The life and nature in Greenland

documented by photographer and climate analyst Sebastian Copeland

Award-winning photographer and polar explorer Sebastian Copeland has experienced both the power of nature, and the fragility of ist polar ice up close on his many expeditions. Sebastian Copeland traveled to the smallest community in northern Greenland. His goal: to document what might no longer be there in many years' time.

Only with sled dogs, young filmmaker Josefin Kuschela and a translator, photographer Sebastian Copeland set out for the remote community of Qeqertat in northern Greenland. It is just under 66 kilometers from Qaanaaq to Qeqertat across the icy landscape. Copeland's mission: to capture the life and traditions of the inhabitants for eternity using his pictures. With his work, he wants to celebrate nature`s beauty and inspire an emotional longing to preserve it.

In the interview, Sebastian Copeland gives us exclusive insights into his trip to northern Greenland

You spent six weeks in Greenland last spring. What was the purpose of this mission?

Copeland: I have spent some of my best polar moments on the Greenland ice over the years. Notably, in 2010, I had a remarkable experience crossing 2300km of its ice sheet on skis, from south to north. But this time, rather than focus on the athletics of long distances, I wanted a trip that focused on two aspects of northern Greenlandic life: the ice, and its people. Following two pandemic seasons that shut down the Arctic gateways, I was finally able to spend some weeks traveling alone amongst the giant icebergs that get trapped in the northern fjords during the seasonal freeze. But I also wanted to visit the small community of Qeqertat, a very remote village of 12 to 20 people depending on the season. My objective was to spend the time to interact and take formal portraits of the ice, and the people living there, to learn more about their lives and how the changing climate directly affects them. That work would also serve as a document of a community and culture that could well be dissolved by the march of time and outside influences.

© Copyright Sebastian Copeland

Sebastian Copeland Photographer and polar explorer

My work would also serve as a document of a community and culture that could well be dissolved by the march of time and outside influences.

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What did you find most revealing on this particular trip?

Copeland: It is always a privilege to spend one-on-one time with the ice. Different seasons yield different interactions on the sea ice, and in the spring, milder temperatures allow for more focused observations, and less on survival. But on this trip, I was most affected by my time spent with the Inughuit of Qeqertat, the Greenlandic Inuit. This remote village, one of the northernmost in Greenland, is located on an island set in a large fjord. Until early June, the fjord is frozen solid. Qeqertat is cut off from the outside, with no traditional communication: no internet, no cell reception, no TV; just one satellite phone for the whole village in case of emergencies. In winter, its population is reduced to about twelve people (it doubles in the summer from visiting fishermen). There was a little girl named Kulunnguaq (8) who was born and raised in the village. When another family moved away, that little girl became the only child in the village, and her schooling was cancelled. She was curious and followed me everywhere (and I don’t think this had anything to do with the chocolate I gave her!). When I visited the larger village of Qaanaaq on my way to Qeqertat, I met a biologist who was measuring levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s) in local food. POP’s are insoluble carcinogens; they are very difficult to break down. They infiltrate the water streams from agricultural or industrial run-offs in the milder latitudes. From there, the chemicals set in the fatty tissues of fish that get transported up the gulf stream and enter the human food chain. Babies get poisoned through their mother’s nursing milk or blood cord from consuming fish and seal meat. Adverse health effects include cancer, immunosuppression, loss of cognitive and neurobehavioral function among others. Kulunnguaq was diagnosed with residual effects of POP poisoning, notably diabetes. It is remarkable for a child who has only lived thousands of kilometers away from the societies where those chemicals are released, and whose diet excludes sugars and trans fats. I have also observed this in the northern communities of Nunavut, in Canada. It is a cautionary tale of our careless development and its destructive and often unseen implications.

© Copyright Sebastian Copeland

Sebastian Copeland Photographer and polar explorer

But in the last thirty years, climate trends have shortened the seasonal freeze cycle, and thus reduced the reliance on dog sleds that operationally need sea ice (…). In that sense, climate change is endangering the culture.

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What can we learn from the Inughuit, the indigenous population of Greenland? – from a personal and human perspective and in the way our actions here influence their living due to changes in the climate?

Copeland: The people of Qeqertat, like similar indigenous populations around the world, are entirely sustained by the land. They hunt and fish, relying on dog sleds to get them across the ice to find prey: primarily seals, but also caribou, narwal and walrus, along with fish and the occasional polar bear. The dog team are also sustainable: they are fed the seal meat from the hunts, and in turn, they naturally breed. Dogs have culturally been foundational to the Inughuit’s way of life and survival. But in the last thirty years, climate trends have shortened the seasonal freeze cycle, and thus reduced the reliance on dog sleds that operationally need sea ice. Longer stretches of above freezing temperatures also complicate the storage of food which historically has simply relied on cold outdoor conditions rather than electric refrigeration.

In that sense, climate change is endangering the culture. That is also true of the increasing reliance on mechanized transportation, and the maintenance and fuel it requires, in a place where the traditional barter economy is being challenged by the need for subsidized currencies from the Danish government. Free money does not align with cultural tradition in the High North, and often leads to residual complications from the introduction of drugs and alcohol. Trash (mostly plastics) is also increasing its impact on the land. As the northern hemisphere warms, places like Greenland will be more sought after for its resources, tourism, and alternative living. A 4,000-year culture is being chipped away, threatened to vanish within decades.

© Copyright Sebastian Copeland
© Copyright Sebastian Copeland

What draws you back to Greenland?

