In the Beautiful, Threatened North

Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee: Caribou on Sand, from his Oil and the Geese series (Teshekpuk Lake wetland, Alaska), 62 x 70 inches, 2006

Like deserts, frozen places offer timelessness. When I was traveling in northeastern Siberia some years ago I saw gulag camps that had closed down in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. The watchtowers, the barracks, the barbed wire, the fence lines where the guard dogs used to run—all had survived in amazingly good shape in their almost-year-round deep freeze. While working in Newfoundland on a story about icebergs, I learned that core samples of ice from Greenland’s glaciers, the source of many icebergs, provide scientists with data on global climates and atmospheres going back more than a hundred thousand years. Bubbles in glacial ice from two millennia ago contain lead residues from the forges of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Arctic takes you back to old-time basics, like Vulcan’s anvil and the foundation blocks of the world. In Chukotka, across the Bering Strait from Alaska, I climbed a hill and met a view of rock, sea, and sky that was, for all practical purposes, eternal. For the first time ever I had a sense of what it was to stand on a planet. That the Arctic environment is so basic and its timeline so long suggests the direness of the possibilities as the climate warms. The mess we’re making of the earth may last, as Bill McKibben put it in a recent essay, until “deep in geological time.”*

Among the wonders to appear in the changing Arctic in recent years is the India-born photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee. Coming from Kolkata (Calcutta), where the average mean temperature is 80.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Banerjee has dedicated himself to recording and working for the preservation of Arctic places. It is safe to say that he has been colder than most people from his native country have occasion to be. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, an anthology of writings by thirty-seven authors that he has compiled and linked with his commentary, pieces of autobiography sometimes jump out: for example, that he started traveling in Alaska only about a decade ago, and that he became a US citizen after his Arctic photographs raised so much controversy in Senate debates in 2003 that he feared he might be deported.

In a short time he has amassed impressive authority on his subject. With an Inupiat companion he stayed in a tent in a blizzard that lasted almost a month at a wind chill of 110 degrees below zero on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and a photo he took of a polar bear in that vicinity has become, he writes, “one of the most published photographs in the history of the medium of photography.” In Arctic Voices, long-term issues of global importance—the exploitation…

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