“Under the Same Stars,” an exhibition at the Embassy of Canada by Alaska-born photographer Acacia Johnson, explores life at the Canadian northern frontier.
Johnson is a photographer and artist specializing in earth’s Polar Regions. She now lives in Norway and has created photographic works in Alaska, northern Norway, Arctic Canada and Iceland. She also works as an expedition guide and lecturer in Greenland, Svalbard and Antarctica. The process of the journey into the landscape is a central theme in her work.
In 2014, shortly before graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she received a Fulbright grant to spend the winter in the community of Arctic Bay on the north shore of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to experience one of the coldest and darkest winters on earth. For three months, she points out, the sun does not rise. Her mission was to immerse herself in an indigenous Arctic community, to learn as much as she could about human relationship to Arctic landscape, and create photographs based on this.
A selection of images from this project comprises the embassy’s current exhibition. This past summer, together with National Geographic photo editor Kim Hubbard at a Visura editing workshop, they formed this particular exhibition to suggest the cycle of light and darkness that is so vivid in the Arctic. Walls of light and darkness face each other, Johnson points out, as do notions of home or shelter.
“I was interested in the idea of a ‘circumpolar citizenry’ based on shared experiences with the Arctic landscape, the things that tie us all together,” she says in her artist statement. “Yet at the heart of my experience lay not the landscape, as I had thought, but in the people I grew to know, learn from and care about; people who infuse the landscape with meaning and who always have.”
Since her objective for this project was specifically to examine the polar night, Johnson arrived at Arctic Bay on November 1, shortly before the sun set for the winter. She departed at the end of February, shortly after the sun had returned.
Of great importance to Johnson was the inclusion of images taken on the three most symbolic days, the sun’s departure, winter solstice and the sun’s return. “It was this full spectrum of darkness — or light, depending how you look at it — that interested me, and ‘that’ I wanted to be the backdrop for all the other pictures I would take,” she says.
The exhibition combines landscape and portraiture with glimpses of daily life, she notes, which “strangely enough fit into the dreamy, color-drenched magic of it all.” She chose the dark season mostly for the intensity of color it provides.
Battery packs are often unreliable, she says, as the temperatures can reach -50 degrees Fahrenheit. So she shot much of her work using an old large-format camera. She fell in love with the upside-down glowing image it produces under the dark cloth and the quality the negatives produce are much different. She used two large-format cameras, a Crown Graphic field camera and a Sinar view camera.
Johnson’s Fulbright proposal had dealt with the idea of the “mythic landscape,” sites in the land that have been important to people for hundreds or thousands of years. “I did research this and photograph this, but those images were not nearly as compelling as the ones I took of, well, life as it is now,” she observes.
“The experience of living there was so much more interesting, and more relevant,” so she changed the project. While the villagers frequently encounter scientists and researchers visiting the region, she says few of the visitors actually engage the local community. So she stayed with the family of Sheba Ejangiaq and Joseph Kigutaq and their kids while there to get a better perspective.
“The resulting series,” she says, became “personal in a lot of ways, as I had immersed myself in the community to the utmost extent of my abilities during my time there. All the people in the photographs are dear friends and all the images are taken within the context of daily life.”
“One of the things I found most fascinating,” she says, “was the constant, vibrant mix of modern life and traditional Inuit culture and tried to include hints of this, although as you can probably tell I have a pretty romantic approach — I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer!” Although these communities are isolated, she observed how connected they are to the rest of the world, with the prevalence of iPads, satellite TV, Internet, Facebook, and other social media blending right in with aspects of traditional culture – just like anywhere else.
Pictures cannot tell the whole story, Johnson says, but they can give an access point. “I do not believe that these photographs tell the full story about what life is really like in the Arctic winter,” she says. “It is only a glimpse. However, I hope that the exhibition provides viewers with a more vibrant view of Arctic life than what is commonly portrayed in the media.”
“I would love it to raise people’s awareness of the fact that, yes, people still live all the way up there — and while it is quite cold — it is not a barren wasteland,” she adds. “The landscape is rich with meaning, history, culture and life, and these are things worth remembering when we think about the Arctic and its future. I would like to encourage people to engage more actively with the idea of the Arctic and with the many communities who live there.”
The exhibition was made possible with the support of a Fulbright Canada Student Award and was also created in affiliation with the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto, where Johnson worked together with photography professor April Hickox. She is also grateful to those people who helped “kickstart” her project, noting that the trip from Toronto to Arctic Bay and back cost around $6000 CAD – a shocking realization of the high costs of transportation that are a real issue for those living in the Arctic.
The exhibition will be open to the public at the embassy’s art gallery through Jan. 29, 2016. Please see the embassy website for details.