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On hunters and herders: Arctic photographer offers glimpse into indigenous life

April 26, 2017

After being captivated by tales of Inuit life in Greenland, Arctic photographer Bryan Alexander received a travel scholarship in 1975 and set out to understand more about northern cultures. Using his camera to capture the indigenous people’s day-to-day lives, Alexander has traveled to dozens of spots around the Arctic each year for over four decades.

On Wednesday evening, Alexander discussed his work from his latest expedition to Siberia and debuted some of the most visually remarkable images from the trip. Alexander’s photographs, which are currently hanging in the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, depict the unique, traditional lives of indigenous hunters and herders.

Though Alexander began his career by traveling to communities in Canada, Greenland and Alaska, he started going to Siberia as well after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. On his first expedition to the region, he found that Siberian communities were particularly untouched by the modernized world because of the Soviet regime’s strict immigration policies. Missionaries and immigrants had not disturbed the indigenous people’s cultures, which Alexander was able to document thoroughly.

Alexander’s expeditions require significant planning and effort. It can take anywhere from a week to a full month to travel from the United States to Arctic communities. When he arrives, he stays on site for four to six weeks, lives in huts and tents with the indigenous people and fully immerses himself in their lifestyle.

“One community of herders I was with was literally just four or five families, and it took me a month to reach them,” said Alexander. “They had no phones or radio when I got there either— completely isolated.”

Through Alexander’s hard work with myriad Inuit communities, he has become well known in the Arctic. He is frequently invited by indigenous people to experience their culture and photograph their communities.

According to Alexander, his work has not changed significantly throughout his career but his subject material has. Alexander always tries to go back to the communities he visits because he is especially fascinated by the ways in which those communities change over the years.

“In the Arctic, there’s been a lot of modernizing and a decline in traditional life where the indigenous peoples have lived,” said Alexander. “You see a lot more motorboats and Ski-Doos nowadays than when I started 45 years ago. There’s the internet and modern communication now, too.”

Alexander’s experience visiting communities in the Arctic has taught him not only about the cultures of the communities but also how to find, capture and tell a story through film.

“You learn by opening your eyes and watching and hearing what people say and the stories they tell,” said Alexander.

Wednesday’s visit to Bowdoin was not Alexander’s first—he last came to campus over a decade ago to give a lecture about his photography in a Greenland community and meet with students in Associate Professor of Art Michael Kolster’s classes. Alongside Director of the Arctic Museum Susan Kaplan, curator and registrar of the Museum Genevieve LeMoine invited Alexander back this year to share the wonders of indigenous people’s cultures with a new generation. LeMoine spoke highly of Alexander’s work and reputation in the Arctic.

“In 1997, I went to Northern Greenland where [Alexander] had done a lot of photography and practically the first question they asked me in the hotel I was staying at was, ‘Do you know Bryan Alexander?’” said LeMoine. “I was so impressed with their reaction to him—they thought very highly of his work.”


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