In 2015 Kelly Eningowuk of the Inuit Circum Polar of Alaska reached out to Brian Adams about creating a body of work that connected the world with Alaskan Inuit through common humanity. Having seen Adams’s previous book of portraits, I Am Alaskan, and following Humans of New York, Eningowuk thought a book and social media project that shares what it’s like to be Alaskan Inuit would meet her goal. Adams, who is Inuit, came on board and spent a year and three months shooting portraits and interviewing in 16 Inuit villages and four Alaskan cities, culminating in I Am Inuit, a book recently published by Benteli.
PDN: What was your photographic approach to this project?
Brian Adams: I went into this project with a very clear vision of how I wanted to photograph it. I knew I wanted it to be shot in 6×6 film, and I originally wanted to shoot it all natural light, but after my fourth trip (in Kaktovik, Alaska) where I only had about 40 min of daylight, I decided to start bringing a flash along to help give me some fill light when needed. Some of the portraits were set up in advance, but I would say 90% of the portraits and interviews were spur of the moment. When I arrive to a village, the first thing I like to do is walk around the whole town, it helps me understand why the village decided to settle in that specific location, and what their connection to the land is.
PDN: After visiting 16 villages, did anything surprise you? What were the challenges? What did you enjoy?
BA: Despite my extensive traveling through Alaska over the years, the entire project was a learning experience for me. Every village was different, and some were harder than others. My goal for the project was to post a photo on the I Am Inuit Instagram feed everyday for a year, and that was challenging. I am used to shooting in the cold, so that’s not a problem. I shot the whole project primarily with two Hasselblad’s so batteries were never an issue. The hardest part was just keeping the number of interviews up. Being away from my family, was probably the hardest of all. But my partner Ash Adams, is a photojournalist, so we are pretty used to being away for weeks at a time now. My favorite part about working on this project was all the people I got to meet. I feel like I have made many life long friends through this project, and I can’t wait to get see them again.
PDN: What is the story you’re hoping to tell?
BA: My hope is that through this body of work, people will have a better understanding and connection with Alaskan Inuit. And that people will learn that we are all connected in some way. The decisions we make impact everyone on this planet, and especially the arctic regions right now.
PDN: Do you have a favorite image?
BA: One on my favorite photos from the project is of three men in a steam house in Quinhagak. I was walking by and I was so shocked to see the three of them sitting in their steam house with the door wide open. We all gave each other a smile and a nod, but after about 15 steps, I told myself that if I didn’t go back and ask them if I can make a photo, I would regret it for the rest of my life. To my surprise, they had no problem with me taking a photo and talking to them about the steam house. Another favorite is Marie Rexford in Kaktovik, Alaska. She is a strong Inupiaq women and I believe she represents the soul of the project.
Below are the interviews that accompany the images in the gallery.
Marie Rexford: We are getting the maktak ready to serve during Thanksgiving. We caught this whale on September 23rd. It is a bowhead whale. We are allowed three, our quota. We had lost one, so we had asked one of the villages if it was okay to have one of their whales, and we are thankful to Kivalina for giving up one of their whales. In the past we did that with them. We knew we would be short on maktak if we had only two, so we asked one of the captains to ask them. Ours was 44.6 feet long.
I am the captain’s wife, second in authority. Actually, first from what I was told. When I found out, I said, you all know what to do, do your thing. My first crew I went on was my dad’s crew. I was 16. Then I married Eddie. I used to go out with his uncle’s crew, then he passed the crew down to Eddie, and that’s when we found out how it really works… Eddie’s uncle showed us how the authority works, how to do this and that. How to talk to new crew members, what not to do out there and what to expect from them. Sometimes you don’t know about first timers. One of our first timers went out and he hollered out there, and that’s not a good thing. We went right over the whale and he was like “AAH!” You’re not supposed to holler when you’re hunting! You keep quiet; you keep your eyes out for the blows. All eyes are always looking out because there is a whale out there somewhere. You will find it, and sometimes there is a bunch of them, all at once, one strike, we go for that one strike. We never caught two whales at a time before. I never want to see that happen because it will drain out everybody, trying to cut them up and get them put away before the polar bears get to them. There is 24-hour Nanuq Patrol during whaling, because we’ve got polar bears waiting. You can see one of our pictures over there, one of our guys is bringing blubber to a polar bear that didn’t want to go away, so they brought him some blubber to keep him away from the cutting.
Edgar Jackson and Helen Jackson: We have lived here all our lives. We came from the old site here. The village moved here in 1972 or ‘73. It’s three miles down south. We have seen a lot of storms during our life time. The worst one was down at the old village site in 1969 or ‘70? No one used to get scared back then though. There was wood that washed up outside our doorway. I was the mayor at that time. I was 23 years old. We had a landing strip, and we had no type of heavy equipment, nothing at all. And that storm was really bad. We looked at the airport, and the whole airport was covered with logs, big, long, wide logs. I called Al Adams. He worked for the Governors office, and I explained the situation to him. I told him there is no way airplanes can land here. We don’t have a tractor or equipment; we don’t have nothing. He asked me if I have got men there? I said yep, we have men here. He said, ‘then you hire every able bodied man you can.’ During the flood years, we have no means of escape right now. We could stay floating on a boat for awhile, but we would drift away. Its a tricky situation here. There is no place to run; it’s scary. The reason why we moved three miles up here, is because the water is shallower up here, and the waves break farther out there.
Lynden Weyiouanna: I will be 18 tomorrow, and every year I see the land slowly decreasing. People call it climate change; others call it big bologna. In real life, if they actually came up here and lived with us for a few years, they would see what we are talking about and what we are going through, year by year. Berries and animals are coming quicker than usual. It’s a big change for us. Prices have even gone up in town. I am not even that old you know? Things have changed in a short amount of time.
Robert White, William Sharp, John Sharp: We wash our bodies, try to wash the dirt off after we work out there. Relax and get clean I guess. It’s called a steam house. We work all day and then this is where we come.
Brittany Cleveland & Taryn Andrew: After cutting the silvers (salmon), we put them in salt water and then dry them for three or four days. After drying them, we smoke them and then they will be done. It takes about two weeks from catching them to eating them. It’s a passed down recipe
Jonas Mackenzie: I started getting into music 8 years ago. I started playing guitar 6 years ago, a few chords and learning from my uncles and cousins. And then I started singing four or five years ago. I used to watch my uncles playing and wanted to start playing. My cousins were listening to all kinds of rock and roll and I would watch all kinds of music videos and see Slash playing. My favorite right now is ACDC and I am really into old ‘50s rock and roll, and old country like hank Williams and Johnny Cash. I want to try and go to Florida for music, there is a school there called Full Sail. I want to go check it out.
Photographer interview by Sarah Stacke.