Who lives in the Arctic? And what are their stories? Those are questions posed by a new photography exhibit more than a year in the making. The “I Am Inuit” show is a body of images from artist Brian Adams that premiered last week at the Anchorage Museum. The project has built an audience online for much longer.
As the finishing touches are being put on a sparse white gallery, Adams showed off one of his favorite images.
“Right here we have a photo of three men in a steam-house in Quinhagak,” Adams explained.
It was from a visit during his first work trip for the I Am Inuit project. He spotted the men cleaning themselves in the small plywood hut.
“I nodded to them, they nodded back,” Adams said.
He walked for another 50 feet.
“I stopped in my tracks, I was like ‘if I don’t go back there and ask them if I can take this photo, I’m going to regret it for the rest of my life,’” he recalled.
Adams was sure they’d say no and laugh him off. But to his surprise, they told him to go for it. The result is an extremely intimate glance into a part of daily life in a small rural community that few outsiders are privy to.
“One of the reasons I was really excited to make this image was because I hadn’t seen anything like this, I hadn’t seen any other contemporary Alaskan photographers making any images like this.”
Alaskan take on “Humans of New York”
The project is a collaboration with the Inuit Circumpolar Council. And the idea was to showcase to the world the humanity of the Inupiat and Yupiit of Alaska. To do that, they wanted to replicate the popular blog Humans of New York, which pairs portraits with short, concise snippets of interviews. Adams visited 20 communities, coming back from each trip with dozens of portraits. But he wasn’t stockpiling them for a traditional museum show. “I Am Inuit” was designed for social media, specifically the picture-sharing app Instragram. It got a promotional boost early on from the company, and now has about 35,200 followers around the world. Even though the images are disseminated digitally, Adams’s artistic process is more retro.
“All of these are film,” he said of the fifty framed photos mounted on the walls. He shoots on a Hasselblad medium format camera, taking only about three shots per each portrait. In that sense it’s a very classically composed museum show, an irony Adams is delighted to note. “We shot a whole social media project on film.”
All about pride
The camera he uses hangs down around his chest, with the viewfinder facing up. It means Adams has to stare down and almost bow toward his subject. The resulting angle tilts upward, making people look grander, almost a little taller than the world around them.
“I like to see pride in people, I like to see people at their best,” Adams said.
The project falls neatly into the Anchorage Museum’s ongoing effort to deflate misperceptions about northern Alaska as a barren wasteland. Director Julie Decker said a show like this made up of intimate and honest portraits fits keenly into that editorial mission.
“We want to take away stereotypes of the Arctic,” Decker said. “To show the complexity and to show that these are people we recognize, they’re our family members, they’re Alaskans, and they’re global citizens.”
Brian Adams’s “I Am Inuit” show is up through September.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq wins Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize, Radio Canada International
Finland: Nordic Sámi Convention agreement reached after more than a decade, Yle News
Norway: Sami National Day celebrates 100 year anniversary, Radio Sweden
Sweden: Sami Blood: A coming-of-age tale set in Sweden’s dark past, Radio Sweden
United States: Presbyterian Church formally apologizes to Alaska native people for denouncing culture, Alaska Public Radio Network