Where the World is Melting, Ragnar Axelsson's photography

Ragnar Axelsson Where the World is Melting

Jens Emil, Cape Hope, Greenland, 2022. “There is no hope in Kape Hope” those were the last words from the Inuit hunter, Jens Emil, when he was leaving his home village, Cape Hope, for the last time. He had to walk and pass an iceberg that was frozen in the sea ice in front of his house. Cape Hope had been his home since he was a child. Jens Emil was the last man standing in the village. There was sadness and fear in his eyes when leaving. He was moving to a bigger village, Ittoqqortoormiit.

Snæfellsjökull Glacier, Iceland, 2022. In Jules Verne’s story, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, the entrance to the centre of Earth is hidden in the crater of the Snæfellsjökull volcano, covered in ice. The exit is in Mount Stromboli, a volcano in Italy. The Snæfellsjökull glacier has shrunk by half in the last century. Scientists estimate that the Icelandic glaciers will disappear in 150 to 200 years. The Snæfellsjökull glacier could disappear in the next 30 to 40 years.

Kötlujökull Glacier, Iceland, 2021. Mystifying faces and creatures are carved in melting glacial blocks. A new landscape emerges when the glaciers recede. Landscapes that have been covered by ice for many centuries are being rediscovered. The glacial rivers meander along the black sands. The water cycle continues after falling on the glacier ice cap in the form of snow 150 years ago. If these white giants, which have reflected the sun’s light and maintained a tolerable temperature on Earth, disappear, the planet will grow warmer as the reflections of the sun’s rays diminish, and more dark surfaces are exposed. The land underneath the glaciers will rise when the glaciers release their load, and eruptions will find easier paths to the surface, becoming more frequent than before.

Ababa Hammeken, Scoresbysund, East Greenland, 2013. Inuit hunter Ababa Hammeken on the sea ice in Scoresbysund. There was a storm warning that day. Ababa and his brother Hjelmer were heading home before the sea ice broke up in the storm and strong ocean currents. Ababa was waiting for his brother to bring the dog sledge to carry the prey they had hunted. Asking Hjelmer on our way back home, if I could grant him one wish, what would it be? Without hesitation, he replied, “Give me 25 years back in time when the sea ice was safe”.

Scoresbysund, East Greenland, 2013. When hunting on thin sea ice hunters have to be careful. It was a fight for them to get back home in the storm. In a few minutes, the ocean currents had broken up the ice leaving only open water behind them.

Sermilik Fjord, East Greenland, 2016. Hunter Tobias fromTasilaq, heading back home from the little hunting village Tiniteqilaaq. In 1995 we travelled on a dog sledge on the frozen fjord, fishing through holes in the sea ice. The sea ice was thick and safe. Twenty years later, the fjord had to be travelled in a boat, and Icebergs were floating around in open waters. Hunters say there has always been a difference between years in the fjord but nothing like this. Something is happening.

Aleksandr, the Nenets, Siberia, 2016. The Nenets are an indigenous Siberian people whose economy is driven by the reindeer meat and skins they sell. Aleksandr, a Siberian reindeer herder, was looking out for a herding ground for his flock of reindeer out on the Siberian tundra. It is a hard life as the Nenets have to move every week and find new feeding grounds for the reindeer.

The Nenets, Siberia, 2016. Tending to the herd is the daily routine for the Nenets reindeer herders. Some reindeers are to pull the sledge, and some to feed the families. Aleksandr is one of the great reindeer herders using the traditional lasso to catch a deer.

Camp, the Nenets, Siberia, 2016. It can be extremely cold on the tundra, and life is simple. However, the permafrost in the tundra is thawing. Thousands of reindeer had to be slaughtered in the springtime of 2016 due to an anthrax poisoning from the melting ground killing thousands of reindeer and affecting dozens of humans.

Oksana, the Nenets, Siberia, 2016. The Nenets are facing an uncertain future. Young Oksana was sitting in the snow in her camp on the tundra, she was a bit worried about her future as things are changing fast. The Nenets have to face the threat to their way of living.

Artist's statement

In the regions around the Arctic, change is happening more quickly than anywhere else on Earth. Where the World Is Melting is about documenting the lives of the people living there. 

Sea ice and glaciers are melting fast, and small hunting villages are being abandoned as Inuit hunting grounds are no longer sustainable. A thousand-year-old tradition of hunter-societies is on the decline. Documenting their life for the whole world to see is vital, it is a life unfamiliar to most people. Future generations living in the Arctic will be facing a different reality.
This series comes from more than four decades of work and experience. When I was a young boy, I read the stories of the great Arctic explorers and their adventures in the most remote places of our planet. It was an eyeopener for me, realising that those voyagers were fighting for their lives in unforgiving storms and extreme cold. They were travelling on dogsleds, living in tents, and houses made of snow. Their Arctic journeys took years, and not all those brave adventurers came back. Their passion was to explore something unknown and bring back knowledge to the rest of the world. Most of the explorers had support from local people, who lived on the edge of the world and knew how to survive in the cold. Those stories stuck in my mind. Time has passed, and things have changed: the sea ice is no longer thick and safe as it was back then.

After accompanying Arctic hunters for almost forty years, witnessing the changes in Greenland’s sea ice, and sensing friends’ and hunters’ worries about their future, one cannot look away. There is no doubt in their minds that something is happening. When passing a house in Thule some thirty years ago, an old hunter said, “There is something wrong. It should not be like this. The big ice is sick.” I started to look at things in a different way back then, I had the feeling early on when travelling to the Arctic that it had to be documented and photographed for the world to see and to be preserved as history.
The glaciers in Iceland are melting and retreating, the Siberian tundra is thawing, and wildfires are raging. There are signs everywhere. It has been warmer before on the planet, and it has been colder. It is known in history that the glaciers have been smaller before, and they have also been bigger. But Earth is now in the phase of warming up, and scientists are giving us warnings. There is no reason to ignore them. Where there is life, there is hope, and people living in the Arctic must have that hope just as much as the rest of the world. There are also opportunities. There are solutions. We must never forget that. 

About the photographer

Born

Reykjavik, Iceland, 1958

Nationality

Icelandic

Based in

Reykjavik, Iceland

For more than forty years, Axelsson, also known as Rax, has been photographing the people, animals and landscape of the most remote regions of the Arctic, including Iceland, Siberia and Greenland. He documents how the relationships of people with their extreme environments are being profoundly altered by climate change.

He was a photojournalist at Morgunbladid, the leading Icelandic newspaper, (1976–2020), and has worked on freelance assignments in Latvia, Lithuania, Mozambique, South Africa, China and Ukraine. 

Axelsson’s work has been exhibited widely, both in Iceland and internationally. He has received more than 20 Icelandic photojournalism awards, as well as an honourable mention in the Leica Oskar Barnack Award (2001), and been shortlisted for the same prize (2020). He won the Grand Prix at the Festival International de la Photo de Mer, Vannes, France (2003), and his book Andlit Nordursins (English edition, Faces of The North) won the 2016 Icelandic Literary Prize for non-fiction.

His photographs have been featured in Life, Newsweek, Stern, GEO, National Geographic, Time and Polka Magazine.

Axelsson has published a total of eight books, including Jökull (Glacier) (2018) and, most recently, Arctic Heroes (2020). 

He is a recipient of the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Falcon, Iceland’s highest honour.