, the Politiken Glacier, on the south side of Inglefield Bay, has receded and is now considerably smaller than it was 50 years ago. For centuries, the Inughuit had used it as a shortcut to hunting grounds and to other villages in the southern part of the district. Now the glacier is impassable because there are too many crevasses which make it far too dangerous to travel by dog sled on.
“We just have to adapt”
However, climate change is not all bad news in this remote Arctic region. Because the ice is thinner now, it breaks up earlier in the Spring and that gives the Inughuit a longer season to use boats for hunting. During my current trip, one of the local Inughuit in Qaanaaq said to me, “There is no point us worrying about climate change, there is nothing we can do about it, we just have to adapt.”
Browse the full gallery of photos from “Inughuit”
We have created a new gallery with more than 90 of Bryan’s amazing images from “Inughuit”. For more information on the book or to purchase one of the signed limited edition, please visit the Arctica Publishing website.