POLAR FOCUS: MEDIA & EXPEDITIONS
Listening to Polar regions. A Special Series by Global Geneva in media partnership with JONAA.
“SPEAK TO US, INCLUDE US. WE HAVE LIVED IN THE ARTIC for thousands of years; we are the ones who know it best,” said Okalik Eegeesiak, Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) to an audience of policymakers, scientists and business people at one of the early Arctic Circle Assemblies in Iceland, in 2014. Sitting among them, I found it a peculiar point, but to Ms Eegeesiak it was one that had to be made for all the right reasons.
So much decision-making concerning the Arctic and its native people has happened through the centuries without seriously including their voice or asking their opinion. The same goes for research that has often neglected to include the experience and wisdom of those who have lived in this remote and harsh north for centuries, surviving its towering, demanding nature, that is so much larger than man.
Looking back two decades, I find it hard to comprehend how anyone can expect to operate on any level in the Arctic without weaving together local know-how and wisdom with whatever expertise is required for the job. In my case, ‘the job’ would simply not have happened any other way.
As a film and photographic media producer, I have been privileged to work since 1996 in extreme locations throughout Greenland, organizing more than 40 productions on the sea-ice, the pack-ice, glaciers, mountains, ice fLoes and icebergs. Locations where Mother Nature sets every rule.
Not knowing and respecting her rules can quickly turn to disaster. Even fatal. It is a place where being a successful producer has less to do with fInding glorious “out-of-this-world” locations, but everything to do with taking the time and using the knowledge to properly select locations in order to make them safe for crews to work.
For that to happen, every production requires the right people, the right equipment and the right backup, plus a firm awareness of the fact that mistakes in the Arctic can cost lives. In other words, it is all about safety. This also means understanding that an extreme location represents a complicated and potentially dangerous environment.
One needs to know the local snow and ice conditions, the weather and the cold coupled with the limitations – or opportunities – brought by the hours of light. One needs to rely on the essential know-how required for bringing in crews from far away and often very different places, and to ensure that they remain creative, focused and unafraid in Arctic conditions. One also needs to know how to react to changes in these conditions should they happen. This means having a B plan, and a C plan and a D plan and then, if need be, being able to put them into action.
Years of professional expertise can go a long way. At the end of the day, however, the real knowledge and expertise needed can only originate from years of work and survival on the ice. It is recognizing that critical ‘sixth sense’ of reading the ice, snow and weather that comes from living in the Arctic hunting communities. This I learned in 1996 and this has been the foundation for all the productions that I have organized.
From the very beginning, my locations team base their work on careful planning coupled with a combination of local and professional expertise. This three-man team, connected by a longtime friendship and shared experiences, respect and, most importantly, trust each other with their lives.
They are led by Kristjan Fridrikssson, an Icelandic art director/photographer turned Arctic-locations specialist. Kristjan left his post as an advertisement agency owner and commercials director to spend a year travelling, photographing and documenting the ice and Arctic locations in East Greenland with two native hunters. He quickly understood the realities of what was needed in terms of safety, logistics and infrastructure if one was to bring foreign productions to Greenland to film and photograph.
The other two members are Tobias Ignatiussen and Ulrik Sanimuniaq. Each has brought his own essential local expertise to the project. Combined with my own production expertise, this team is the only reason that I have been able to do my fascinating job as an Arctic producer for so many years.
Both Tobias and Ulrik are natives, members of the Ammassalimiut Inuit from Greenland’s East Coast. Anthropology defines them as the “world’s most recently discovered civilization”, an indigenous society discovered in 1884 when they consisted of only 419 people. Today, they number some 4,000. They speak East-Greenlandic, an Inuit language not easily understood by the rest of the Greenlandic people. This tongue has never existed in written form; it is amazing to have survived.
Tobias and Ulrik are in many ways very different hunters with very different experiences. Both are regarded as superior hunters and respected as such in their communities. And both have made lifetime careers rooted in the culture and traditions of the Ammassalimiut heritage. Ulrik for example, learned to hunt from his father, catching his first seal at the age of eight and his first polar bear at the age of thirteen. It is that knowledge and experience that has brought food to their family tables.
Both will tell you the type, gender, size and probable age of a seal which to you may be a tiny black dot in the ocean hundreds of metres away. Or tell you to look “there” pointing to a totally calm spot on the surface of the sea, seconds before that majestic whale surfaces. Or figure out from polar-bear footprints in the snow, how long it is since it passed by, the weight of the animal, and whether it is male or female, young or old. And should the polar bear be caught, their assumptions will be proven right.
One unforgettable moment for me was returning to an ice-covered bay after a night of heavy rainfall. The rain had cleared roughly a metre of the newly fallen snow that we had travelled across on snow scooters and dogsleds the previous day. Ulrik, who was in the lead, suddenly summoned everyone to stop. He looked in silence over the even field of unbroken snow and then led the group zigzagging over the fjord. Standing in the same spot the next day I saw why. The rain had exposed an alarming, partly-open crack, criss-crossing the ice. It was a crack avoided the previous day because Ulrik had somehow read the ice and what was beneath it and had steered us out of harm’s way. This is that sixth sense.
On another occasion, we were sailing back with three boats from location through heavy pack-ice on our way to East Greenland’s main town, Tasiilaq. Midway through the two-hour trip we were hit in an instant by fog so solid and dense that passing icebergs only became slightly visible when they scraped the side of the frst boat, near enough to touch. In retrospect, there was something magical to that vision. But at the time, there was nothing magical.
What brought us safely to shore was Tobias’s experience, navigational skills and understanding of the ice. In such conditions, he closed the compass and relied on his instincts. Steering the first boat, he worked it through the pack-ice like an icebreaker, inching through it and making a trail for the other two to follow. What began as yet another beautiful boat trip passing the occasional iceberg turned into a silent cruise through seemingly solid ice. After four hours of careful navigation in a fog just as black as before, we suddenly found ourselves by the pier in Tasiilaq. That sixth sense again. It has kept these hunters alive, and in such situations, it has kept me and my people alive.
Tobias and Ulrik simply read ice and snow like the rest of us read a book. Their respect for the Arctic environment and all its living things is the core of how they live and work. They not only understand the elements, they feel them. They sense the changes and make the right decisions. Such knowledge, wisdom and understanding of often fast changing conditions is precisely the point made by Ms Eegeesiak in her speech. Wisdom originating from life experiences and lessons learned and passed down through generations of living in the Arctic is wisdom and experience too important to ignore.
Vilborg Einarsdottir is the editor in chief of JONAA, the Journal of the North Atlantic & Arctic – a media platform of current affairs, information and opinion – created for regional and global stakeholders in the North Atlantic and Arctic region.
Other articles in the Special Series on Polar Regions.