Ragnar Axelsson, 59, is an Icelandic photographer who is well-known for chronicling the lives of subsistence hunters, fishermen, and farmers in the Arctic, the North Atlantic, Northern Scandinavia, and Siberia. Rax, as he is affectionately called, started photographing (professionally) at the age of 16 and joined Morgunblaðið, the leading Icelandic newspaper, two years later. He still contributes to the paper. His books, Faces of the North and The Last Days of the Arctic, tell a poignant story about climate change and its impact on our planet.
Climate change is one of the most hotly debated topics of our time, and often these debates devolve into arguments and lose all meaning. But when you can see the changes in our world, it shakes you deeply. That is how I felt when I first discovered the work of Ragnar “Rax” Axelsson. A longtime Leica photographer, he was featured in a documentary where he talked about Leica M Monochrome. I bought his books and was mesmerized by the photographs and their poignancy. Inspired by Rax, I decided to visit Iceland with my Leica M Monochrome and a single 50-millimeter lens and use them as my primary tools to make landscapes of one of my favorite countries. While in Iceland, over a coffee, I asked Startup Iceland founder Bala Kamallakharan if he knew Rax. He didn’t, but he knew someone who did. And before I knew it, Rax and I were chattering away about photography, life, and climate change. This is a highly edited version of our conversation.
Om Malik: How did you get into photography?
Ragnar Axelsson: My father was an amateur photographer. The magic of the pictures, that was kind of, wow, this is something I like. I started taking pictures when I lived on a farm as a kid, at 10 years old. The documentary became a common thing for me because I always felt like an old soul. I felt like that right away: I have to document it. Later on, I came to the newspaper as a photojournalist. That was the greatest job in the world. It was so much fun: traveling and seeing life on our planet. The camera became a part of me.
OM: You’ve been photographing the Arctic for a long time and have seen the climate change firsthand. What changes have you seen, especially recently?
RA: I went there over a span of 25 years before The Last Days of the Arctic book came out. Now it’s been more than 30 [years] and I’m doing the whole Arctic again. We have to support scientists by showing in pictures what they are saying.
First when I started photographing the Arctic, in Greenland, I read all the Arctic heroes, the explorers, and I wanted to go and see that kind of life and the Inuit. When I first came, I wasn’t thinking about climate change or anything. I was going to get pictures that I would like.
Through the years, I realized what was happening. The ice was getting thinner. It’s hard to show it sometimes in photographs, because you just see the surface. I managed to do that. You see it in the book here: There is a picture with 20 years in between, the same place. The fjord was frozen 20 years ago. Now it’s open water, and there’s only one hunter left in that village. There used to be 20.
When I look into my grandchildren’s eyes, when the question comes from them, “Grandfather, why didn’t your generation do anything?” I want to say, “Well, I tried. I tried by showing it in my photographs, because that’s my voice.”
OM: Human beings tend to destroy more than create. What about in Iceland? You have a million and a half people showing up every year, and that’s got to have an environmental impact. Can you see it with your naked eye?
RA: I can, because I’ve been going over and over again to certain places with hunters. I asked my friend a few years ago, “If you had one wish, what would it be?” At the time, we were on the ice, and it was very thin. He said, “Could you give me 25 years back in time, when the ice was safe?”
The ice is their hunting ground. It’s so hard for them. There are fewer and fewer people living as hunters. They will always go out and hunt seals, but that’s not the same as living there.
OM: What would they do now, if they were not doing that?
RA: That’s a problem. Some are not doing anything. Some are on welfare. Some get jobs in shops. It’s changing from being, if I may say so, one of the greatest hunters on the planet, because it’s a hard life, into being something…
OM: Passive consumers?
RA: Totally different from their original life. I understand the young generation, they don’t want to be hunters. They see James Bond on films, American films about different lives.
A lot of educated, talented people are changing this country, like Greenland, slowly into something they want to see, because they don’t want to live in a tent on the ice, hunting seals or narwhals or polar bears. The villages that I’ve been into, where there used to be 10, 12, 14 hunters, now these villages are closed down. When you see the houses, it’s like they left their knives and spoons on the table, and they left.
OM: I’m interested in knowing more about your photographer life and your camera. How did you arrive at your style?
