Under the Surface: Drawing from Photographs

In my last days of preparation before traveling to Arctic Bay, I was struck with an overwhelming urge to print a selection of photos from the last time I was here. The process of selecting and printing them was long and tedious, keeping me up at night for days. I couldn’t justify it at the time, but had a feeling that the prints could lead to something.

Fast forward a week or so, and I found myself spreading the photos around in my room in Arctic Bay, seeing what scenes could fit together. I started making imaginary collages, and drawing from them, driven by some unexpected motivation that seemed to appear from nowhere. I’ve made two now, and am close to finishing a third.

under_the_surface_acacia_johnson.jpgUnder the Surface , 2018. Ink on paper.  (iPhone photo)

This is the first one I made, ink on paper, based loosely on a photograph I took of local hunter Tom Naqitarvik a few years ago, searching for seals on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve drawn pictures all my life, but it’s been years since I’ve attempted anything with a vague degree of seriousness. Suddenly I’m overflowing with ideas – it’s exciting to blend the reality of photographs with whatever strikes the imagination, and create composite scenes that are more layered with meaning than photographs often are.

Although I’m far from a pro, I’ve decided to create a series of drawings in addition to photographs and writing. When inspiration strikes, and time is available, I cannot resist the opportunity to produce artwork. This time in Arctic Bay is beginning to feel, at times, like a multifaceted artist residency, and every day I wake up excited to create something new. I’ll look forward to sharing more as time passes.

 

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Arctic Homecoming: A Week in Pictures

A week has passed, and the mornings grow brighter still, the number of qamutiks on the sea ice slowly increasing. The day after I arrived, a white canvas tent appeared, pitched on the ice in front of town. This morning, there were two more – one white, one pale, pale pink – on the western shoreline. A polar bear skin was stretched to dry; people played baseball on the ice. A boy at work in the supermarket told me “welcome home.”

It occurred to me that Arctic Bay was the place where I had lived the longest, consecutively, in my entire adult life.

Miniature potted cactus appeared in the Co-Op grocery store. There was a swarm of children around them, wide-eyed and marveling, daring each other to touch the needles.

“Cactus,” I said to the cashier. “Are those new?”

“It was a mistake, actually,” she told me. “Nobody ordered them, they just appeared. The aloe is selling well, though.”

I wondered where the cactus had been cultivated; how far they had traveled. What they would think, if their light-eating bodies housed any consciousness, about the ecosystems and continents they had undoubtedly traversed.

“You’re a photographer, huh?” said the cashier. “Are you the one leaving the mystery pictures around? We found one in the freezer, here, and there was one in the post office at Northern. No one knows who it is.”

“That’s not me,” I replied, which was true. “What are the pictures like?”

“Beautiful pictures, little artworks,” she said. “Nice messages on the back. ‘I hope this brightens your day,’ that sort of thing. The whole town’s talking about them.”

I smiled. The thought of mystery pictures, meant to better people’s days, filled me with warm curiosity.

*

A week has passed, and of course, photographs have begun. I’ve been easing into it, spending time just being with people, observing, and writing more than I used to. Drawing, too, by some surge of unexpected inspiration. Regardless, here are some photographs, from the first week.

On one of the first evenings, I met Apitah and Tara, two teenage girls who I’d photographed three years ago. Now, aged 18 and 16, respectively, they both had their first babies. We drove up the road towards Victor Bay, flying through the night air on their bright red four-wheelers. They’d both worn their amautis, parkas designed to carry babies in the hoods. We could compare the photos, we thought, between then and now.

I hadn’t used my 4×5 camera in months, but it felt good and natural in my hands. As with most times I use it, I hardly remember taking the pictures at all – I go into some sort of other state, where the world disappears, and all that exists is the picture. The film will be a long time coming, but here are some digital results from that night.

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Trying to accept the sun, and play with making the most of it. This one looks a bit too much like throat singing, perhaps, but I wanted the symmetry and the lens flare. 

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Apitah, in 2015.

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It was good to see the girls again.

