I am delighted to have been awarded the Amateur Photographer Magazine and MPB inaugural ‘Rising Star’ award and to have the support of both organisations and the mentoring of Peter Dench in pursuing a twelve month photography project on ‘change’ in the High Arctic.
In travelling north, a huge passion of mine, but one for which I have no easy explanation, this project will document a year in the life of the northern most town in the world – Longyearbyen (the long year) on the Island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago. It will examine the social, and ecological impacts of climate change on a unique community of two and a half thousand people, and it will document the ways in which this diverse and constantly changing community responds to the drama of seasonal as well as climate change, including the three months of polar night and the equivalent ever-present daylight of summertime.
The high Arctic is warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on the planet and is widely considered to be the place where climate change can most easily be observed, from glacier retreat, to changes in both flora and fauna, including threats to the food chains of key species such as Reindeer and Polar Bears. On Svalbard these changes are evidenced most starkly, not only in the landscape and ecology, but also in the social composition of Longyearbyen, where science and tourism have latterly supplanted coal mining as the primary industry, and climatologists and adventure tourists have displaced coal miners as the key economic actors. Consequently, this project will focus on changes to the people, industries and landscapes of Longyearbyen. As most residents are from elsewhere in the world and few last beyond the average of seven years residency, so the project will reflect on the journeys people have made to inhabit this town and their motivations for doing so. It will dramatise the struggle between extractive industries and their climate impacts, through photographic reflection on the artefacts of the industrial era, which continue to haunt the landscape. The wooden lift systems, coal tipples and attendant mining infrastructure are incapable of rotting due to the absence of liquid water in the atmosphere and now sit idly by, whilst Svalbard’s changing economy is signified by the growth of University buildings devoted to Arctic research.
In addition to it’s status as the world’s most northern town, Longyearbyen is also home to the global seed vault, the Noah’s ark of global agriculture that stores copies of the staple seeds of all the world’s countries buried deep in the permafrost. This is a unique project of peaceful cooperation where the seeds of erstwhile enemies are stored side by side, awaiting as in the recent case of Aleppo, Syria, a call for assistance to help re-establish a seed bank for farming communities. Peaceful reconstruction is a recurring theme and one which will provide for further reflection and photographic inspiration, hopefully including access to the Seed vault itself. Svalbard is subject to a global treaty allowing for the citizens of forty four countries to reside and work in the archipelago. It is also regulated as a demilitarised zone where the deployment of military personnel is prohibited, so much so, that even the Coastguard operates from the Norwegian mainland. In this sense it epitomises the Norwegian approach to peace and internationalism enshrined in Nobel’s nomination of the Norwegian Parliament to administer his Peace Prize and it opens up opportunities for the project to reflect on the changing nature and meaning of peace in a dynamic and conflict affected world.
Svalbard also serves as a cultural imaginarium for the strangeness of the high arctic, whether as home to the Panserbjørn (the armoured bears) in Philip Pulman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, or as the mythical town of Fortitude in the British psychological horror series of the same name. These representations build upon the realities of Svalbard itself, a place with notoriously less people than polar bears, a possibly apocryphal claim to ratchet up tourist expectations, or more terrifying possibilities such as the presence of Spanish flu or anthrax in the deeply frozen bodies of those buried above the permafrost. Those who are always threatening a return to the surface as climate change lessons the grounds icy grip. These stories craft the popular imagination of Svarlbard, giving ballast to claims that one is neither allowed to die, nor to be born there, albeit this merely reflects the lack of maternity provision and the shortage of adequate mortuary provision or the ability to inter people in the frozen ground.
Despite my experience as a researcher I am very much an amateur photographer and it’s therefore a privilege to have the opportunity to learn from and develop a photographic practice that accords with themes that are close to my heart. The opportunity to learn from experienced photographers and and to have them engage in critique of my work and to push me towards greater creative expression is a remarkable moment and one which I am looking forward to pursuing.
Throughout my life I have been driven by an impulse to keep going, that bit further, beyond the here and now, towards the horizon, to try and glimpse the zones of indecipherability, the in-between places, the unsettled and unsettling spaces where we’re challenged to make something anew, something different, utopia not as a ‘no-place’ but as a journey towards the ever receding horizon. Most recently I have sought to document this desire visually as best as I can, and through recognition that much of what has driven me might be described as a ‘documentary impulse’ (Franklin) something that many of us share, and whilst I find it fascinating, is also for me, probably best left unexamined by theory. Instead I am trying to construct a practice that enables story and truth telling about places that might otherwise exist only at the margins of our collective imagination, but are themselves vital and important in our discussion of the worlds we wish to inhabit in the future.