RA: I don’t know whether I had a style or not. It happened. It’s like something in your head, from the heart, that you want to do it this way and not the other way.
I was so fond of Eugene Smith and Mary Ellen Mark as one of the greatest documentary photographers ever. She was a friend of mine. Eugene Smith was so great. I bought his book, and I was looking through his work. I wanted to see his real prints, so I flew to New York in the afternoon, went into a gallery in the morning to see his prints, and back home the next afternoon. My wife thought I was in the highlands. [laughs]
I wanted to see how he printed. [When I got home], I went straight into the darkroom and started to print and use the same technique as he does. It’s a big part of how I think in black and white today, actually. He was probably one of the greatest photographers ever and a great printer, a great inspiration.
I even was reading books by painters. I was looking at Caravaggio and the light in his paintings.
It takes 10,000 hours to be good in printing. You have to print and print and print, but you’re taking it in. It’s strange when you say this because when I take a photograph, it takes me a long time sometimes to accept it as a good one that I like or I don’t like. Sometimes you kill your darlings.
OM: You just have to work harder, though. I definitely know. Any other subjects you like to shoot, apart from the Arctic and people here?
RA: I’ve been all over the world. That’s the reason also why I started doing the Arctic as a photographer because I once wanted to go to Africa. There were problems, so I wanted to photograph them. Every photographer in the world was there taking the same pictures, so I thought, “I have to go the other direction.” That’s why I wanted to go to the Arctic, and there was nobody there. [laughs]
Then I realized what was happening. I passed an old man every morning when I was in a small town in Greenland. He was always looking up, talking to me, and I didn’t understand what he was saying. I asked the teacher in the school, “Can you translate?”
He said, “Well, there is something wrong. This shouldn’t be like this. The big ice is sick.” That was the moment, probably six years after I started, that I realized something was changing. They sensed it before everybody else. Then I realized, “Oh, I have to continue.”
Sometimes it takes 10 years, 15 years, to show the same spot and the difference, what’s really going on, like the ice. In this book, we couldn’t put more, but I thought maybe in a bigger book, in the next one.
OM: What is this book, Faces of the North, about?
RA: This is about Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland. That was actually my first book. This is like two books in one because we added the old one, and then we added new pictures related to the older ones. The stories that I wrote, in the beginning, weren’t in the first one. I tell the story about everything, about the pictures.
OM: The thing I’ve always wanted to know from somebody like you, who started in film and printing, is, what do you make of the current disposability of photography, like with Instagram and Snapchat?
RA: [laughs] There are more photographs taken today, because of the phone and all that, than in the past 100 years, I think. My friends, they were crying, “It’s over.” I was saying, “No, it’s not over. You have to run faster. We have to be focused on what we’re doing. They must believe in what you’re doing.”
All my projects, I’ve done it myself. There’s no grant or anything here. There’s no support at all. I’ve been doing it all by myself, because I believe what I’m doing will one day matter — maybe.
I was in Siberia 20 years ago, and then I went back this winter, twice. I went on a reindeer sled, and they told me that the tundra has big holes in it, 80 meters deep. It’s like a big blast by a meteor or something. There was an old man living in a forest, in a cabin with his wife. I had a translator, and I asked him if he had seen any changes. He told me that his land used to all be flat. The tundra was all flat, the permafrost. Now it has holes everywhere.
The lakes are ice‑free two weeks earlier [in the spring] and later in the autumn. It’s freezing much later. It’s much warmer in the winter and lots of difference between days. It can be ‑20, ‑40, ‑50, ‑5 over the course of a few days. He said it used to be ‑35, ‑40, ‑50 all the time.
OM: Has it changed you in any way?
RA: It made me a little bit more aware. If we can do something, everybody should, because this is our only home.
I grew up underneath the glaciers, so I’ve seen it. I was measuring the Glacial River when I was 12, 14, 16 years old. I was riding on a horse. I had to pass the Glacial River on a horse just to measure the depth of it and how it was changing. I’ve seen them retreating. If you could flip the switch off today, you can’t stop the melting of those glaciers here. They will disappear in 150, 200 years. There’s no way of stopping it.
In the future, what will happen to those people? It’s something that’s not fair to ignore.