Books

Book review: In ‘Where the World is Melting,’ portraits of ancient ways in peril

"Where the World is Melting," by Ragnar Axelsson

“Where the World is Melting”

By Ragnar Axelsson; Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg, 2022; 224 pages; Price variable for used editions through booksellers; a new edition will be printed this coming spring.

“The Ice is getting thinner, and hunting season is coming to an end,” Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson writes in “Where the World is Melting.” The hunting season he refers to is not an annual event. It’s the very existence of a hunting season, in this case for the Inuit of Greenland.

“The ocean icefield that stretched out as far as the eye could see is now open sea,” Axelsson continues. “What will existence in these parts be like if the ice disappears completely? It’s such a huge part of people’s lives here. The number of hunters decreases every year, and it is becoming increasingly hard to survive by hunting. The inhabitants are worried about their future. They envision the end of a society based on a hunting tradition that stretches back many thousands of years.”

This is the crux of Axelsson’s book. We know arctic warming is leading to melting glaciers, vanishing sea ice, thawing permafrost, and disrupted wildlife. What we hear less about is how the changes besetting this vast expanse of the planet are affecting the peoples who have called it home for millennia. What will happen to them as the land, sea and ice upon which they live and work are irreversibly altered?

Axelsson doesn’t offer answers. He shows us what will be lost.

Axelsson fell in love with glaciers as a child in Iceland, he writes. He was drawn to the immensity of the ice, and to the stark landscapes retreating glaciers leave behind themselves. But perhaps most of all, he was intrigued by the men and women who forged lives in this nearly barren realm, far removed from the world at large, though today, unable to escape what we inhabitants of that world are doing to ourselves.

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In 1968, when climate change was foreseen by only a handful of researchers, and decades before the term entered our vernacular, Axelsson began photographing those residents. And that’s where he begins in this book, with photos he took in 1968 of three brothers, Icelandic seal hunters, eking a living from the water, surrounded by mountains and sea and sky and nothing else. It’s an amazing time capsule.

From there, he travels onward. The book is something of a retrospective of his work, albeit one limited to just three of the many countries he has traveled in: Iceland, Greenland, and Russian Siberia. In each he photographs men and women dwarfed by their landscape, encased by their climate, and living in the isolation of small communities. There are pictures of dog teams as well, and of glaciers and the detritus they leave behind themselves.

Mostly though, these are photographs that celebrate work and survival. In an image spanning a page-and-a-half, an Inuit hunter is pulled on his sled across the snow by a team of dogs, while the sun hovers low in the sky, offering light but little warmth. It’s a timeless photo depicting an ancient way of life, although this picture dates only to 2019.

In Iceland, where there is no indigenous megafauna, domestic mountain sheep are herded, and Axelsson takes readers to a roundup. With horses, dogs, and men, it’s reminiscent of 19th-century cowboys in the mountains of Wyoming. Except colder and wetter.

The Nenet of Siberia have similarly herded reindeer for thousands of years. Here, too, ancient ways face an uncertain future. Yet perhaps this has long been the case. A 1993 photo of an older gentleman standing beside a bus, with scrubby boreal forest in the background, was taken just two years after the collapse of Soviet rule, which this man would have spent nearly his entire life under. What did he witness in those years? Three decades later it’s unlikely he’s still alive to tell us, but the picture reminds us that he was there. That he persevered. That life for the Nenet has often been difficult.

Most of the people shown, regardless of location, are well into middle age or beyond, with weathered faces that can only be attained through lifetimes spent outdoors in a harsh environment. One of the most striking photographs shows an Inuit woman peering through a window in Greenland, both her and the glass looking far too old to possibly still stand. On the opposite page, a hunter’s face peeks out from a tent on the snow, his breath forming clouds of fog, his eyes squinting, facing another day on the land.

These photos, with their alluring sense of isolation, captured through Axelsson’s frequently imaginative framing and composition, prompt readers to let their imaginations wander. This is furthered by Axelsson exclusive use of black and white. The endless shades of grey create a palette for viewers to add their own ideas and values to. He doesn’t give us meaning, he gives us a pathway toward discovering meaning.

This is most evident in his glacier photos, which are often the equivalent of Rorschach tests. One looks more like a honeycomb than ice. Silt on another takes on the form of a dreamcatcher. A third seems to contain an expressionless face, gazing out without judgment at the world. Pictures of ice caves and glacial lagoons look more like images taken of deep space by high-powered telescopes than of Earthly locales. Fitting, as little more than a century ago, the Arctic was as forbidding and mysterious as outer space is today, a point Axelsson raises. Most of humanity has barely come to know this part of our world, yet already it is slipping away.

Many photographers have captured the dwindling ice of the Arctic, and this is critical. Few, however, have given much thought to dwindling human cultures lost with that ice. Axelsson has spent more than 50 years depicting those cultures, and his contribution here presents a piece of the climate change tapestry that is too often overlooked. A warming Arctic is not only an ecological loss. It’s a human loss. And like the damage to the natural world, the cost of that loss cannot be calculated in dollars.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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