Copeland: Visiting Greenland is a little like stepping into a time machine. Western influences are clearly felt as they infiltrate the communities, and increasingly so. But tradition remains dominant, entrenched in the culture, and exotic for western visitors like me. From a Nature perspective, Greenland holds the greatest ice mass in the world after Antarctica, but it is more accessible than the Southern Continent. Any time spent on an ice sheet of that scale is literally like stepping into another world, a binary world of air and ice. It will easily make you feel like the first person on another planet; or the last human on this one. On the ice sheet, the random mix of deep silence and stillness, sudden hurricane-strength storms, and the utter lack of clutter makes for a perfect immersion into introspective thought. The void is something that we struggle to find in the lower latitude, to quieten the mind. You will find plenty of it in Greenland!

You have spent a quarter of a century traveling the coldest places on the planet. What is it like to travel these places?

Copeland: I think the “what” is perhaps less relevant than the “why”. The “what” is about good planning. Preparation is always key to an enjoyable and safe passage. Respecting natural forces and being honest about your limitations. Nature is always stronger, and the ice will be quick to settle that score. After that, it is about determination, and always moving forward. When Nansen crossed Greenland from East to West for the first time in 1888, he burned his skiffs upon making landfall to snuff out the temptation to turn back! But the “why” has to do with finding the best version of yourself outside of your comfort zone. I am fond of saying that it is when the soul is threatened that the best in us comes out. Traveling alone in remote environments forces you to be alert both internally and externally. With little in the way of outside distractions, the communion with the land approaches the spiritual and the sublime. You develop a sense of exchange that deepens your understanding of both you and Nature itself, one that primes the realization that Nature also has rights. And she or he who walks the land invariably becomes a warrior in its defense.

© Copyright Sebastian Copeland
© Copyright Sebastian Copeland

Which role does photography play in how you experience the people and circumstances there?

Copeland: Photography is a powerful companion of these exchanges. There is an argument, especially with today’s technology, that if you did not capture it, it did not happen! Today’s tools make it so much easier to square off on that score. But for me, photographing these places has two primary functions. First, as a testament. It enables me to revisit places that memory alone cannot serve properly. To appreciate the finer details of these places is not something that always happens in the field. Photography plays a pivotal role in the rediscovery phase, and notably with high-capacity image capture. Exceptional glass, like ZEISS, and the details it extracts makes for further exploration from the comfort of your home. Obviously, this is the kind of exploration that is afforded to viewers in the sharing phase of those photographs, too. For me, that is both a privilege and a duty. To be in front of such exotic subjects, whether the ice or its inhabitants, comes with a responsibility. It is also self-serving, of course, as I always think of my camera as a weapon in the dissemination of ideas. In this case, the idea is to reconnect us with Nature, and sensitize people to the impact that we collectively have on our environment. And that even in remote and isolated places like the northernmost coast of Greenland, the damaging imprint of our industrial development can be felt and seen. To be a visual storyteller in these environments holds gravitas.

Can you name three things that really inspired you or still stick in your mind when you think back to the experience or people you met on this trip?

Copeland: When I first arrived in Qaanaaq, the larger village of northern Greenland (pop.600), two adolescents were having their first communion. Christian missionaries did a fine job impressing upon these northern communities the Lord’s dominion! But the celebration, like birthdays, is a chance for the whole village to open its doors and share food amongst themselves. They bring out the delicacies that have, in some cases, been buried in the ground for up to a year. Fermented seal meat with raw auks’ eggs is some of the choice offerings, along with raw whale and cooked polar bear. Admittedly, not for the faint of heart, as raw meat comes with its fair share of blood. Pieces of meat are carved from the floor, resting on cardboard sheets, and dwellers of all ages spend hours hacking at it with knives and bare hands. More importantly, it is the sharing that is notable, as everyone is invited. Sharing is also the spirit that was on display when I visited Qeqertat. When I first arrived in the village, I knocked on a random door and was let in, while the family was enjoying a caribou stew. I was invited to sit down, and served a bowl, without so much as exchanging a word. Obviously, the interaction I had with Kulunnguaq, the eight-year-old girl in the village, was a high point for me. Her lack of toys left an impression on me, striking a desire to share some of the excess that crowds my two girls’ bedrooms. That impulse was quickly quashed by the acknowledgment that she did not seem any unhappier for it. But the more lasting impression is Nature itself, in its scale and timelessness. The giant fjords with enormous cliffs that plunge precipitously into the frozen sea. The feeling of being dwarfed by dimensions that make us humans feel utterly inconsequential. And the sense that the geology which has been there since long before we showed up will remain, mostly unchanged, long after we are gone.


Sebastian Copeland Photographer and polar explorer

Obviously, the interaction I had with Kulunnguaq, the eight-year-old girl in the village, was a high point for me. Her lack of toys left an impression on me, striking a desire to share some of the excess that crowds my two girls’ bedrooms. That impulse was quickly quashed by the acknowledgment that she did not seem any unhappier for it.

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© Copyright Sebastian Copeland

Creating awareness

Copeland is one of the few people who has seen firsthand the effects of climate change on polar ice. With his documentaries, he wants to draw attention to the effects that Western life is having on nature and thus on other people and their existence. His hope is that people's imaginations and the practical everyday applications they come up with in agriculture, technology, e-mobility, etc. will help contribute to regeneration. Every individual can really make a difference and reduce their own footprint as much as possible.

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  • 1 Sebastian Copeland uses his camera as a tool to document climate change. ZEISS supports Sebastian Copeland on his expeditions. Sebastian Copeland used the following camera lenses: Milvus 18mm f/2.8; Milvus 25mm f1.4; Milvus 35mm f/1.4; Otus 55mm f/1.4; Otus 85mm f/1.4