“Imagine waking up early one morning in the world’s northernmost settlement — midwinter, pitch black outside. The baying of a lonesome dog pierces the silence.” Ragnar Axelsson’s words in Arctic Heroes convey his intention: he encourages the reader to take part in the daily life of the Inuit hunters of Greenland. With photographs that are as intimate as they are spectacular, the Icelandic photographer puts us in the midst of lives that are very unlike our own. We follow along with those who had settled at the edge of the habitable world in defiance of the elements. Shot in black and white, the images show the thousand nuances of the Arctic and leave us with a mixed impression of awe and familiarity.
Four decades spent immersed in vast expanses of whiteness, immortalizing the customs of the peoples of the North and the majesty of the wildlife, Ragnar Axelsson has done much to protect the Arctic environment. His is a valuable and much-needed testimony of the sweeping changes taking place in this region and their irreversible consequences for the lives of the local populations. In 2018, Axelsson published Glacier, a photographic tribute to the ice giants that shaped the landscapes of his Icelandic childhood, and which are now doomed to melt away. In Arctic Heroes, he moves away from the mineral world and turns his lens back onto the frost-covered muzzles of sled dogs and on the Inuit way of life, both imperiled by global warming.
The idea of dedicating a book to sled dogs was suggested to Ragnar Axelsson some fifteen years ago, by his wife and a friend, in a casual conversation. “I felt like a fool,” wrote the photographer. “I had been looking at the dogs like any other dogs. I hadn’t considered the heroic role they had played throughout the ages.” And their heroism is considerable: without the help of these animals, humans would not have reached the poles. The dogs have been much more than pets: for over 2,000 years, they have made it possible for people to travel across the Arctic and transported their cargo. While today we opt for motorized transportation, the Inuit of Greenland are among the communities that still rely on their canine companions to tame the snowy expanses. There are now 15,000 dog teams in Greenland (compared to 9,000 in Siberia). However, this is 3,000 fewer than in 2010. Ice melt, motorization, and diseases are growing threats to this ancestral practice.
The photographer admits that it is just as difficult to photograph Inuit hunters out in the cold, with one’s fingers wrapped in thick gloves, as it is to get them to tell their stories. They are a proud people, but they don’t open up easily. When gathering precious testimony, Axelsson was able to gauge the strength of the hunters’ attachment to their dogs. Inuit culture is steeped in respect for ancestral traditions, nature, and the dogs, these heroic friends that unhesitatingly risk their lives to bring their masters to safety. Some of their stories are transcribed in the book and accompany the photos taken between 1986 and 2020.
Whether they are captured in action, harnessed to their masters’ sleds, or at rest, in every photo the canine heroes exude the same majesty. Whether photographing them alone or in packs, Axelsson pays close attention to their singular expressions, capturing their wisdom. The book, in which humans play a secondary role, urges us to see the Greenland dogs through the eyes of their masters who know them and love them. It is impossible to see in them as “any other dog”: they are key actors in the human conquest of some of the most inhospitable regions. Nor is it possible to let them perish in indifference, without doing everything in our power to preserve the traces of their paws on the snowy plateaus.
By Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Paris-based editor and Lebanese content creator. She specializes in technology, art, culture, and social issues.
Ragnar Axelsson, Arctic Heroes: A Tribute to the Sled Dogs of Greenland
€68, Pp. 290