A few days later, Darcy let me come seal hunting with him after work. Roaring along on the back of the snowmobile, visiting many of the same sea-ice cracks and coastlines that I’d been to years ago, I realized I was now more interested in the actual hunting than the photographs. What was different, in the spring? I was surprised to see how large an aglu, a seal breathing hole, becomes at this time of year. In the winter, it’s barely larger than a quarter. Now, if you were lucky, you could see the whole seal’s face, emerging from the deep, in large, perfectly rounded holes.

We didn’t catch any seals that day, but it was good and refreshing to be out. On the way home, we stopped by the King George Society Cliffs (what a name, right?) where I took some pictures.

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Until this weekend, I had only ever been driven on snowmobiles by men. This changed dramatically yesterday, when Darcy and Susan let me accompany them for a drive out to Darcy’s parents cabin near Victor Bay. Their 10-year-old daughter Taryn, clad in a glorious pink parka, drove me on her Bravo snowmobile, a recent gift from her parents. As someone interested in Arctic femininity, I found this absolutely delightful.

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All was calm and quiet at the cabin, which had originally been one of the first buildings in Arctic Bay. A sense of deep peace hung over the land. I took a walk with the girls on the sea ice, climbing around on the pressure ridges and making shapes in the snow.

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It’s been a good first week, full of warm meetings and beautiful spring weather. I’ve shot a couple rolls of 6×7 film, and three 4x5s. Collected stories, reunited with friends, taken in the landscape. This week, I’ll be starting a photography workshop for high school students – I’m curious to see how many will join in.

Meanwhile, the days grow, incomprehensibly, longer.

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Arrival; Adapting to Light

Every morning, I awoke to blinding sun. From my bedroom window, I could see clusters of snow-laden buildings, snowmobiles and four-wheelers in disarray, on the slope descending to the sea. A pair of ravens, silhouetted in the morning, pecked at scraps of seal meat. Beyond, all was white, radiant, reflecting the sun like a vast, snowy mirror. The shoreline grew buckled and jagged where it met the tide-worn edge of the sea ice, then flattened out again. If you squinted, you could see snowmobile tracks, distant dog teams tied up in rows.

The sea ice expanded, it seemed, to every corner of the known earth, every inch between every coastline. All topography, therefore, was connected; made equally traversable. It was difficult to imagine, as it always is at first, the wealth of life that churned below those wide plains of ice.

“Where’s the floe edge, these days?” I asked Darcy.

“Probably no floe edge yet,” he said. “Just ice.”

My view from the airplane hadn’t been an illusion – even from the air, the sea was frozen as far as the eye could see.

Blinking out the window, I felt strangely lost for words to describe it. The cloudless Arctic spring was overwhelmingly luminous, full of whites and silvers I’d never fathomed. Each shade seemed subtly metallic, capable of emitting its own light. Yet it wasn’t glaring, in a malevolent sense, the way desert sun feels in blistering heat. The day simply never ended. It felt, I thought, like the word clarity.

Even without looking at them, I could feel the mountains rising up behind the town. This was Ikpiarjuk, the pocket, in Inuktitut – the town of Arctic Bay where I lived that life-changing winter, those years ago. The mountains, red under the snow, wrapped around this little crescent-shaped town, in its little crescent-shaped bay. They felt comforting, as if reigning in the vastness.

In the mornings I’d imagine I heard songbirds, greeting the day. Do snow buntings sing in the mornings? How do animals keep themselves from going døgnvill, as we call it in Norwegian – losing all sense of what time of day it is? At a certain point, does it matter?

On the sea ice, the trajectories of dogs, people, and snowmobiles intersected and paralleled, their times and origins unknown. A single Croc shoe, starkly black, rested on an ice-ridge near the Northern Store; a lone hockey skate lay sideways on the ice near the arena. It was difficult to imagine loosing a single shoe in this cold, much less wearing Crocs. I wondered how long it would take for the shoes to sink into meltpools of their own making, the sun warming the black material faster than everything else.

