British photographer Cristian Barnett's ambitious northern quest came about while staring at a map. He was intrigued by an invisible dotted line intersecting eight countries and seemingly vast swaths of frigid, desolate landscapes, otherwise known as the Arctic Circle. Since 2006, Cristian has visited the Arctic more than eleven times, shooting in more than twenty-three cities, towns, and remote villages. At 66° 33′ 39″ N, he found exotic wildlife like polar bears, wolverine, and reindeer roaming amongst treeless plains and permanently frozen soil. However, he quickly discovered infinitely more: the polar home to a richly diverse population of indigenous people–the Gwichin, Saam, Khant, Nenets, Evenks, Yakus–for whom the sun never sets in high summer, nor rises in deep winter.
Shot entirely on film with a medium-format Hasselblad®, his latest project, LIFE ON THE LINE is a series of compelling portraits celebrating, connecting, and documenting the lives of those living along the Arctic Circle in the face of overwhelming environmental and cultural change.
In partnership with indie publisher Polarworld, award-winning photo editor Huw Lewis-Jones, and author Kari Herbert, daughter of polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert, Cristian is publishing LIFE ON THE LINE (fall 2014) as a thoughtfully designed and beautifully printed book. Please support his Kickstarter campaign here>>>. All money raised will cover the costs of design and printing.
Read more about LIFE ON THE LINE below.
Tell us about the LIFE ON THE LINE project. What are you trying to accomplish?
Initially this was a travel project and I set out with no goal other to explore the Arctic circle. However, themes slowly emerged. It soon became obvious that my experience of the Arctic circle was not what many 'Southerners' might imagine. Yes, I met hunters and nomads but there are a number of large towns and cities where life is not that different to most places further South. I use the phrase ‘connecting and celebrating' which I think sums things up. LIFE ON THE LINE is unashamedly positive, if you want grim pictures of Northern Russia, depressing images of unemployed Greenlandic youth etc it’s easy enough to find elsewhere. Without wanting to sound pompous, I hope that this project will serve as an ( albeit incomplete ) record of life at 66° 33′ 39″ N in the early 21st century.
"The Arctic Circle is much more than hunters and polar bears. There are many thriving modern settlements where you’re more likely to meet a hairdresser than a reindeer herder."
What was the thought process behind deciding to focus on portraiture? What about portraits, unique from other genres of photography, do you find compelling?
I spend quite a lot of my working life photographing food so I made a conscious decision not to involve any food in this project and I’m certainly no landscape photographer either. The reason I choose portraiture though is simply for the experience of engaging with people. For me, traveling without meeting local people is not worth the trouble. I would rather have tea with a priest in Canada or share a bottle of Vodka on a train in Russia than visit any number of museums and galleries. My portraits are almost a bi-product of these relationships; this is how I like to approach all of my portraiture and why I find quick turnaround portraits so unsatisfying.
These portraits (at least those featured) seem to avoid any sort of darkness and night. Aside from the obvious technical challenges of shooting in these conditions, why is this something the project leaves out? The long darkness is such an important element of Arctic life, so I'm just curious the implications of this light/dark dynamic.
Good point, there are a couple of reasons for this. Apart from my last trip I have not spent any time in the Arctic when daylight has been in short supply. The cost of travelling in the Arctic has meant that my ‘winter’ shoots have always been around late October or late March to maximise daylight and to avoid the ultra low temperatures. I also see everything in terms of quality of light and I’m generally not attracted to darkness or artificial light. I’m aware that this is a shortcoming and have a couple of night shoots planned for my final trip.
What unites the people of all the different countries you visited? Is it just a form of endurance, or is there something more?
