Documenting life in the Arctic while freezing moments in time

Horse Rescue
Kötlujökull Melting
Melting Iceberg
Mikide Kristiansen
Arctic Hunter on the Sea Ice
Farmer Guðjón Þorsteinsson
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Ragnar Axelsson

For over forty years, Ragnar Axelsson has been photographing the people, animals, and landscape of the most remote regions of the Arctic, including Iceland, Siberia, and Greenland. In stark black-and-white images, he captures the elemental, human experience of nature at the edge of the liveable world, making visible the extraordinary relationships between the people of the Arctic and their extreme environment — relationships now being altered in profound and complex ways by unprecedented climate changes. A photojournalist at Morgunblaoio from 1976 to 2020, Ragnar has also worked freelance assignments in Latvia, Lithuania, Mozambique, South Africa, China, and Ukraine. His photographs have been featured in LIFE, Newsweek, Stern, GEO, National Geographic, Time, and Polka and have been exhibited widely.

The Ragnar Axelsson: Where the World is Melting exhibition in Hamburg, German offers a personal look at Axelsson’s life’s work to date. Behind his photographs there lies the firm conviction that the traditional culture of the Arctic population is not only in the process of vanishing, but it is unable to withstand the destructive effects of such major forces as the economy and climate change. 

Axelsson’s information comes first-hand from the people on the ground. He goes to great lengths to visit and spend time with them. For this reason, and because he experiences their often-arduous way of life, he gains their trust. That, in turn, allows him to freeze moments in photographs of their lives and write up their narratives. In doing so, he becomes an ambassador to their existence and their changing circumstances. 

The other major topic that thrills Axelsson is the force of the elements and the grandeur of Nordic nature. His impressive landscape photography is testimony to this. With the gaze of the researcher and artist, he analyses even the smallest natural structures, which are reminiscent of modern drawings by the likes of Paul Klee or Per Kirkeby. As he does this, he holds consistently to his aesthetic decision in favour of black and white photography.

Olafur Eliasson glacier-based art project

However, Axelsson’s commitment extends far beyond exclusively working as a photographer and journalist. Several photographers, including Magnum photographer Paolo Pellegrin, have asked him to support them during their projects on climate change. Axelsson, who is an experienced pilot, also flew over the glaciers in Iceland with Olafur Eliasson, when the latter was working on his glacier-based art project. Moreover, he accompanied the climate researchers Stefan Rahmstorf and Michael Mann when these men wanted to see the melting glaciers. Axelsson is a good friend of the vulcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson. Together, they have journeyed to remote places in Indonesia and Greenland, where they investigated the blue lakes on the melting Greenland glacier, among other phenomena.

Oræfajokull Volcano & Iceland’s Glaciers

Ragnar Axelsson remembers Iceland 1968: One of my greatest memories as a seven-year-old boy was seeing a glacier for the first time. I was on my way to the countryside under the Oræfajokull volcano and saw the glacier out the window of a Douglas DC-3 airliner. The plane flew low, the glaciers glowed in the spring sun and the cracks were staggering. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

That was the beginning of an adventure that still hasn’t come to an end. This was my first summer of the next eight years in the countryside. The district was remote and isolated. There were no bridges over the glacial rivers, and nothing got across them except for flying birds, specially equipped trucks, or brave riders on Icelandic horses.

Growing up in the countryside with self-educated people who did scientific work along with their farm chores made an invaluable contribution to the course of my life. It gave me such a huge amount of knowledge in so many areas. Every weekend, I went hiking up the mountains and studied the glaciers, birds, geology, botany, bugs and butterflies. I sometimes rode bareback on my white horse all alone over a gushing glacial river where we started to float and sometimes had difficulties getting across to measure the depth of the next glacial river beyond the bridge on Fjallsa. That was the life!

The glacial lakes are always changing, and the glaciers are receding. They have both been bigger and smaller in the past centuries than they are now. I was like a fly on the wall taking pictures of the people on the farm and life in the countryside. The camera was always hanging around my neck.

Ragnar Axelsson: Where the World is Melting

It has never been more important than it is now to document in words and images the lives of the people who are experiencing great changes in the Arctic so that the whole world can see what is happening. A photograph is only a small piece in the jigsaw that makes up the big picture, but sometimes it is these small pieces that open our eyes to the broader reality.

I hope the exhibition will give a little glimpse of life in the Arctic. May we never stop documenting life on earth and freezing moments in time. Photographs have opened people’s eyes before and changed things — they will continue to do so, as long as the world keeps turning.

Text Ragnar Axelsson & Isabel Siben / Photos Ragnar Axelsson