*

Housing is notoriously limited in the Canadian Arctic, and I’d been nervous about finding a place to live. (I know families of ten who live in two-bedroom houses, kids piled on mattresses on the floor.) A few days before departure, however, I’d received a message from some friends of mine, Susan and Darcy, who used to take me out seal hunting. They had a spare room, and better yet, they were people I already knew. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I live with them now, in a box-shaped house on the east side of town. My room has a window facing the sea, and the light pours in without end.

My first priority has been visiting people, catching up, trying to gather in what is new and what has remained. With the light, it feels like a different world, but most of the people are still here. Some people have new jobs, new kids, new houses, new relationships. Others have split, separated; some have passed away. The first morning, I tried to find my friend Peugatuk’s grave in the cemetery, but the snow was deep, and I’d forgotten how to read the Inuktitut syllabics on the gravestones.

“I can’t believe you came back,” kids say, yelling or in hushed voices, rushing to me on the street. Most of them have grown up so much that I don’t recognize them at first. A lot of the teenage girls have children now; they seem happy, proud. They pick me up on their four-wheelers, babies on their backs, and we drive fast in the nighttime sun, cold wind frosting our cheeks and hair.

Spring is on its way, and the landscape will transform dramatically in the time to come. I’m continuously surprised by the changes brought on by the new season – how much warmer it is, for example. I’d grown used to Arctic Bay at 40 below; now it gets above 10° Fahrenheit some days. People are outside all the time, getting ready for spring – fixing up their longer qamutiks (sledges), setting up tents on the ice, sewing new parkas and amautis.

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A qamutik – sled designed to pull behind a snowmobile or dog team – awaits use on the sea ice outside of town.

Only four days have passed, but it feels longer. There have been friends to visit, errands to run. Among other things, I have been approved to teach a photography workshop at the high school, starting next week! Two weeks later is the Fishing Derby, when a huge part of the community camps at a freshwater lake to jig for artic char. In between, I’m hoping to work on some portrait series, and of course, get out on the land – meaning, out of town – as much as possible.

Of course, the photographs have slowly begun, too. No matter how well-crafted an idea is before departure to a place, however, the realities of arrival will bring adjustments, suggestions, new perspectives. What are the most important stories to tell, here? In my photography, I’ve relied aesthetically on the ethereal qualities of darkness for a very long time. How does one grapple with endless whiteness and sun, capture the magic that is inherent here?

Late one night, we set out for a drive into the mountains, in a borrowed SUV draped in Christmas lights. The road zigzagged up the hill behind town, and crested the saddle into a glorious wash of golden sun. There, a field of qamutiks lay scattered about in the snow. In the pink shine of arctic evening, the sun glowed through their frosted windows like a constellation of illuminated homes. Soon, these would all be in use, the spring season beginning.

I stepped out of the car into the deepest silence I’d heard in years.

 

The Journey North

The boots I wore on the plane were rated to sixty degrees below zero, ice-grip soles inlaid with artificial, coarse stone. Airport security workers squinted at the x-ray machine, re-running the purple neoprene with resigned suspicion. But it was Alaska, and still winter, and I was eventually released to ponder various Arctic taxidermy on the way to the gate. Polar bear behind glass, eiders labeled on shelves, Inupiaq hunter mannequin in a life-size floe edge panorama. A bull moose, hooves on the granite floor, stood at a crossroads as if debating its travel route.

I sweated profusely in the boots, kicking them off under airplane seats and café tables, pattering around in socks. They were overeager, protective things, destined for ice and snow, but the route to Arctic Bay was long, six flights, warmer climates between the cold ones. I slept, wrapped in my parka, upright in chairs.

Even on the way to get there, there was magic. It had been building, perhaps, in the gazes of all those Arctic animals, but I had been too tired to notice. It wasn’t until I woke up in Ottawa, and finally saw the fountain, that I knew the journey had begun.

It was, to the frequent traveler, a simple decorative fountain, passed impatiently, without much notice. To the children of the Arctic, however, this fountain was shrouded in myth. A dark, tiled wall, spanning two stories between arrivals hall and baggage claim, was veiled by continuous falling water. Multicolored lights pulsed upward, making the water glitter like ice, writhe like something alive. It suggested the mystery of aurora, the slow flames of a smoldering fire, and something celestial beyond description.

