During SXSW in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, award-winning Canadian documentary photographer Louie Palu held an unusual exhibition titled “Arctic Passage.” His large format photos were displayed on a plaza frozen within large blocks of ice.
Palu shot the photos in the Arctic over the course of three years while on assignment for National Geographic, and the work explores geopolitics, history, and climate change.
The photographer tells PetaPixel that he became interested in the Arctic after finishing covering a story in Afghanistan and becoming interesting in geopolitics in conflict.
“I started reading a lot about the Arctic, many people don’t know that for more than 70 years Canada and the United States have operated a defensive radar line that starts in Alaska, goes across the North of Canada, and above the Arctic Circle,” Palu tells PetaPixel. “Though it’s not an official part, there are radar stations that extend on to Greenland. I started to wonder what this 70-year-old front line looks like. I visited and realized that there was a lot more military activity than I thought.”
Palu applied for and received a Guggenheim Fellowship to do a photography project on the Arctic, and he spent about a year working on it. After realizing he needed more support and a platform to share his work, he reached out to National Geographic and received the magazine’s backing.
“The Cold War was about imagined narratives and unknowns, and that’s what is happening now,” Palu says. “Today’s debate is about who’s going to own the Arctic? Some countries are arguing that underwater continental shelves are an extension of their land, so the North Pole belongs to them. Other countries then make counterclaims. All these narratives result in conflict.
“Suddenly the idea of a ‘blue Arctic’ where you can sail ships through water that was ice brings up questions about fishing, oil rights and more. This became the foundation of the project.”
Shooting the project was challenging, to say the least.
“Sometimes there were areas I traveled to in the High Arctic where there was no villages and no human beings for miles,” Palu says. “You can be killed or seriously hurt in the Arctic just by the weather. There you realize that nature is the ultimate power.
“You can get frostbite any time of the day. If you don’t eat enough fatty food your body doesn’t produce enough heat and your hands and feet start to get cold and hurt. You can’t sweat too much or you’ll get wet and freeze to death if you are not careful. It’s like an infinity circle of the environment constantly degrading you, and you have no power to fight back.
“There were times when I’d travel for several hours to go photograph. I’d ride for hours on a snowmobile in -50 degrees Celsius (-58 F) only to learn that upon arrival my cameras were dead or the shutter frozen.”
Palu’s inspiration behind the unique Arctic Passage exhibition was the Franklin Expedition, one of the greatest naval disasters in Arctic history. Two ships looking for a shortcut from England to Asia in 1945 became icebound and were lost, with very little clues left behind as to what happened to them and the 129 men on board.
“I read Frozen in Time, a book about the Franklin expedition which mentioned that there was a camera aboard the ship,” Palu says. “The camera was never found. I wondered what those pictures would look like. It was an imagined idea of these frozen photographs at the bottom of the Arctic ocean in blocks of ice. I thought, wouldn’t that be a compelling installation?
“What I like about this installation are the metaphors. Franklin is history. Today, there are new actors in the Arctic. The Arctic is the place where the most dramatic changes in the world are happening related to Global Warming. When the ice melts, new things are going to be unleashed and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. We have a whole new part of the world where governments have to consider what their roles will be. This really is the last frontier.”