Tiina Itkonen is a well established Finnish photographer with a special interest for Greenland. She made her first trip to Greenland as an arts student in 1995 and has continued photographing Greenlandic people and landscapes ever since.
Getting to know people – slow working methods
Tiina originally travelled to Greenland simply because she was fascinated by the vast landscapes of icebergs and snow – and of course the people. “I used to do photography for newspapers too, but it’s kind of too fast for me. I can do it, but I’ve always felt the need to stay and talk to people for a bit longer, to know them a bit better instead of just taking pictures of them.”
This is exactly what Tiina has been doing on her trips to Greenland – developing a slow working technique including both personal connections and professional artistic work. She has mostly stayed with local people during her trips, for example in an orphanage, in a house that was empty because the owner was out on a long hunting trip and at friends’ places. She explains how important it is to get to know local people.
“I have often spent the first week just following the locals from place to place, without having my camera with me. You know, going to church, joining them on hunting trips and things like that. I’ve also been interested in sorting out who is family with who and so on, in small villages everyone seems to be related somehow”.
Knowing local people is also important for practical reasons; moving from one place to another is a slow and costly project in Greenland. At times you have to wait for a helicopter to take you to the nearest airport for a week; if weather conditions are bad, you might have to wait for another week.
Tiina describes how going to remote places in Northern Greenland put an entirely new perspective on her need for slowness. She was amused to discover a lifestyle so slow that she needed to work on adjusting herself to it.
“In the cities of Greenland, in Nuuk for example, people are busy and have schedules, just like here. But in Qaanaaq, where I’ve spent a lot of time, everything happens so slowly and it is so quiet. There is an incredible sense of space. You go taking pictures and you see miles ahead of you because there are no trees, and the smallest bark of a dog echoes all around you.”
An interesting contrast to the harmonious space and quietness is the ever-changing landscape. Icebergs are in constant movement; shaping the scenery as they float along the coasts of Greenland. Sometimes a fracture breaks them into smaller pieces. Tiina says:
“It sounds like a thunder storm when an iceberg falls apart. The local people call them tsunamis – I’ve seen great waves caused by breaking icebergs sweep off entire houses. It’s a powerful scene, houses tilting down just like that.”
Current themes – climate change
The Arctic is gaining growing attention due to loss of species, geopolitical disputes and other issues related to climate change. According to Tiina this was not really a topic among the people she met until about ten years ago:
“I remember some fishermen who started talking about ice conditions – they said the thickness of the ice had undergone dramatic changes, from about two metres to only 30 centimetres during wintertime”.
Altered ice conditions and changes in temperature also affect in other ways. In Northern and Eastern Greenland, where people mainly live from hunting, large-scale melting of ice is a severe threat to livelihood. In places such as Ilulissat, a town on the Western coast of Greenland known for its astonishingly beautiful ice fjords, people are mainly fishers and are thus not threatened so much by the melting of glaciers.
Tiina is currently planning her next trip to Greenland and will possibly travel to Alaska before Christmas. One of her latest projects includes a collaboration with Kristin Laidre, Principal Scientist at the Polar Science Center (University of Washington); Laidre has done a lot of research on arctic predators such as ice bears and whales. Some of Tiina’s work will also be displayed in the Anchorage Museum in Alaska in spring 2016.