On February 1st, 2015, four days away from the long awaited return of the sun, the sky glows brighter daily. Jetstreams and distant clouds have begun to glow a fiery orange around noon. I stare at the mountains, ever-reflecting the sky, and my heart skips a beat – is that sunlight, that soft magenta? A first glimpse of alpenglow? Again I am deceived, and I begin to wonder if I even remember what sun looks like.
I arrived in Arctic Bay, Nunavut, on the first of November. One of the northernmost communities on Baffin Island, at 73 degrees north, Arctic Bay is home to around 700 people, the majority of whom are Inuit. I came here on a Fulbright scholarship for the dark season, the heart of winter, to pursue a photography project exploring human relationships to winter landscape. Growing up in Anchorage, Alaska, I had always felt a profound connection to the wilderness, but my family’s history within it only goes back two generations. I wanted to experience Baffin Island, to immerse myself in a culture whose relationship with the land goes back thousands of years, and see where my experiences overlapped with those of people here.
Arctic Bay Town View
My original idea was to photograph specific sites in the landscape that hold historical and cultural importance, even in today’s modern context, but this would change and evolve as time passed. After two months in Toronto, researching and working with negatives from Nunavut, I arrived in Arctic Bay with very little idea of how to begin. I moved into an apartment with a young couple and their three kids. The father of the family traveled for work twice a week to the old mining site of Nanisivik as a wildlife monitor. In the first weeks he let me join him on a 35km skidoo trip over the sea ice and allowed me to stop along the way to photograph the scenery, and look for polar bear tracks. It was during the first of these trips, on November 5th – four days after my arrival – that we stopped the skidoo and watched the sun sink below the horizon one last time.
Joseph Kigutaq driving home from work in the last glimpse of sunlight before winter.
Life in town was more challenging for me to adjust to. Many people seemed to spend most of their free time on their iPads and watching television, whereas I was eager to get out of the house, meet people, and have new experiences. In time, though, I figured out the schedule for weekly events I could attend: women’s floor hockey, community dances, church services, and the Youth Committee, where elders gather to pass on traditional knowledge. Soon I befriended an elder with a dog team, who let me accompany him onto the land in exchange for dog food. I found it magical, speeding across the sea ice under the omnipresent glow of the North Star. In the quiet hours on the dogsled, he told me stories and taught me about the land: places where people had lived, places where birds nest in the summer, places that were used for traditional seal hunting etc. I have been told that seal hunting is integral to life here, and with the astronomical cost and often, low nutritional value of store-bought groceries, any opportunity to eat “country food” is embraced. With great respect for nature, traditional knowledge emphasizes that no part of the animal is to be wasted, and you will often find hunters helping their neighbors by also providing them with food. “Because we live in darkness,” a friend commented, “God gave us seals.”
Peugatuk Ettuk drives his dog team along the base of the St. George Society Cliffs.
Between these trips and my weekly journeys to Nanisivik, I realized that my initial project idea – to focus on landscape sites that are important to people – would not be nearly as compelling as photographing what people do in the landscape, or in the winter in general, on a daily basis. The photographs I took of the landscape sites looked generic and uninteresting: yet another pretty, snowy landscape, with little to differentiate between them. When I tried to visually construct meaning within them, it felt forced. Instead, I was drawn magnetically to the seal hunters we frequently encountered on the land, and the people who spend weekends at their cabins.
While I photograph with my large-format analog camera as often as possible, digital is certainly more practical on the back of a moving skidoo in the dark! The best camera is the one you have with you, I always remind myself. Evidently, the cold and darkness have been a factor, with temperatures ranging between -10F (in November) and -40F (in February). From that last glimpse of sun in November, Arctic Bay plunged rapidly into darkness. The moon took on the role of the sun, rising and setting with its magnificent glow; by December, the North Star hung alone in the sky all day long. Yet contrary to what many may believe, we never experienced true 24-hour darkness. Even on the darkest day of the year, a gentle twilight marked the middle of the day, illuminating the reflective snow that blankets the land. Now, in the last days of the polar night, there is something comparable to broad daylight for about five hours a day. The cold will intensify for about a month after the sun returns.
Polar bear tracks on the way to Nanisivik.
Due to the temperatures, people are reluctant to take me with them out on the land, finding these opportunities have been my biggest challenge. I soon realized that much of life during the winter is spent indoors. I therefore I began photographing people in this setting as well, ultimately embracing the indoor culture that keeps most people entertained during the winter. Perhaps one of my best indoor activities has been learning to sew, since it gave me the opportunity to bond with the girls and women of the community. Sewing is an integral part of Inuit culture, and is still practiced today. I have now sewn three pairs of mittens, have started a parka, and hope to learn to make kamiks – sealskin boots – before I leave. Traditionally, men could get married once they were good hunters, had a dog team, and could build an igloo; women could get married when they had learned to sew. Everyone jokes that I’m almost eligible, but I always say I would love to have the men’s skills instead!
As I finish writing this, a few days have passed, and the sun is expected to appear in town tomorrow. Already it paints the highest mountaintops around midday, and anticipation builds in the streets. A subtle orange glow lingers over the clear horizon, and I am preparing the first part of a free photography workshop I’m holding for the community. My last month here will be a cold one, but imbued with new energy, sunlight, and the ever-increasing warmth of my friendships here in Arctic Bay. At the end of the month, I must return to Toronto – to work through my negatives and create a traveling exhibition – but I know in my heart it’s not over. Having wintered here, I will return one day, in the spring, to join the town in celebrating the return of life. This I know. This is only a beginning.
Acacia Johnson is a photographic artist devoted to capturing the magic of the Circumpolar North around the world. Born and raised in Alaska, she has also spent several years living in northern Norway, and works seasonally as an expedition guide and photography lecturer in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. A recent graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she has exhibited her photographs internationally and has work in collections at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and the Smithsonian Museum of American History. With the support of a Fulbright Canada Student Award, she has been able to realize a long-standing dream: to spend a winter living on the north of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, learning about people’s relationship to the winter landscape and creating photographs to illustrate these findings. She hopes to continue combining her passion for the Arctic with photography, writing and education throughout her lifetime.
Please check out Acacia’s website: acaciajohnson.com