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Playing High School Football at the Top of America

Ash Adams is a photojournalist based in Anchorage, Alaska who specializes in environmental portraiture and documentary. Last fall, she photographed several practices and games with the Barrow High School Whalers, a football team based in Utqiaġvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow), with her Mamiya RZ67 and Mamiya 7ii film cameras. Barrow is a traditional whaling community and the northernmost inhabited city in the U.S. The Whalers, who first became a team in 2006, have to travel a minimum of 500 miles to compete against other high schools. Below Adams shares a personal account of time spent with the team, whose talent and dedication earned them the Alaska state title in 2017.

During the late summer and fall months, Coach Chris Battle warms up the bus outside of Barrow High School while the town’s football team, the Barrow Whalers, gear up inside. Eventually, the team piles in. They drive through town and then down Stevenson street, a long rustic road that hugs the beach along the raging Chukchi Sea, until they arrive at Cathy Parker Field, its turf a bold blue and gold. At first, the field feels out of place; it is the northernmost football field in America. The team unloads from the bus and begin drills with Coach Battle and the assistant coaches. Even on days when the arctic wind is whipping, the team practices for two hours.

Utqiaġvik, formerly called Barrow, is a roughly 4,000-person village in Alaska and the northernmost town in the U.S. that is inhabited. It’s one of the larger villages in the area – by thousands – and has infrastructure. There are cars in Barrow, and restaurants. There is more than one store, a community center, a heritage center, and a new hospital. Barrow is a traditional whaling village, where over half of the residents are Inupiaq. During whaling season in the fall, whales are brought up on an old  airstrip not far from the football field.

The team’s players are Samoan, Pacific Islander, Black and Inupiaq. About one third of the boys who go to Barrow High School are on the team. The Whalers were established in 2006 as a way to help students avoid social challenges in the village, like drug and alcohol use and domestic violence, as well as bolster graduation and retention rates.

The Whalers are about 500 miles away from their nearest opponent, but nearly 1,000 away from others. In 2017, after 11 years of playing, the team won its first state title.

I’ve worked on many other stories in Utqiaġvik; it’s one of my favorite places in the state. For years, I’ve wanted to spend time on the blue and gold field with the football team. As someone who travels a lot in rural Alaska, driving down a road where, on your left, is the Chukchi Sea and on your right is this colorful field and energetic team, is a unique sight. It touches on a kind of cultural hybridity that gets to the heart of the complex cultural moment in which much of rural Alaska currently finds itself. This fall, between other assignments, I was able to work with the football team. And I was fortunate enough that this was their year to win a state title for the first time. I plan to continue working with them next fall.

I am not a sports photographer. I didn’t want to shoot this story like one, and I didn’t want the work to have the rapid pace of reportage, either. So, I chose to shoot on medium format film. I gave the frames space and I looked for the slower narrative of what’s it’s like to be part of a football team in a village like Utqiaġvik.

-Ash Adams

You can follow Ash Adams on Instagram and see more of her work on her website.

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