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I remembered, vividly, the eager face of a young Inuit boy from Arctic Bay, eyes sparkling, telling me about seeing the fountain on his first trip to Ottawa for surgery. The rainbows! The boy beamed. It’s all full of light! He raved, ecstatic.

What ever happened to that boy? He must be a teenager now. Once, when the whole town was on lockdown during a winter blizzard, this boy had braved severe subzero temperatures to meet me at the store, to show me a tent he had made. I hadn’t forgiven myself for staying home that day, for thinking he wouldn’t show up.

For some reason, I had thought about the boy for years, hoping he would have a safe and trouble-free passage into adulthood. I prayed for his innocent jubilance to remain with him throughout his life, free from the weight of adult self-consciousness. Where was he now?

I stared into the falling water, wondering what he had seen here. Was it wonder, surprise, or something deeper, here at the baggage claim? Did he recognize, in these watery flames, allusions to burning thoughts, inner drives, the fleeting nature of memory and time? Or was it just novel?

What makes some people see more than what is immediately obvious? I thought. Recently, someone told me I sleep with my brow furrowed in deep concentration. The older I get, the more I can see these lines, becoming a part of my face.

Did you see it? He had asked. Did you see the fountain?

I wanted to believe, then, that I had.

*

I had grown accustomed to boarding Arctic-bound aircraft. These days, I was usually accompanying large groups of jet-lagged tourists, negotiating their dietary restrictions with the flight crew and answering endless streams of questions. In brief moments of solitude, I would consult my notes or guidebook, hoping to have all the answers.

Going North alone, however, is a different thing entirely. No longer concerned with having answers, you can focus entirely on having questions. Better still, you have the choice to simply observe. Sometimes, the most important revelations rise from periods of stillness, of simply paying close attention.

Leaving Ottawa, my eye first caught on the mottled white of frozen lakes, still intact despite the warm spring. Rivers, too, cut white lines through the blue forests. Some straight, some curved, some bisecting and intersecting, intricate as lace. Clouds came and went, with their ashy shadows. What was nature, what was man? It was impossible to tell.

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On the plane I read an article about a young woman who wanted to hunt caribou. To do this, she had quit smoking, and saved up the money to buy an ATV. When she eventually shot her first caribou, she ate nothing, but gave the meat away to the elders and the hungry. As is custom, the article said. The article, in the in-flight magazine, was about financial literacy and goal-setting.

I looked down over the land. The tree line had given way to a vast and undulating landscape, presumably akin to tundra, every depression and concavity brimming with windswept snow. I thought of the patterns that play over ocean floors, or desert sand. White and blue gleamed from every corner of the earth.

At last, we crossed the coastline, and the sea ice came into view. Massive lunar discs, fractured and fissured by tide and current, blanketed the ocean. What had bewildered Western explorers thought of this? How could the untrained eye differentiate between ice and land, fixed and moving, before the floes crushed in and it was all too late?

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In Pond Inlet, the wind gusted over 45 kilometers per hour, but the soft-spoken airport workers shrugged and smiled. No longer out of place in my parka and boots, I stepped gingerly into the coldest wind I’d felt in years.

That was it. Engines roared to life, we ascended, the airline had recently improved the quality of their coffee. Outside was the brightest landscape I had ever seen. It grew progressively more glaring, more brilliant, more overwhelmingly white, until it was like staring down at the surface of some cold, luminous sun.

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I sat back in my seat, feeling optimism welling, my heart beating harder, and recalled a sentence by Annie Dillard.

“If we are blinded by darkness,” she had written, “we are also blinded by light.”

 

Alaska, November: Life in a Painting

What do you tell them, when they ask you? That when you go home, you live inside a painting? That when you approach, the endless peaks appear as if from a dream, their contours glowing into horizon, ridges like teeth, snowless valleys carving rivers into the earth? That every time you press your face, your lens, to the window, trying so hard to catch it? That feeling? 

