Life on the Line: A photographer traces the Arctic Circle

Photographer Cristian Barnett traveled around the Arctic Circle, capturing life at 66° 33′ 44″ N. The result is his new book and traveling exhibition, Life on the Line. BarentsObserver spoke with Barnett about his impressions of life on the Circle and the decisions he made to capture it.

When photographer Cristian Barnett arrived in Zhigansk, Siberia, he and his translator were the 7th and 8th foreigners to visit in ten years.

“We were treated like royalty,” he says. “People were putting on concerts for us, shows, singing. The entire school came out.”

Zhigansk doesn’t have much to offer tourists, which is why even Russians don’t find themselves there. Barnett wouldn’t have had reason to go either, except he had set himself a strict goal: to photograph the people living right on top of the Arctic Circle.

The seven-year journey Barnett set out on in 2006 defied his preconceived assumptions of what life is like in the Arctic. While he had expected hardship and wilderness, Barnett says he was never more than a few hundred metres from central heating.

“It’s not actually an extreme environment in a lot of cases,” he says. “Mostly it’s not that difficult of a place to live.”

Kristian, Greenland

Most of the photographs in Barnett’s new book, Life on the Line, aren’t portraits of people stoically pressing on to survive in an oppressive environment. They depict people who are thriving in a landscape that they have made their home.

“Their warmth and hospitality was brilliant,” he recalls. “And that was right across the Arctic. It doesn’t matter where I went, people were really interested in what I was doing, very generous with their time, and very proud of their communities.”

Sometimes the ugly side of life in the North was impossible to avoid, however. Visiting the small Canadian hamlet of Repulse Bay, he encountered some of the most difficult living conditions in the project. His 45-year-old guide had been born on the tundra in his parents’ nomadic Inuit culture, but his subsistence-hunting life as a child had been replaced by a crumbling prefabricated house and joblessness. 

“I think that photo of the small boy in the house illustrates the conflict between the old and the new,” he says. “Of all the communities I visited, that’s where I felt a real problem, a clash of cultures.”

Barnett practices what he calls “environmental photography,” capturing his subjects in their own contexts.

Roger, a Norwegian cattle farmer, stands proudly in his field surrounded by cows. Two young girls, Alexandra and Slepstova, stand pressed together on a rickety Siberian bridge, dressed like teenage girls in any city in the world. 

Another Russian, Vladimir, paints a ship frozen into a river. “Before I went to the Arctic, I had no idea that rivers were important lifelines in the winter when they’re frozen over,” Barnett says. “For many communities it’s the only way in and out.”

Anyone he found on the Arctic Circle was fair game for a portrait. While traveling on the Circle aboard the Akademik Ioffe – a Russian research vessel leased for expedition cruises by One Ocean Expeditions – Barnett photographed the ship’s chef, its expedition leader, and some of the guests.

Mark, Canada

Shooting with his Swedish square-format Hasselblad 501 and 503 film cameras was something of a fortunate accident. When he began the project in 2006, Barnett was using the Hasselblad models for his commercial work; he wouldn’t switch to digital until later that year. Once he began the Life on the Line project, he couldn’t switch cameras for consistency’s sake, but around 600 rolls of film later, he came to appreciate the value of the square format for the environmental portraits.

“I’m just as interested in what goes on in the background as I am in the people,” he explains. “So you lose a lot of information when you have a [rectangular] portrait.”

As a follow-up to Life on the Line, Barnett dreamed of taking a straight line around the planet from his front door. It seemed destined to happen: the line would have taken him directly to his father’s door in Switzerland. However, when he traced the line further, he was less enthusiastic.

“It goes through Somalia,” he says. “I don’t think I’m quite ready for that.”

Hanging on the wall behind Barnett’s new studio, an old train station, is a giant sign facing the rail commuters: “You are now 1000 miles from the Arctic Circle,” it reads. He had discovered the coincidence while he was still working on Life on the Line. He hopes that in the same way his book and touring exhibition will bring a sense of relation to the people in the remote Arctic.

“This project will probably make people realize that there’s a lot about the Arctic they really don’t know,” he says. “The Arctic is an area of the planet that’s going to become much, much more talked about in the future. Part of me is thinking, maybe this is a record of something that will have changed beyond recognition in the years to come.”

Donald, Alaska

 All photos used with permission of Cristian Barnett. Life on the Line is available on Amazon.