Eschewing digital and working in black and white, chronicling some of the harshest environments on the planet, Ragnar ‘RAX’ Axelsson has long walked a singular path in the photographic world. 2004’s Faces of the North brought us to the unforgiving North Atlantic and exposed us to a diminishing way of life, a journey punctuated with both adversity and triumph.
Last Days of the Arctic continues this theme, expressing what RAX calls ‘the life of people living at the edge’. The collection marks over twenty-five years of work in this forbidding niche, and allows us a glimpse into the world of Greenland’s Arctic Inuit. It’s a rapidly changing way of life, and their depiction against a menacing landscape is particularly charged.
‘The ice is melting faster,’ RAX states. ‘It’s getting more and more difficult to hunt – it’s changing lives.’ This sense of flux is at the heart of Last Days. Although the landscape itself is shifting and the population dispersing, day-to-day life makes an effort to carry on. Travelling with the hunters brought its own challenges. In such harsh conditions the smallest mistake, slipping or just getting wet could mean disaster. ‘We are so small; you realise it when you’re there, when you’re in minus 35 or 40 degrees and miles from civilisation. Nobody is going to search for you if something happens ... you have to rethink everything.’
RAX got involved with the ice hunters in Last Days while photographing Inuit villages. ‘I went to the villages and got to know people, and word was spreading around that “he was OK”, that they could trust me even though I’m not a hunter.’ This rapport was to become the lynchpin of RAX’s excursions onto the tundra, where it often translated into the currency of survival.
From navigating ice fissures to finding his camera gear and food regularly frozen solid, RAX’s relationship with the hunters became less observer and observed and more dependant. ‘When you’re out on the ice, you see how skilled they are at what they do and how it’s hard to survive … I trusted them, and they trusted me.’
Away from the ice, survival seems less certain, at least for this traditional way of life. ‘The small villages, I don’t know what will happen. The people will move to bigger towns – it’s very hard for them to survive just from hunting, with the ice getting thinner and regulations in force about them selling products like meat and skin ... I sensed a lot of anxiety.'
RAX notes that while the Inuit are accomplished survivalists, when they are struggling against the elements, when confronted with the challenges of global climate shifts, tightening national regulations and ‘people making rules for them, then they’re very small’. It’s a type of struggle that has characterised much of RAX’s work. There is a historical aspect about what is being documented in Last Days, which he describes as ‘doing something I would not be able to do again … I sometimes have to sell my camera to go there, but it’s something that I need. It’s a magnetic thing.’