Earlier this winter, I stopped through my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, for a few weeks. I did a number of things while there – visited family, edited and launched some new bodies of work, fundraised for a new project (more on that later), skied, prepared for Antarctica, and visited my brother in Fairbanks.

It was there, in Fairbanks – at the Museum of the North, on the university’s campus – that I first laid eyes on an original painting by Rockwell Kent. I was drawn to it as if by magnetic force – the color, the richness, the way the canvas breathed forth the peculiarities of Arctic light that can only so fleetingly be glimpsed. He caught it – that uncatchable thing. I’d seen reprints of his work, read his books, even – but seeing the work in real life was another story.

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The painting made me think of a lot of things. The image itself struck me, of course, because of the parallels it drew to my own daily reality (aboard ships in the Polar Regions), but it struck me also because of the color, that luminous quality and color of light. That single painting made me feel, instantly and forevermore, deeply connected to a community of artists and thinkers, past and present, engaged in ideas of North and northernness. The community had always been there, of course, but it took the painting to wake up to it.

It was a turning point. Since then, the more I consider it, the more important that community feels, and it’s everywhere. No matter what you are passionate about, somewhere out there are people who feel the same, who are driven by the same forces. You are not alone.

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I’ll tell you this – as whimsical as Kent’s work may appear, it is in many ways astonishingly accurate. After seeing the painting, I saw it everywhere, in the mountains, the fjords, the sunrises.

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On the flight home from Fairbanks, descending over Anchorage at dusk, I was suddenly gripped. Shooting in the dark, through the thick layered plastic of a jet window at thousands of feet, I gasped yet again at the vastness of this wilderness I’d grown up with, the Chugach mountains extending as far as the eye could see. Anchorage, when it finally appeared, seemed so inconsequential – a handful of glitter in the deep.

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It was a beautiful November – not much snow, but properly cold, and by the time we returned from Fairbanks, the ocean had begun freezing in its myriad of formations. I’d just gotten a brand-new digital camera, and promptly took it to the sea ice to test it out.

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The frozen sea of Turnagain Arm, only a few minutes from my childhood home, had been a source of artistic inspiration for as long as I could remember, but that day on the ice was challenging. No snow had fallen on the surface, and the ice was both slippery and brittle. I moved slowly, cautiously, outwards from the shore, while the moon rose above.

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This was it: home. I’d been thinking a lot about sea ice, too, and our relationships to it. Here was a new camera, destined to tell these stories. Here was the first thing it saw. Here are the first pictures it took.

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While I couldn’t get as far as I would have liked, alone on that new, fragile ice, it was a beginning. A beginning of something new coming, something more connected. I hope to move forward with a greater receptivity, now, to connectivity – of the things, in these polar realms, that draw us here; that shape us, and ultimately unite us.

Bulgaria: An Exhibition Experience of a Lifetime

Setting foot onto dry land near the end of September this year, I had a feeling things were going to be action-packed. Long field seasons in the Polar Regions, typically, are followed by one of two phases: desperate rest and recovery, or sudden flurries of activity, during which one attempts to cram 4 months worth of activities and errands into a few crazed, busy weeks. This time around, my goal was to somehow fuse the two – but where, when, and what this would entail, were all yet to be unveiled.

First, a bit of backstory. In the early spring of this year, whilst on a ship in Antarctica, I received a peculiar email through our satellite communications system: an invitation to travel to Bulgaria for a solo exhibition of my photography. First I shrugged it off – spam, probably – but then I took a second look. Surprisingly, it seemed sort of real. It looked cool, actually. With a degree of skepticism, I hesitantly accepted the offer – but promptly made a back-up plan, just in case.

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Fast-forward six months or so, and I was back on a ship, in the Arctic this time. Although the opening date of the exhibition had been set, and Jens had agreed to join me, we had no plane tickets. The date drew closer: One month to go. Three weeks. Two weeks, in which to somehow get from a ship in the Arctic, to Canada, to Sweden, to Bulgaria.

At one week left until the opening, I wrote Jens over the satellite email.

“Forget about Bulgaria,” I wrote. “I don’t think it’s going to happen. We can stay in Sweden, read books and stuff. Rest.”

