For more than 20 years, Danish photographer Carsten Egevang has captured the natural beauty of Greenland and those living there through the lens of his camera. A biologist by training, Egevang first started visiting Greenland to study birds. He quickly became fascinated by the landscapes, northern lights and wildlife, and he started to photograph what he saw on his research trips.
In 2002, Egevang settled in Nuuk, Greenland’s largest city, and stayed for six years. During this time, he got to know the local people and learned about Inuit culture, which is still an important part of modern-day Greenland. This experience, he says, changed his photography.
Egevang stopped focusing exclusively on wildlife and icebergs and started documenting the Inuit way of life as it changed with globalization and climate change, often following the hunters on dog sleds and snowmobiles in their quest for food. Though he now lives in Copenhagen, he returns to Greenland frequently for long periods of time to photograph the people and document their lives. Arctic Deeply recently spoke with Egevang about his work.
Arctic Deeply: Why do you keep coming back to Greenland?
Carsten Egevang: Greenland is a unique place, unlike anywhere else in the world. I still have a long list of things I would like to photograph; places that I would love to revisit, but also new topics that I haven’t explored yet. When I first started photographing in Greenland, I only wanted to capture the beautiful landscape, the wildlife or the icebergs. If a person or anything man-made, such as a house, got in the photos by mistake, I would discard them. Today, it’s different. Now I welcome exactly that, and I strive to capture how humans, animals and nature interact in the Arctic.
Arctic Deeply: What’s unique about Greenland?
Egevang: I really admire how the traditional way of life is entwined with modern life. In Greenland, there is a connection and interdependency between humans, animals and nature that is truly remarkable and exists in only a few other places in the world. Greenlandic society is far from perfect, but there is this strong subsistence hunter identity, which is deeply entrenched in all Greenlanders, both among those who live in the remote districts and those from the larger towns like Nuuk. When reindeer season starts, everyone’s part of it.
Arctic Deeply: What do your photos show about life in the Arctic?
Egevang: I hope my photos show life in Greenland as it really is without romanticizing it. In the Arctic, life is on the edge of what’s physically possible. I find that really fascinating. It’s a tough place to survive, and there’s no room for mistakes. That is true for both humans and animals. Only species that can adapt to the extreme climate can survive here. Only the people who can decode nature’s signals and predict the weather can find food in the Arctic. As a biologist I would use binoculars to locate birds from a distance. But 70- and 80-year-old hunters can spot a polar bear in the snow or a narwhal coming out of the ocean many miles away with just the naked eye. It totally baffles me. They have superhero abilities when it comes to this, and it’s really interesting to see how they navigate in this tough environment.
Arctic Deeply: Greenland is becoming an epicenter for climate change. What changes have you witnessed during your years as a photographer in Greenland?
Egevang: It’s difficult to capture in a photograph, but the Inuit tell me about the changes they are already experiencing. In the West we talk about climate change through abstract mathematical models and prophecies of conditions, like rising water levels, that we might experience in some distant future. In Greenland, it is different. Here, climate change already means fundamental changes for people and animals. It means that hunting season, which takes place on the sea ice, becomes shorter each year. Because the sea ice is getting thinner, the hunters cannot reach the animals on their snowmobiles or dog sleds. And as the ice is melting, animals are forced to relocate from the ice edge. As a result, centuries-old Inuit knowledge about where to locate the animals is no longer useful, and it becomes increasingly difficult to hunt.
Arctic Deeply: Is the traditional Inuit culture and way of life threatened?
Egevang: I think traditional subsistence hunting is under threat on a number of fronts. In part it’s because hunting in itself has become more effective. The Inuit are now using modern tools and weapons: They have larger motor-driven dinghies and transport themselves on snowmobiles instead of on traditional dog sleds. Several animal species have been over-hunted, and as a result there are more hunting limits than there used to be. Together, this means it’s more and more difficult to make a living from subsistence hunting in Greenland. Climate change is adding to this problem.
So I think there will be fewer people living off subsistence hunting in the future. But the traditional way of life is still a very important part of people’s identity, and I’m sure it will survive in some form.
Arctic Deeply: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?
Egevang: I hope to show people the vulnerability of the Arctic. In Greenland the summer is extremely short, and species only have a limited window to breed, before the snow returns. This window becomes even shorter because of climate change, and that tips the balance in the Arctic. The traditional Inuit culture is dependent on this balance and when it’s no longer there, their way of life is threatened. In my opinion, there is no better way to show this connection and vulnerability than through photography.