Last Days of the Arctic: Capturing the Faces of the North on BBC Four

Ragnar Axelsson is an Icelandic photographer who has spent the past few decades photographing the people of the cold remote places of ‘the North’. This Storyville documentary on BBC Four followed him in his quest to record these diverse ways of life which, in his words, are being threatened as the world becomes warmer (although it was apparent that financial issues and regulation were also playing a part). From staring into a lava belching volcano to waiting weeks for a polar bear it was quite a journey.

“Rax” was the narrator of the piece, his voice complemented by his subjects as he set them at ease before firing his Leica at them (or Canon when a bigger lens was needed). I don’t know what the lingua franca is but at times the Icelander and his Greenlandic subjects could only communicate through recreating the movements of a hunt, but even then Rax was personable and amusing. And always interested. Clearly this was a partial approach – no one was on hand to offer a contradictory viewpoint – but what came across was Rax’s deep passion for both the people he was photographing across Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes (on his website there is also work from Siberia, the Baltics and elsewhere) and the lengths he will go to for a photograph.

Three examples suffice to get across that determination and his human approach: first, as a reporter sent to a memorial service for an ongoing avalanche tragedy he found that could not raise his camera, could not intrude – until a baby was taken to the back of the church and was bathed in the light, then the photo came; second, Eyjafjallajoekull (that volcano that grounded the flights) where our man stood on the edge of the crater as lightning cracked and smoke billowed, cameras and cars covered in ash. He both put his subjects at playful ease and put himself in danger by snapping away; finally, that hunt for the Polar Bear. Rax rides and waits, helps out, stands back … has been trying for a decade or more to get the shot – and in the end it is he who is closest to the doomed animal as he tries to get the defining image as it is shot.

This was a film that was prepared to let the images speak and so I’ll now do the same – after adding that it was a real pleasure to find a film like this on BBC Four. One in which the results of photography could speak for themselves over a whole hour, where there was nothing between the viewer and the subject, no mediating distracting presence, and where nobody was forcing a narrative or faux deadline on what needed to be done. It was all pretty overwhelming stuff.

Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson’s homepage is here.

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