No sooner had I sent the message than plane tickets appeared in an email from our mysterious Bulgarian hosts. With 5 days left until the exhibition opening, we decided to drop everything and go. As snow began to fall on Greenland and storms descended upon Svalbard, two weary expedition guides boarded aircraft on opposite sides of the Arctic and started the course towards eastern Europe.

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Neither of us, I must admit, knew anything about Bulgaria. The whole of the Balkan region was, in my imagination, shrouded in mystery; the little I knew of it was a fantastical world shaped by photographers like Michał Siarek. We just went, operating in the same expedition mindset that defines much of what we do. You go, simply, to find out; and by traveling without expectations make yourself receptive to a potentially endless stream of surprise, delight, and amazement.

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Bulgaria pretty much blew our minds. Not only was it real, it was beautiful – far less Soviet concrete (why had I imagined that?) and instead, lush, mountainous, and the city of Sofia full of warm colors, a meeting of East and West. More importantly, we were met at the airport by none other than Denislav Stoychev. All I knew about Denislav was that he was a talented photojournalist and member of the Bulgarian Press Photo organization which had invited me there. What I didn’t know was that he was only 25 years old, hilarious, and probably one of the friendliest and most talkative people I’ve met in years. He would instantly become our best friend, translator, tour guide, and agent throughout our time in Sofia.

“I hope you like interviews,” he said as we rode the subway from the airport. “You’ll be on Bulgarian National Television tomorrow, on the morning show. Local television at noon, National Radio the next day. Maybe some newspapers.”

How does one respond, after three months in the Arctic? The blur of the subway whirred around us, Cyrillic characters flashing by. Jens and I just looked at each other and laughed. What was this dream? How did we get here?

“Why are you laughing?” asked Denislav.

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Sure enough, the next morning I was live on the morning show, promptly after breakfast and before actually having seen the exhibition I was speaking about. You can check out the interview here – it was my first experience speaking with a simultaneous translator, but I think it went as well as it could have. As we spoke, the wall of screens behind us displayed a slideshow of my work from Alaska, Iceland and Baffin Island. I imagined these pictures, and these spoken thoughts about the Arctic, glowing from television screens in living rooms across Bulgaria. “Surreal” does not begin to cover it.

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The exhibition poster outside the gallery. Loving seeing it all in Bulgarian.

After the National Television experience, we went to see the exhibition that Gallery SYNTHESIS had kindly prepared in advance. The gallery adjoined PhotoSYNTHESIS – a cafe, camera store, print studio, and photo book library, all in one. It was a stunning example of how to make the documentary and fine-art photography worlds accessible and engaging to a wider public, by creating an inviting and multifaceted cafe atmosphere.

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Cafe seating in front of the gallery door.

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In the spacious upstairs gallery, the exhibition was already installed, combining images from my projects Polaris, Origins and Under the Same Stars. It was refreshing, for once, to have such a large exhibition curated by someone else – and novel, for me, to have all the text written in Bulgarian. The show was expansive, filling three rooms and two hallways, but here is a brief selection of installation shots.

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No sooner had we taken a look at the exhibition than it was time for another interview, this time in English, with the local TV station bTV.  Due to the amount of other news stories that day, the clip they actually used was very brief, but it was a fun and engaging experience. Here is the result. 

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With the exhibition opening that night, we decided to take a break from interviews and actually spend a few hours taking in the sights of Sofia. It was, after all, still less than 24 hours since we had arrived.

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The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, for example, was nearby.

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By some glorious accident, we stumbled upon an absolutely legendary restaurant called Made in Blue. Post-Arctic meals of dreams were enjoyed outside in warm sunshine.

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We got dressed up for the exhibition opening and walked through a beautiful park right next to our hotel, full of locals taking in the late-afternoon light.

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From there, it was straight to the exhibition opening! For being new to Bulgaria, there was a surprisingly large turnout of photography and art enthusiasts. Denislav and Nadezhda, the curator, introduced the show with a series of speeches in Bulgarian.

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There were lots more interviews and photographs and smiling at cameras.

