Arctic Dreaming: An Introduction and Backstory

Greetings, readers, and welcome.

If you don't know me yet, hello! My name is Acacia - I'm a photographer, writer, and polar expedition guide from Alaska, with a passion for the Arctic, a philosophical perspective, and a large-format view camera. In less than three days, I will begin a very long-awaited journey towards Baffin Island to begin my project Sea Ice Stories. Through this blog, I hope to share stories and updates along the way, when internet access and time allow. 

I thought, before things get started, I should introduce myself and tell you how I got here, if you're curious. 

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I was born in Alaska, which I like to think explains a lot. There was a feeling of limitlessness, there, unbridled nature, grizzly bears and bush planes, a love of adventure, mountains, and winter. In the wilderness of the Far North, full of contrasts and unpredictability, I always felt a profound sense of being alive, of feeling my place in the world, a connection to something much larger and deeper than I could explain. There was a kind of magic there, I thought, occasionally apparent to those who really look; those who know how to listen. 

I always had a camera, as far back as I can remember. As creative mediums go, photography is one that demands physical presence with one's subject – you have to be there in person, in real time. Photography, exploration, and adventure fit seamlessly hand in hand, each an incentive for the other. 

In art school, we were pushed to “find our voices,” our visions. It was at this time – living in Rhode Island – that I realized how often the North is misunderstood, misrepresented, undervalued. I realized that I had something to say, and started using photography to challenge stereotypes about the North, and share the magic that I saw inherent there. 

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But magic, beauty and romanticism didn't feel like enough. As I wrote one flowery artist statement after the next, elaborating on the “human relationships to the Northern landscape,” it dawned on me how unqualified I was to define that subject. I am not indigenous, and my family has only lived in Alaska for three generations. Where do you go, from there, to find answers? How far could you go?

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It was with these questions in mind that I first began writing a proposal for a Fulbright grant, a six-month undertaking resulting in two pages of dense, concise text that eventually won the award. I had dreamed hard, reading and re-reading Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, and studying maps of Canada's Baffin Island, where the Inuit people had lived as nomadic hunters for nearly 5,000 years. There, I thought, maybe I could learn something. 

The winter I spent in the Inuit community of Arctic Bay, Nunavut, changed my life profoundly, and altered my focus from landscape to anthropology. Through four months of winter, learning everything I could about Inuit culture and making friends along the way, I'm not sure if I found answers to my questions, as much as an awareness of how many questions there are. Ultimately, I realized how little I knew about life in the North, how little I still know, and could ever know. The breadth of indigenous knowledge, about the Arctic landscape or any landscape, is incomprehensibly vast, and there is so much to be learned from it. It is with humility, and reverence, that I have been permitted to stand on the periphery, looking in.

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The experience was the beginning of 5 years of work as an expedition guide in the Arctic and Antarctica, taking people in person to help them see, and understand, these beautiful and remote regions of the globe. Yet it wasn't over - Arctic Bay has lived on in my heart and in my mind, expanding to fill every corner of my imagination. Returning seemed impossible - the astronomical airline prices (a round-trip ticket costs around $7,000), the outrageous costs of food and living expenses. For three years, I applied to grant after grant, pitched to organizations, pitched to sponsors. Each was rejected, one after the other, year after year. 

I decided, finally, to go anyway. 

Three days are left, now, before departure. Sea Ice Stories, the project that I'd dreamed up for the grant applications, has now been made possible through crowdfunding, the generosity of individual sponsors and people I know. Thank you, everyone, for believing in this, enough to get me there. (Donations will remain open to help get me home again!)

From here, only time and experience will tell how the project may unfold, but I'll tell you more about my ideas in the next post. In general, I believe in the importance of indigenous voices in Arctic discourse, and am eager to see what potentials for collaboration may arise.

Also, I'm not alone here - there are wonderful projects already working with similar themes; many great photographers, writers, artists and thinkers dedicated to Circumpolar topics. There's Meet the North, for example; Brian Adams' I AM INUIT project; Katie Orlinsky; Ciril Jazbec; Jonathan Harris; Tiina Itkonen; Evgenia Arbugaeva; many local photographers in Nunavut and beyond. There are writers like Barry Lopez, Seth Kantner, Gretel Ehrlich. They all inspire, inform, shape a community. Check them out, and let me know if you have others to recommend. 

So, here we go. This project, like most of my work, is a vehicle for exploration, and a response to encounters throughout the journey. Photographing - freezing time - is a way to share, and further, things that I feel are of lasting value and meaning. Through it, I seek to learn, understand, and expand my awareness; and hope that the resulting photographs and stories can help others do the same.