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The Changing Arctic by Bryan Alexander

1 January 2019

These two photographs are of Albina Rocheva, a young native Nenets woman from a Siberian reindeer herding family. The photo of her aged 13 (left), with her pet reindeer calf, I took in 2000 when I stayed with her family at their remote camp on the tundra in the northwest of the Siberian Arctic. The second photo (right), I took in 2017, of her aged 30, in the TV studio where she now works.

Albina might well have followed other members of her family and become a reindeer herder, but instead she went to university and graduated with a degree in civil management. While she was studying at university, she became interested in film making and took a film directing course. Today, she works as a presenter for one of the regional TV companies, where she hosts a weekly program that focuses on issues of the region’s native peoples.

These photographs are from a project that I am currently working on about changes in the cultures of the Arctic’s indigenous peoples. In recent years I have been revisiting some of the Arctic’s native communities that I have photographed in during the past 48 years.

Like many specialised areas of photography, working in the Arctic presents its own set of problems. The cold is the most obvious one, particularly in the winter months. Finding the right equipment that will function well for prolonged periods of time at sub-zero temperatures is challenging, particularly with today’s battery hungry DSLRs. In the days of film and mechanical cameras that functioned on mercury cell batteries, things were relatively straight forward. I once worked outside for an entire day with an old Canon F-1 which was powered by a zinc/air battery, and the temperature never got above -51°Celsius. Generally speaking batteries and extreme cold don’t get on well together. Nowadays, on winter shoots I travel with a bag full of spare camera batteries. They tend not to last long in extreme cold and when I am in remote camps, I usually don’t have access to electricity to recharge them. Most of the time nowadays I use Canon 5D Mk III which generally seem to work pretty down to about -40°Celsius, when they tend to seize up.

Living and travelling with Arctic peoples like the Inuit, Chukchi and Nenets requires that I travel light. I don’t want to weigh their sleds down with heavy gear. Also, their tents and other traditional dwellings tend to be small and sometimes crowded. I try and respect their space as much as possible and leave most of my gear, including my cameras, outside when I am not using them. This also reduces the problem of condensation which you get when you take a very cold camera into a warm tent. There are all kinds of waterproof bags for protecting gear on the market, but I usually keep my camera bag and other gear in large thick black plastic rubbish bags which are inexpensive and work well.

After studying photography for three years at the London College of Communication, British photographer and writer Bryan Alexander used a Royal Society of Arts travel bursary to visit North West Greenland in 1971. There he spent four months photographing life in a small Inuit community. That was the start of what became a lifetime’s work of documenting the Arctic and its people. Bryan has spent more than ten of the past 48 years living in isolated native camps and villages around the Arctic. Getting to these remote places has involved journeys of thousands of miles travelling by plane, helicopter, snowmobile, dog team, and reindeer sled.

From 1982 until 1996 Bryan worked as a photographer for the Black Star Agency in New York. He has carried out assignments for many of the World's leading magazines including, Time, GEO, Le Figaro, Smithsonian, Vogue, People, International Wildlife, and the Sunday Times. His photographs and articles have been published in over 40 different countries.

Bryan has also worked on numerous book projects. He was assigned to take the photographs for two books in Time-Life’s Peoples of the Wild series, ‘Hunters of the Polar North’ and ‘Masked Dancers of West Africa’. His books include, ‘Inuit Hunters of the North’ (Colour Library Books), ‘The Vanishing Arctic’ (Cassell) and ‘Journey into the Arctic’ (Oxford University Press). '40 Below - Traditional Life in the Arctic' (Arctica Publishing), and ‘Our Siberian Journey’ (Oxford University Press).

He has had several exhibitions of his work at venues in the UK and internationally. They include the Royal Geographical Society and the Horniman Museum in London, the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, the CN Tower in Toronto and the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow.

Bryan has also works as a consultant for television, film and book projects on the Arctic, including the BBC’s ‘Human Planet’ (2011) and ‘The Arctic with Bruce Parry (BBC-2011). He lives in the Scottish Highlands, where he and his wife Cherry, also a photographer, run Arcticphoto.com, a stock photo library specialising in the Polar Regions. Their work is an expanding record of these vast areas and the changes that have occurred over almost five decades.

See more work by Bryan Alexander

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