Kaktovik, Alaska 2016
Whilst this powerful vignette is unusual for me, I hope that those who know my mind well, will guess that I have taken it. If so, that would be very gratifying, because I want to be understood just as much as I want to be collected. I have never used street lights, buildings and telegraph poles as part of any “non-staged” narrative before, but their inclusion in this image deliberately suggests an imminent and unwelcome encroachment into mundane village life by the most dangerous of predators on the planet. The picture was preconceived in London. I think the human detail does not only complement the bear, it makes the photograph relevant. Relevance is a big word for me on my journey.
The reality is that communities such as Barrow, Prudhoe Bay and Kaktovik in Alaska and also Churchill in Canada are accustomed to the daily presence of polar bears until the adjacent sea water freezes in the autumn. The cohabitation is a surreal situation – perhaps without equal on the planet. The end of the seasonal tenancy of the bears is being pushed out over time as a result of global warming and the villagers in these remote outposts have accepted white bears as a way of life.
Ironically, it is around Halloween that polar bear activity around these villages peaks. Every night sirens go off and gun shots are fired by vigilantes patrolling the modest grid street plans. The record number of bears counted around Kaktovik (the location of this image) at this time of year is recorded as a jaw dropping “90”.
I have come to the safe conclusion that the Inuit elders from the coastal villages of the Beaufort Sea know all there is to know about polar bears. Their words are not words for “fast food” documentary television – they just say it as it is – it is their life. They respect the bears more than fear them and don’t just tolerate their presence – they admire their presence. The Inuit way of life is under just as much pressure as the polar bear way of life – after all, both are victims of our warming planet. I sense a solidarity born out of a common environmental enemy.
The polar bears in these coastal communities are – in the main – not malnourished. Indeed, look at the size of this female – she must weight all of 1,200 pounds – seven times the average man. Her positioning just before sunrise was integral to the strength of the image and sunrise up there at Halloween time is around 9.30 am. These are short days.
Not all polar bears are starving – trust me – this assignment was not my first rodeo in the artic. Polar bears can still be imperious, magnificent and sovereign. This one most certainly is.
I am very tough on myself, but I know that “My place or yours?” is a special picture and I get quite emotional just looking at it.