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Some lovely ladies from the US Embassy, which had funded the exhibition, arrived to say hi and do some more interviews. (Here’s the one that ended up on their website.) After that, it was time for an artist talk about the Polar Regions, photography, and expedition travel.

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Thus concluded one of the most amazing and intensive exhibition days I can remember, marked by the astounding hospitality, generosity, and kindness of our new Bulgarian friends. We ended the evening with dinner with Denislav, his friends, the curator Nadezhda, and the director of the Serbian photography festival Vizualizator, talking about photography, art, and all of its magic.

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The days that followed, while considerably more low-key, were enjoyed to the fullest. There were more interviews, of course, at the National Radio and various newspapers, but there was also lots of time to explore and enjoy the city. Denislav tagged along with us, documenting fervently on Instagram as we went, showing us some of the highlights of Sofia.

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I also got to conduct portfolio reviews for some up-and-coming Bulgarian photographers!

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That night, we met Tsvetan Tomkchev, director of BG Press Photo, to watch the sun set over Sofia.

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The next day, Denislav took us by train to the city of Plovdiv, where we spent the day enjoying the best of Bulgarian traditional cuisine, warm sunshine, and the beautiful cultural scene there.

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On our very last day, the three of us joined Bulgarian photographer Vlad Donkov and his friend on a day trip in the Rila mountains! Like Jens and I, Vlad had also spent a significant amount of time photographing in the Polar Regions, and jumped at the opportunity to show us some of Bulgaria’s best wilderness – and swap adventure stories from the worlds’ cold places. After driving an hour or so from Sofia, we made our way up through the autumn landscape towards Malyovitsa Peak.

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The trail was sunny, relatively warm – and tough! Jens and I could feel that we had been on ships all summer. It was heavenly, however, to feel our freedom of movement over the earth; to breathe mountain air; and to sense the wildness around us in every direction.

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Denislav was representing BG Press Photo, of course. 

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While we didn’t make it quite to the top, our 8-hour trek took us through a host of alpine landscapes, past lakes and valleys, and finally up a steep scree gully up to one of the mountain’s saddles. From there, panoramic views fell away from us in every direction. We munched apples and chocolate at the top, feeling the cold evening air sweeping towards us as the sun sank lower into the sky.

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Darkness fell over the landscape as we returned, exhausted, to the car. Denislav chatted rapidly into his cell phone in Bulgarian, hanging up and calling, hanging up and calling.

“Tonight we will eat at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant!” he announced happily. “Very, very traditional. Maybe with a singer.”

“Oh no,” said Vlad.

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It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of what happened next. We arrived, sweaty with our backpacks, into a restaurant whose seating space also functioned as a dance floor; where a live band performed about 5 meters away from our dinner table, and lines of restaurant patrons wove around the tables in ongoing traditionally dance. Tsvetan awaited us enthusiastically, beaming in his BG Press Photo t-shirt under an assemblage of Bulgarian flags. We laughed and ate and yelled across the table at each other over the roar of the music.

“I love this song!” Denislav exclaimed suddenly, as the jubilant tune changed melodies.

“What’s it about?” I asked.

“Our uprising from the Ottoman Empire.”

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It was a cultural dinner like no other. Suddenly, Denislav snuck across the room to speak to the singer, gesturing towards Jens and I with enthusiasm. The next thing we knew, we were asked to come on stage, where the singer gave a dramatic speech in Bulgarian encompassing our life stories – the Polar Regions, the ships, the animals, the exhibition, the photography, Antarctica, the Rila mountains from where we had just arrived – and promptly urged us to dance. The band burst into vibrant song.

What do you do? You dance. Everyone else, it turned out, danced with us too.

Thank you, Bulgaria. Thank you Denislav and Tsvetan, for inviting us; thank you Vlad, Nadezhda, BG Press Photo, the US Embassy, and all the others who made a 5-day whirlwind trip an experience that we will never forget. I came to Bulgaria thinking it would be an exhibition and nothing more; I left with an overwhelming sense of the warmth of humanity, feeling that we have made friends for life.

Sometimes, you just have to drop everything and go.