interview: ragnar axelsson on arctic ice
Luminary Ragnar Axelsson is haunted by the Arctic. Known as Rax, he’s an Icelandic photojournalist capturing wilderness in the worn faces of farmers, lonesome hunters, intrepid fishermen; spirits wrestling the elements to survive. His documentary film, Last Days of The Arctic, narrates the portraits that appear in his two books: Last Days of The Arctic and Faces of the North. For decades, places like Greenland have whispered him back to their icy arms, where he spends weeks trekking glaciers with Inuit hunters and their fearless sled dogs. Ragnar Axelsson follows men like Masauna, dubbed “The King of Thule”, whose instincts run so deep that he can step onto a sheet of ice and literally smell a whale lingering unseen in the depths below. He maneuvers his kayak to harpoon it and pulls a narwhal to the surface like the answer to a prayer. Rax takes a photo.
“We couldn’t speak. We communicated with looks and gestures. I joke with them and they joke back. I began to perceive nature as they did. I could see it in their eyes when I became one of them,” he says in the film. He kindly agreed to an interview with ouididi. Continued below. Slideshow: Photographs by Ragnar Axelsson from his book, Faces of the North. Click on images to accelerate.
In your film you speak about Gudjon Porsteinsson’s portrait on the front cover of Faces of the North by saying: “It was a turning point in my career. I felt I could really start working more from my own heart and that I had found the incentive to tell the stories I really wanted to tell.” What draws you to these particular stories and how do you envision their link?
It is usually something in the character’s face that interests me. I was on a farm as a child and teenager, and all the characters on the nearby farms where like actors in a movie. I could stand by and watch them talk and tell stories, they where very funny; laughing all the time, life was without any worries. There were also scientific stories — I was measuring the glaciers and doing all kinds of scientific work with [the farmers]. I think I could say that all those characters that I listened to while walking the pages of life, in between mountains and glaciers, is something that I liked to capture in future photographs: [it's about] looking back to those older days. To me, looking at old faces like Gudjon, it tells the harsh story of his life and the environment he lived in. He used to go out fishing in a very difficult area, fight the elements in all kinds of weather. It shows in Gudjons face to me, I sensed his history.
Talking more about Gudjon, you say: “He had the nation’s history recorded in his face. The first few times I visited him, he was very difficult. It was like confronting a wild animal.” What encouraged you to continue seeking the reward of his friendship, and how do you break down barriers between yourself and your subjects?
(Laughs) To tell you the truth when I first knocked on Gudjons door, I saw the glimpse in his eyes that was his inner man — that he was a warm-hearted man. Gudjons roughness was just on the outside; I sensed that right away and I think he sensed that too in me when I smiled at his angry look; started joking with him when he tried to scare me away. He liked that, all barriers blew away and I could take all the photographs of him that I wanted. It took me some time to get him to be himself in pictures. It wasn’t until he didn’t notice that I was taking pictures that the right moment came up, the picture came to life and stopped; the moment in his life that changed the life for us both. He later acted in two films and in advertisements too. I sometimes call that photograph of Gudjon my YESTERDAY, because it got a lot of attention. Now I have to write Hey Jude. Me and Gudjon became very good friends; we called each other by phone and always, when passing his farm, I stopped by for a cup of coffee. Gudjon passed away a few years ago at the age of 82.
Do you maintain a connection/correspondence to people after you photograph them, and are you ever concerned with their perception of how you’ve portrayed them?
There are many that I keep in touch with. Some of them have become very good friends of mine. I have never gotten an angry response from pictures I have taken and published; either from the characters that I have photographed and published in my books, or in the newspaper. One great friend of mine from Greenland was unhappy and worried because he did not have a boat. I asked my friends around me, told them my worries about that great hunter who did not have a boat to go fishing, hunting and feed his family. We got enough money to help him to buy a boat. It’s rewarding, being able to pay back [these people].
I understand that working for the newspaper you use canon digital but for personal projects you shoot black and white film and develop it yourself. How do these techniques enrich your vision?
Working on a newspaper is making a living doing, often, pictures that do not matter. That is what newspapers are turning up to be about: nothing or famous people who themselves do not know what they are famous for. History and real things in life that matter to all of us flow away without being documented in pictures. That is why I try to do as much as I can to take photographs that will matter for the future and make people think about life on our planet. I do that on film, in black and white, because I like black and white. Using film and printing the picture or scanning is like creating something; it makes me think more about each picture, try to do it as good as I can. In digital pictures you can see the photographs right away but on film you have to wait and develop the negatives; that is exciting.
When you are traveling light, what equipment is essential for you?
When I travel light I just travel with my Leicas. I think one of my most successful trips were to Greenland and Siberia. I just had two Lecia bodies and 4 lenses. 21mm-28mm-35mm-and 50mm I never use long lenses for my personal jobs only for the paper that I work for when covering news.
What is it about the Arctic that calls you back and how has it felt to watch it transform over the three decades that you’ve been going there?
The Arctic is like a magnet: it keeps dragging you back. What I have sensed [and observed] through the years, walking the pages of history the past 30 years, are the changes of the melting ice. It’s scary, we can’t look away and say: it has all happened before and will turn back. That might be true, but how can we take that chance if we are accelerating the heating of our planet; our only home. I am now working on a book showing the melting ice, it will hopefully come out next year or in 2014.
Who are other photographers/storytellers that you admire?
There are many photographers that I like a lot. W Eugene Smith is one of my favorites, Mary Ellen Mark is great and a good friend. I like her and her work endlessly. Henry Cartier Bresson is a legend that has left so much behind for all of us. I do get a lot of inspirations from painters and the way the great masters use light in their paintings and it is always in my mind when I print in my darkroom.
What keeps you going when you’re shooting through ice storms at minus 40 C?
I wanted to photograph in conditions that were on the edge, showing life that is really hard. It doesn’t show sometimes in pictures how cold it is but it is rewarding doing it, even though it is just for my self. I can’t tell you how many times I promised myself never to go back but the Artic always drags me back. It is a state of mind, being in conditions like that, warm clothes keep you warm but taking pictures is always hard in those conditions; the equipment freezes constantly. You get tears in your eyes, hardly seeing what you’re doing when the cold wind blows. It’s always great to look through the films from a trip like that, to see that through the tears, in the cold, there was a picture that worked.
Photographs by Ragnar Axelsson from his book, Faces of The North. Interviewed by Miriam Johnson.