Chronicle of a community on thin ice


As global warming, emigration and energy exploration threaten Greenland’s hunting families, Ragnar Axelsson has set out to photograph a dying tradition, writes LORNA SIGGINS,Marine Correspondent

WHEN RAGNAR AXELSSON was a boy, back in Iceland, he shot and killed a bird. He says he still feels bad about it. Yet for three decades he has followed the fortunes of Inuit hunters in Greenland, capturing on camera the last throes of a harpooned whale or a cornered polar bear. The chase for a bear can take days, he says, as men and dogs follow pawprints in subzero temperatures. “It gets to the stage where either the bear falls or they fall . . . which is why one feels in the last moments that they share a type of respect for each other.”

In his new book and exhibition, which was due to receive its international premiere last night at Shackleton Autumn School, in Athy, Co Kildare, the photographer records the last moments of one such animal, with only background shadows hinting at the hunters’ presence. “I had promised to conceal their identity, because they are very aware of how they are perceived elsewhere,” Axelsson says. In Greenland, men like 52-year-old Hjelmer Hammeken command heroic status. Entire communities depend on him, for he has hunted 208 polar bears in his lifetime. Yet these communities are the focus of opprobrium from city-based environmental fundamentalists; they are struggling to survive, with climate change affecting their hunting environment and an international ban on whale-bone carvings, bearskins and such craftwork restricting their ability to supplement their incomes, he says.

Axelsson has witnessed subtle alterations to the landscape during his 25 years of travel back and forth between Iceland and Greenland. The four-time Icelandic photographer of the year has also worked in the Faroe Islands and Siberia, and his work has appeared in Stern, the New York Times, Le Figaro, Newsweek, Timeand National Geographic.

“I wasn’t so conscious of the impact of global warming on my first trips to Greenland, and just had a sense that the hunters’ way of life was threatened because of the international attitudes. Also, when you are out in the cold you are not really thinking about climate change,” he says. “But within 15 years of my returns there I had begun to notice that the ice was thinner on traditional hunting grounds. There was far less publicity about environmental change back then, but the Inuit families I came to know well told me they felt something was happening that they didn’t understand.”

Two months ago an ice island estimated at four times the size of Manhattan broke off from the Petterman Glacier, one of the two largest remaining glacial formations in Greenland. The temperature of the seawater around the glacier has been recorded only since 2003, so ocean scientists pointed out that the break could not be said to have been caused “conclusively” by global warming. “On the other hand, nobody can claim that it wasn’t,” Andreas Münchow, professor of ocean science and engineering at the University of Delaware, said at the time.

It’s a predicament that should generate international sympathy for communities “living on the edge”, as Axelsson describes them, maintaining a 4,500-year-old hunting tradition. “The problem is that there are people who are waiting to take advantage of their situation.” The Arctic is the focus of a new oil rush; a British exploration company, Cairn Energy, reported a major find in Baffin Bay last month. “Greenland is very rich in minerals, and there is oil up there. It will be much easier to exploit if the ice is thinning,” Axelsson says. “This could mean society changes very, very dramatically.”

Greenland’s colonised history and its struggle to find a place in a globalised world have been well documented, and Axelsson is acutely aware of the social problems that are symptomatic of that struggle, including alcoholism and suicide. “It’s not something that I have documented in this book,” he says of Last Days of the Arctic. “But it is a part of what is happening to this society.”

Young people still learn how to hunt with their fathers, and the skills they acquire still command respect, he says. “But the new generation knows that it will not make its living from hunting, and so many emigrate to opportunities in Denmark and elsewhere. In the meantime their parents worry almost obsessively about climate change. It is not as if there are many alternatives. You cannot pick an apple from a tree up there.”

It is an issue Marie Herbert highlighted at last year’s Shackleton Autumn School. She described how an Inuit community she lived with had quit its home on an Arctic island in favour of the mainland, where its children were then exposed to some of the worst aspects of western culture. Herbert’s children had the opposite experience when they were young. She was working at a public-relations company in London when she met her future husband, Walter Herbert – a year before he set out to become the first man to complete an undisputed trek by foot to the North Pole, in 1968-9.

The adventurer then spent many years exploring polar regions, and his wife went with him. The couple’s children learned Inuktun, an Inuit dialect. Both Herbert and her daughter Kari have written about their experiences, and Kari runs the company that has published Axelsson’s book.

A previous publication, Face to Faceby Huw Lewis-Jones, was the subject of an exhibition two year ago at the Shackleton school, displaying previously unpublished photographs in the care of the Scott Polar Research Institute, in Cambridge. It reflects the fact that the Shackleton school is now regarded as a key event on the international exploration-lecture circuit. “The world’s best polar gathering” is how Robert B Stephenson, co-ordinator of the Antarctic Circle, an informal international group of “scholars and knowledgeable amateurs interested or involved in non-scientific Antarctic studies”, has described it.

Axelsson says he is looking forward to his visit. In the meantime, his next project touches on the climate-change theme, as he records the slow but steady melting of Iceland’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull, shedding as it does “layers of the history of our planet, including ash from previous volcanic eruptions around the world”.

Where to see more

Ragnar Axelsson speaks about his book and the accompanying exhibition at 10.30am today at Athy Heritage Centre-Museum. His exhibition continues there until November 26th. The school’s field trip, on Monday, is a bus tour through Shackleton Country. Call 059-8633075, e-mail or see and Last Days of the Arctic is published by Polarworld in association with Crymogea of Iceland. It costs £38 from bookshops or