Ragnar Axelsson is an Icelandic photographer who has been working in the frigid Arctic for over 40 years and documenting breathtaking imagery of the desolate landscape and its people.
In recent times, unprecedented climate change has made this region more adverse for humans and wildlife, with worse to come from excessive carbon consumption far, far away from their tiny villages — something they have no control over. This has made Axelsson more concerned about documenting the changes.
Mechanical Film Cameras Don’t Easily Stop in the Winter
“The first years [of photography] were all on film, and I still use film cameras together with digital cameras,” says Rax, as his friends call him. “I use digital more today as it has excellent quality files.
“I love photographing on film cameras, and sometimes they take over when the batteries are drained in the cold. What has changed in my photography is realizing more and more how important it is to document life in Arctic countries. Photographs can significantly impact people and have opened people’s eyes before and will continue to do so in the future.”
The Joy of Black and White Photography
Axelsson (b. 1958) enjoys photographing in black and white as he grew up in the darkroom in his house. There is a special moment when a photograph comes to life in a darkroom, although the real magical moment is when the shutter freezes a moment in life forever. Black and white photography, he believes, leaves something behind for the imagination.
The photographer currently shoots with a Leica M10 monochrome and has used monochrome Leicas for some years. His other camera is the Leica SL (Typ 601) alongside lenses from 21mm to 90mm. He hardly ever uses long lenses.
Axelsson has also photographed in Latvia, Lithuania, Mozambique, South Africa, China, and Ukraine, working as a photojournalist at Morgunblaðið (1976 – 2020), an Icelandic newspaper.
“It was challenging to photograph in Latvia, Lithuania when I was there,” remembers the lensman who has published eight photo books in various international editions. “It was in the circumstances where there was a possibility of being shot. The Arctic is a struggle with the extreme cold, and the only battle is to fight that cold and be careful. Nature can be unforgiving.
“I decided to photograph the Arctic after having been in Africa and thinking, oh, every photographer on the planet is here taking the same photograph. I have to go somewhere else, and I started doing so nearly 40 years ago, and you start loving the Arctic countries and the cold.
“Life in the Arctic will be the biggest issue on the planet in coming years. It has to be shown to the world, and I hope to open people’s eyes to the drastic changes affecting everything on our planet.”
Inspiration From Other Photographers
“Many great photographers have inspired me throughout the years,” Axelsson says. “W. Eugene Smith is one of them, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin, Mary Ellen Mark, to name a few. They all did great things that opened people’s eyes to life on our planet. It is essential to do that more than ever.”
Photographer Mary Ellen Mark wrote the foreword to Axelsson’s book, Faces of the North, which captured about 100 austere, powerful images of Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, taken over two decades.
“Mary Ellen was a great woman,” remembers Rax. “She passed away in 2015 and is sadly missed. Mary Ellen was a great inspiration to my photography, a great friend, and one of the greatest photographers of all time. I was in her workshop in 1985, where we met for the first time and became close friends.”
Preserving the Heritage of Thousands of Years
In some towns, residents have replaced their animal skins with Gore-Tex clothing, snowmobiles for dog sleds even rifles for traditional harpoons.
“It makes it easier for them,” says the inveterate photo explorer. “In some villages in Greenland, like in Thule [old name for Qaanaaq], they still use traditional skin clothes and use dogsled and kayaks. They want to keep their heritage alive. How long that will last, no one knows.”
Why do some of the natives still prefer sled dogs to snowmobiles?
“The dogsled never fails,” explains Axelsson. “Snow vehicles can go fast and travel a long distance in a short time. It is a long walk back to safety in extremely cold conditions if something [mechanical failure] happens. The dogs never fail, and if they have done a route once, they know their way back home [even in the worst of visibility and weather].”
Axelsson’s photo book Arctic Heroes: A Tribute to the Sled Dogs of Greenland is a celebration of the locals’ best friend. This is a time when the melting ice sheet is disrupting an over 8,000-year old (that’s how long sled dogs are believed to have existed) traditional lifestyle of the Inuits, the indigenous peoples inhabiting the freezing regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.
The Arctic heroes, in my mind, are the hunters and the dogs and the people living above the Arctic Circle. Their life is changing because of melting sea ice. The book we did was a tribute to the sled dog, which is declining, and the hunters. There were 30,000 dogs ten years ago; now, they are 11,000. The hunter and his dog are real Arctic heroes who have been fighting the elements to survive for hundreds of years. There are more Arctic Heroes living above the Arctic Circle in all the 8 Arctic countries. — Ragnar Axelsson
The Risks of Photographing in Extreme Cold
Adjusting camera dials is always tricky with gloves on, and last winter Axelsson removed his gloves briefly to make a camera adjustment — a grave mistake that the photographer is still paying for.
“My right thumb is OK, [but] it is numb, and I have to be careful when below zero,” he says. “It hurts a bit every day, but I get used to it. It just froze [and turned black] on the sea ice in Thule when I was photographing in extremely cold weather and strong wind. It was my stupidity in the excitement of getting a photograph of a hunter on the sea ice, the sun was going under, and darkness took over. It was a struggle getting back home in the storm.”
Polar winters are dreary with twenty-four-hour darkness. It is only when the aurora borealis is dancing in the sky that it lights up a little bit, and photography for Rax kicks in.
There is an ongoing 3-year project to do a book of all 8 Arctic countries, although COVID has slowed it down. In March, the photographer, raised on an isolated farm in southern Iceland, is going to Siberia and will finish all his travel in the next two years.
Axelsson is optimistic about the future but seriously worried at the same time.
“Significant changes are happening in the Arctic countries; the sea ice is not as safe as it used to be,” laments Axelsson. “Hunting communities are closing down. Hunters are getting fewer and fewer, and traditional hunting is declining.
“The young generation is not focusing on being hunters; they will live a different life in the future,” Axelsson says. “The tundra is thawing, and there might be drastic changes in years to come. It is important to document life on our planet, and all eyes will be in the Arctic in the coming years. People who live there have a chance to survive in harmony with nature.”
You can watch Axelsson’s interactive show Where the World is Melting taking place at the Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung (an arts foundation) in Munich. You can also find more of his work on his website and Instagram.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.
Image credits: All photos by Ragnar Axelsson