For photographer Rhea Banker, qamutits, or Greenlandic ice sleds, are more than just a vehicle for traversing an unforgiving arctic landscape—they are objects that tell unique cultural stories. In her virtual lecture, “Qamutit: Portraits in the Landscape,” hosted by the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum on Wednesday night, Banker spoke about her work in the Arctic, where she photographed Greenland and the ice sleds that dot its terrain.
Banker, a Massachusetts-based photographer and book designer whose work focuses on the landscapes of the world, began her lecture by discussing the history of qamutits in Greenland and the broader Arctic area. Dog and ice sleds have been used across the Arctic for 4,000 years but only appeared in Greenland around 1,000 years ago. Because of the compatibility between their structure and the Greenlandic terrain, qamutits have remained the primary method of transportation for arctic explorers for generations.
“With both historic and current sleds, you see the same beautiful weaving of the sinews on the sled that hold all the pieces together,” Baker said during her lecture. “If you put the sleds together with nails, the sled will be too stiff to handle the bumps along the way.”
While discussing the topography of Greenland and the sleds, Banker emphasized that the qamutit act as not only a means of transportation, but also as a vessel for creating cultural meaning because of their ability to facilitate travel between distant Greenlandic communities. The crafting and design of the sleds requires intense care, and they are a distinct piece of the native culture of Greenland itself.
Annually, members of indigenous and non-indigenous communities across Greenland come together to race dog sleds on the ice as a means of honoring their heritage. The practice is an important historical and cultural event to the people of Greenland. However, these sleds also act as a way of representing the relative isolation of the communities that dot Greenland’s coastline. Because of the vast distance between towns, the sleds act as the primary means of transportation between communities.
In her photography, Banker tried to capture this sense of community and separation.
“I do black and white, usually to stress the feeling of isolation,” she said. “The isolation of the sleds and the isolation of where you are share the same feeling.”
During her lecture, Banker detailed the relationship between the beauty of the sleds themselves and the terrain on which they travel. Banker believes that the qamutit are extensions of the Greenlandic terrain and focuses on the more narrative aspects of the landscape in her photography to highlight the ways in which the two are intertwined.
“The curves of the rudders are in harmony with the curves of the stone,” Banker said. “You can’t really separate the subject from the environment.”
Baker also discussed the impacts of climate change on the region. With rising sea levels and increasing global temperatures, it is more difficult for qamutits to traverse the ice, and consequently, Greenlandic communities have even larger feelings of isolation. Additionally, since the local fjords have not stayed frozen for long enough this past year, Greenlanders have been unable to practice for their annual sled races. Banker hopes that some of her photographs will highlight this sense of cultural decay.
“The way of life is at risk. The environment is at risk. I’m trying to show the shared elements of decay,” said Banker.
Banker concluded with a discussion of how integral community involvement was to her work, emphasizing the human element of her collection. Without the support of communities she photographed, Banker believes that her work wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful as she has intended. At every turn, Banker prioritized interacting with the communities that she was photographing and having her work displayed in local museums, fish factories and libraries.
“My soul has been deepened,” Banker said. “The journey… was the beginning of a spiritual gift for me.”