On March 12, award-winning photographer and documentary filmmaker Louie Palu will install a series of photographs frozen in large ice blocks on the Ransom Center’s plaza. The photographs were made in the high Arctic over three years while Palu was on assignment for National Geographic. View the free installation, part of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Art Program, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. No SXSW badge is needed.
At 4 p.m., Ransom Center Curator of Photography Jessica S. McDonald will discuss the aesthetic, conceptual, and editorial impacts of the work with Palu and Sadie Quarrier, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic.
Austin Downey: What is the origin of this project?
Louie Palu: After I finished covering a story in Afghanistan, the idea of geopolitics in conflict was something that I was really interested in. I started reading a lot about the Arctic, many people don’t know that for more than 70 years Canada and the United States have operated a defensive radar line that starts in Alaska, goes across the north of Canada, and above the Arctic Circle. Though it’s not an official part, there are radar stations that extend on to Greenland. I started to wonder what this 70-year-old front line looks like. I visited and realized that there was a lot more military activity than I thought.
In 2007 a Russian submarine planted a flag made of titanium under the North Pole. It was an unprecedented moment, and it started tensions and fears reminiscent of the Cold War. Countries started changing their idea of what they were doing in the Arctic. The shortest route of attack to the United States is over the North Pole. So missiles or bombers, they imagined, would attack over Canada or Alaska.
I applied for and received a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the Arctic. I photographed for about a year, and realized I needed more support, and a platform to share this with the public. I showed some maps and photographs to Sadie Quarrier a photo editor at National Geographic and she reacted positively. National Geographic hadn’t seen a project that shows the natural world and the military arriving, preparing for what is this big unknown in that region.
The Cold War was about imagined narratives and unknowns, and that’s what is happening now. Today’s debate is about who’s going to own the Arctic? Some countries are arguing that underwater continental shelves are an extension of their land, so the North Pole belongs to them. Other countries then make counterclaims. All these narratives result in conflict. Suddenly the idea of a “blue Arctic” where you can sail ships through water that was ice brings up questions about fishing, oil rights, and more.This became the foundation of the project.
How did you conceptualize the installation?
The inspiration for the installation Arctic Passage was the Franklin Expedition, one of the greatest naval disasters in the history of the Arctic. The British Empire was looking for a shortcut from England to Asia through the Northwest Passage, which is across the top of Canada. Two ships set sail from England in 1845 and they got bogged down in the ice. The ships were lost with only minimal traces of what happened, and it became the stuff of legend in British history.
I read Frozen in Time, a book about the Franklin expedition which mentioned that there was a camera aboard the ship. The camera was never found. I wondered what those pictures would look like. It was an imagined idea of these frozen photographs at the bottom of the Arctic ocean in blocks of ice. I thought, wouldn’t that be a compelling installation? The blocks of ice would melt faster in a hot place, so I needed a venue in a warm climate. I immediately thought of the Ransom Center and South by Southwest as places that engage in smart dialogue on big ideas about our world.
What I like about this installation are the metaphors. Franklin is history. Today, there are new actors in the Arctic. The Arctic is the place where the most dramatic changes in the world are happening related to global warming. When the ice melts, new things are going to be unleashed and we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. We have a whole new part of the world where governments have to consider what their roles will be. This really is the last frontier.
What do you think is the importance of the public seeing these photographs?
Having the photographs in a physical location like this is like going to see a film in the theater versus watching it on your laptop. You pause and decide to engage in a moment of reflection and meditation about what this means to you. I think that’s what the goal of art is and going to an institution to like the Ransom Center to engage with art is making a commitment to take time to look and think about things.
I’d like for people to ask serious questions and experience the physicality of something melting. Since most people won’t visit the Arctic, seeing these ice blocks melt will hopefully communicate that this is the experience people are having in the North and what they are witnessing, especially with the Inuit.
The power of photography is that it is a unique visual language. It is a window to help imagine other people’s experiences. I think it’s a tool for empathy, and one to help challenge our perceptions of the world.
What was it like to live and work in the Arctic?
It’s so isolated. Your morale and your psychological and emotional health can sink very quickly. You go outside and you feel pain from the cold all day, and you have to learn to wield that pain. I broke my ribs twice being ejected off snowmobiles. I scraped the skin off the back of my foot climbing a mountain in Greenland. I scratched my cornea with ice. When your eye is that cold and you try to rub the ice forming around your eyelashes you can scratch your cornea. It’s so cold you don’t feel yourself doing that.
Sometimes there were areas I traveled to in the High Arctic where there were no villages and no human beings for miles. Many times the photos were taken in places where we were camping and sleeping in tents on the ice sheet. You can be killed or seriously hurt in the Arctic just by the weather. There you realize that nature is the ultimate power. You can get frostbite anytime of the day. If you don’t eat enough fatty food your body doesn’t produce enough heat and your hands and feet start to get cold and hurt. You can’t sweat too much or you’ll get wet and freeze to death if you are not careful. It’s like an infinity circle of the environment constantly degrading you, and you have no power to fight back.
There were times when I’d travel for several hours to go photograph. I’d ride for hours on a snowmobile in -50 degrees Celsius (-58 F) only to learn that upon arrival my cameras were dead or the shutter frozen.