There are indigenous groups which span across borders and obvious lifestyle similarities which come from living in what can be a difficult climate but in my experience there are a couple of common threads across the whole of the Arctic circle. To varying degrees there is an alarming erosion of indigenous culture. In Canada I met a hunter in his late 40’s who was born in an igloo out on the tundra and lived a largely subsistence lifestyle in his childhood. The younger generation in his town would have all been brought up in houses and often have little or no interest in hunting. This cultural history is also the source of a sometimes uneasy relationship between indigenous people and european incomers which can manifest itself in outspoken hostility or quiet resentment. Sometimes this can also result in a crisis of identity. On a more positive note though, I have found a warmth and level of hospitality throughout the whole of the Arctic which has made this project a joy.
"Life on the Line is unashamedly positive, if you want grim pictures of Northern Russia, depressing images of unemployed Greenlandic youth...it’s easy enough to find elsewhere."
Shooting in/around so much snow can be such a challenge for lighting, how did you address (or overcome) this issue?
There have not been too many really sunny days to deal with so in poor light snow actually becomes your friend. The main problem can be repetition - when shooting simple portraits one white background can easily look like another. A big problem has in fact arisen with the printing. There is a great deal of colour in snow which changes dramatically depending in the time of day and conditions. Two pictures with snow might look fine individually but clash when together.
WATCH: LIFE ON THE LINE: PEOPLE OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE (VIDEO)
What technical tips could you offer for shooting in extreme weather conditions such as the Arctic?
Keep yourself warm first and foremost; sounds obvious, but if you get cold you won’t want to take pictures. Loading film and working with the camera is difficult with gloves, I often struggle to keep my hands from becoming too cold.
Knowing how your camera will react at different temperatures is also useful. My Hasseblad lenses work ok down to about –15°C when the longer exposures become impossible. On my first LIFE ON THE LINE trip shooting in –20°C I had two Blad lenses and one Mamiya lens stop working all together. Last week in Iceland, my 80mm was unable to work at anything slower than 1/4s. I don’t shoot digital in the Arctic but know that keeping batteries warm is the big challenge. Fogging is also a problem when going indoors, try to warm the camera slowly.
During this project what is the most precarious situation in which you’ve found yourself?
Nothing even remotely life threatening has happened to me and considering the number of places I have visited I can’t recall any bad situation with locals. There was a Canadian who thought I was using local people for my own benefit but I think ( and hope ) he was placated when I explained what I was doing and that it was not a commercial project. The time I have been most afraid was on a night time internal flight in Russia in heavy fog. It was the same week a passenger plane had gone down in Siberia ( sadly not an uncommon experience ). The plane kept ascending and descending and sounded like it was struggling but we thankfully landed ok. I have also been in a couple of places where I didn’t have permission to be which was a little nerve racking.
What is in your typical Arctic “kit”? Do you have a preferred focal length, aperture combo at which you prefer shooting?
1 Hasselblad®, 2 lenses ( 80mm, 60mm ), 2 backs ( 1 x 160ASA, 1 x 400ASA), Polaroid back, light meter, Mamiya 6®. 80mm 2.8 is preferred focal length.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself or the project?
There are a couple of aspects to LIFE ON THE LINE which I have especially enjoyed. Firstly, I’m enormously curious about where people live and love nothing more than to hang out with locals in their own homes. Being a photographer allows you to do this in a way that would be extremely difficult otherwise. A camera can sometimes get you into trouble but mostly it gets you into good situations.
Secondly, I have not had too much choice in where I have visited due to the very narrow geographical remit of my project ( no further than 35 miles from the Arctic circle ). This has meant I have been to a considerable number of places I would never have had reason to visit. In Zhigansk, Russia, I was told that my translator and I were the 5th and 6th foreign visitors in almost 10 years. Zhigansk is not a pretty place on the face of it and on arrival I was wondering how I would last the week. However, we made so many friends and had such a rewarding time that I was immensely grateful for the opportunity to visit.
Brian Carroll, contributor.
GALLERY LIFE ON THE LINE: PEOPLE OF THE ARCTIC CIRCLE (click to enlarge)
All images © Cristian Barnett. All rights reserved.