Photographer and writer, Graeme Chesters has a special research interest in the High Arctic. In 2020 he won AP magazine’s Rising Star Award for his work documenting change in the Arctic and was invited to be ‘Artist in Residence’ at the Spitsbergen Artist Centre in Longyearbyen last winter. There, he interviewed and created portraits with expedition leaders, polar guides, dog mushers, film makers and many more. This body of work called 'Portrait of Longyearbyen' now forms the northerly most photographic exhibition in the world this year, which Shackleton is proud to support. 

I first visited Svalbard two years ago to document change in the High Arctic. Svalbard is ground zero for debates on climate change, hosts the global seed vault and is home to world leading researchers on everything from glaciology to satellite communications. It’s been base camp for innumerable polar expeditions including Amundsen’s flight to the North Pole and is home to the North Pole Expedition Museum.

Amidst the landscapes and wildlife, one of the most striking things on Svalbard is its community, two and half thousand people from fifty countries. Svalbard has never had an indigenous population and is therefore a community of choice, people have their stories, whether work, adventure, exploration, science or art, and more often a mixture of all. Some of these stories are to be told in the exhibition Svalbard People, with support from Shackleton.

Into the darkness

Previously having spent time on Svalbard during spring and autumn, either on expedition with dog teams or enjoying long snowmobile trips to glacier fronts, an opportunity to be artist in residence during the dark season promised a quieter time to spend listening to the community. To that end during autumn and early winter, I created a studio of found things in an old mining warehouse, now a thriving artists centre. My ‘studio’ became a sail cloth back drop propped up on light stands, coupled with an over sized diffuser and one speed light. This was never going to be a normal shoot, on Svalbard improvisation and making do has long been the order of the day.

On Wednesday October 26th, 2022, the sun set in Longyearbyen at 1.11pm. It rose again at 11.22 on the 16th February, 2023. In practice blues and blacks and their gradients bloom and fade with moonlight and the reflection from snow cover. Night no longer has sole purchase on the aurora borealis and a green ribbon sun rise might herald a shimmering red echo, flickering below the milky way. The full moon also takes an occasional spin around the sky, refusing to set but hiding occasionally behind mountains before rising sideways in fitful triumph to continue circular laps.

Everyday life is quieter, horizons diminish and there is time to spend talking and being together. Life in the northernmost town is always interesting, despite and sometimes due to the long darkness.

The interview/portrait technique

Everyone has a story, in some places this is more obvious, and the stories are more unique or fantastical, than others. How then to to work with polar guides, explorers, hunters, dog mushers, and artists in such a way that we could make a portrait together whilst they told their story? In essence the answer suggested itself, invite them to the studio, explain the idea, move from interview to conversation and in the process take photographs and record our conversations.

Remarkably people came, not everyone, some I didn’t expect but was delighted to see, and others I had hoped to see, who were unable to make it to the studio. Those who came were generous with their time, each interview lasted an hour, many much longer, they were often candid, reflective, always engaging and sometimes challenging in ways that were unexpected. As always, people have public and private stories, sometimes they correspond, intersect or diverge, the stories become woven within the fabric of a place and in the identity of the place and person, some stories are larger than life, whilst others are told quietly and surpass expectations.

The exhibition

Bringing images and stories together is a challenge, reconciling images and quotes, searching in a different way for what made the moment and how to add insight to the photographs alone. Words and images will be exhibited together in June and July, an exhibition that will take place where the portraits were created, before they are gifted back to those who created them with me. A circular economy of cultural production helped to become possible by the support of friends at MPB and Shackleton and their commitment to the Polar regions.

Throughout my life I have been driven by an impulse to keep going, that bit further, beyond the here and now, towards the horizon, to try and glimpse the zones of indecipherability, the in-between places, the unsettled and unsettling spaces where we’re challenged to make something anew, something different, utopia not as a ‘no-place’ but as a journey towards the ever receding horizon. The constant onwards that echoes through our desire for exploration.

I hope the portraits included here evoke stories and moments - humorous, melancholic, reflective and insightful. They recall the scent of wood, the darkness and steep mountains, framing the glimmer of the town by the Fjord below. Listening to people is a privilege and I couldn’t think of anywhere better than that small room, high up in an old building, beneath the possibility of the northern lights and with the challenge of creating images that are faithful to the people involved.