// Images by Ragnar Axelsson // Text by Lou Taylor //
In our desire to explore the world, Europeans often head south, to the sun of the Mediterranean or on long-haul flights to the far east and Australasia. We don’t tend to think about travelling north. A short 2 hour flight from Heathrow can land you in the kingdom of Norway or the island republic of Iceland, on the edge of the Arctic Circle and the edge of human existence.
It is from the latter of these two countries that internationally recognised photo-journalist Ragnar Axelsson was born in 1958. Axelsson or Rax, as he is also known, has compiled several books and exhibited across the globe. Axelsson began his career photographing for Iceland’s Morgunblaðið newspaper in 1976, and has since worked on commissions for the industry’s most eminent magazines, among them Time and National Geographic. To date Rax has amassed over 20 awards in recognition of his documentary work, including the Oskar Barnack Award, collected in 2001.
Compelled by his fascination with its inhabitants, Axelsson has been travelling to the Arctic for almost thirty years, camera in hand. His ongoing photographic project visits the hunting communities of northern Greenland and Canada, documenting the traditional lifestyle of this remote and enigmatic population. For centuries the Inuit have endured hostile conditions and honed the skills that they need to subsist in this extreme environment. In recent times global warming has had an increasing impact on their way of life, with many nations wrestling for rights to the territory’s mining and oil resources. In 2004 Rax published Faces of the North, a book on vanishing lifestyles in Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. In his most recent book, Last Days of the Arctic, Axelsson captures the Inuit struggle against new challenges brought by climate change and mounting economic burden.
Rax’s images demonstrate his interest in the human element of the story. They also often feature the wider landscape to illustrate that Inuit identity is grounded in the landscape itself, one that they must understand and respect in order to survive. Global warming has upset this fragile equilibrium, threatening their way of life. Whilst the Inuit had no part in causing these changes, they have no choice but to bear the consequences. In placing his subjects within the wider environment, Rax contextualises their plight. A tiny figure, just visible in the majestic landscape, reminds us of human vulnerability in the face of the prevailing might of nature.
Aesthetically, each image alone is beautiful. These are not only discrete portraits but constituent parts of a greater story that captures the reality of this community and the coexistence of man, wildlife and nature. Rax’s black and white images are striking and unforgettable. At times he has an unconventional approach towards composition, which is nothing but successful in creating impact. The main figure is often interrupted or blurred, heightening the sense of fragility. His collection of images has a nostalgic quality, making the images instant classics.
The quality of Rax’s work is even more impressive when you consider the extreme conditions he has worked in. He has “trekked through glacial storms, fallen through rifts and awakened on ice that has drifted out to sea”. As far as possible he has immersed himself in the culture of his subjects, granting the images an intimacy without which they would be lacking. Over time, Axelsson has built a relationship with his subjects, as a result his portraiture feels natural and sincere. Some subjects appear determined, others distressed; via Axelsson we see the full spectrum of this remote world. We can experience the pride that the Inuit have in their culture, and the weight of the knowledge that this is in jeopardy. Last Days of the Arctic is both celebration and lament, recording an admirable culture and its dissolution as the Inuit people steer through the “twilight of their society”.
More images from Last days of the Arctic, Rax’s previous projects, and his upcoming book, can be found at www.rax.is. “Last Days of The Arctic” by Ragnar Axelsson is available from all good book stores for around £30. It is also possible to order prints directly from his website, hand-printed by the great man himself. Rax is exhibiting in Paris this autumn and London and Milan next year.