Jehad Nga in Barrow: A Winter Desert

ONE

The northernmost city on the North American continent (more than 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle) has freezing temperatures over 320 days a year; it also gets less than five inches annually of “equivalent rainfall.” In metrological terms, Barrow, Alaska, is a desert.

When I cited these statistics to photojournalist Jehad Nga, we were standing on a man-made ice field just above the high tide line of Anchorage’s deep-water port. Our movie company was several months into production on a feature film about the real-life rescue of three California grey whales trapped in early winter sea ice. This incident occurred above Barrow in October 1988; it captured the attention of international media for several weeks in the final days of the Bush/Dukakis campaign.

Jehad was in Alaska on special assignment with our second unit crew, directed by Peter Collister, ASC; they were all due to fly up to Barrow within a few days. I didn’t envy them, especially Jehad, who seemed woefully underdressed in a light jacket and conventional leather boots. Jehad is also rail thin, with a body fat index that wouldn’t insulate a flea.

“Where do you live, anyway?” I asked him. “Mainly in Kenya, but with an apartment in New York,” he said. As we continued talking, waves of frosted breath blocked our view of each other, but I could still make out his dark beard and Arab features. I was soon to discover that he is a photographer for the New York Times, often working the arid, dusty plains of hellholes like Iraq, Somalia and the Horn of Africa. The year-end issue of the Times “Week in Review”  (an essay here from several weeks ago) reproduced his well-known photograph of Somali pirates.

At first, it struck me that his being in Alaska was one of those less than serendipitous assignments we all walk into from time to time— a desert trekking Arab adventurer, but here in a deep freeze among the Eskimos. Sounds like an episode of Survivors. Jehad, however, is as American as Kansas, which is where he was born. I discussed his background and work in an essay last November:

John’s Bailiwick—“Joao Silva, the Bang Bang Club and Jehad Nga” link

It’s not my intention to rework that piece, which was also about Jehad’s recently injured and recovering fellow journalist Joao Silva. But after watching Jehad circling around our Panavision cameras for several days, documenting our filming setups, I was struck by a simple fact: of course he was photographing the crew. The camera, grip, special effects, and lighting crew (he was used to photographing people at work), as well as the Inupiat extras—especially when off camera, joking and chatting among themselves, was suitable subject for his restless lens. We already had a full-time set photographer, Darren Michaels, who was wonderfully accomplished at covering the principal actors and the staged action). But it seemed to me that Jehad was observing the production crew—not just as fellow workers creating images (albeit ours, unlike his, are all fictional)—but as if we were another of the exotic societal groups he routinely photographs: outsiders, marginalized, even “pirates”—all typologies with which he was familiar.

TWO

Ever since my own baptism of fire working on a major Hollywood feature film (I was first camera assistant on Monte Hellman’s cult road film Two Lane Blacktop from 1971), I have always felt that a film crew shooting on location, far removed from their normal homes, are not unlike vagabonds, gypsy Romas, or even outlaws—pillaging the visual riches of whatever city or neighborhood it cordons off and takes over. Having a film production with dozens of large trucks descend on your block to stage its fiction fantasies, and then depart abruptly, can be not only disruptive, but positively surreal. On a larger sociological scale and over a multi-month shooting schedule, a movie company often leaves lives disrupted and (inevitably) broken marriages in its wake. A photojournalist on assignment, however, is often a loner, none more so than the portrait of James Nachtwey in Christian Frei’s War Photographer.

Amazon.com —War-Photographer, James-Nachtwey link

During the next few days I became better acquainted with Jehad and looked at his website to get a better sense of his work:

jehadnga.com link

One morning I told him I would be interested to see the personal photos he took as a photojournalist in such an alien environment as Barrow: any work he did while up there, just for himself, outside the parameters of his movie assignment. He embraced the idea. The following photographs are a selection from ones he sent me, an eclectic group not intended to limn any kind of classic Gene Smith photo-essay, nor intended for use in the film itself—just images that caught his always curious eye.

When the sun sets mid-November on the far North Slope it doesn’t appear above the horizon again in this remote outpost until late January. Even on the few clear days of short daylight in late fall, the open sky has an otherworldly cast. Colors are reduced to near monochrome by the extreme actinic and high Kelvin temperatures. The snow-covered tundra blends with the Arctic Ocean ice and with the great vaulted sky, creating an eerie limbo dome. Even with someone in your line of sight, you can feel helplessly disoriented, alone.

An empty child’s swing set and an askew basketball hoop jutting out from a weathered wooden shack don’t seem just devoid of play—but like totems of a lost city. A walk around Barrow in the weak light confirms the tenuous hold that man’s presence has in the enveloping wilderness.

“What comes up to Barrow stays up in Barrow.” This was a mantra that was told me over 40 years ago when I lived and worked there for four months on a Disney feature film shot in 16mm. There are no roads that connect Barrow with the rest of Alaska; whatever arrives in Barrow comes by air, year round, or by “sealift” in the short summer when the Chukchi Sea is ice-free. Many homes seem to have an insulating perimeter of old furniture, appliances, toys and unrecognizable debris scattered about. Others are pristine silhouettes against the seamless cove of snow and sky. In this light, any brightly colored toy or decorative object seems to float in space.

Walking past many of these homes, it is common to see the American flag displayed inside a window.

While it may be a reassuring romantic fantasy that Eskimo life and culture is dependent on the hunting of whales, seals and caribou, a trip to the Arctic Grocery reveals the same aisles of junk food that we ingest in the lower 48—only at a considerably higher price.

Jehad happened across a Frito-Lay box with unusual contents,

And a soft drink machine with no need of refrigeration.

Even the mundane can take on a surreal aspect in this landscape.

A hunting rifle left propped on a snow machine followed by a light dusting has an abstract poetic feel.

I asked Jehad what thoughts he had as he walked around the village, just looking, a walk he had made many times in other remote places of the world.

I’m not used to the cold. I don’t think anyone can ever really get used to that kind of cold. It permeated everything and ceased to be solely about temperature. Even sound seemed to function differently. I couldn’t hear a thing walking amongst the broken-down structures robbed of their form by impossible layers of ice that seems to have deformed them. Trying to distinguish where a home started and ended proved difficult. The stick-like wooden frames disappeared into ice and snow. Out the corner of my eye I noticed something tiny sticking out of the ground so I walked closer to settle my curiosity. A toy Matchbox car sticking out of pure ice surrounded nothing that would give it a sense of context. 

“What happened here? Why did these people leave? Where did they go?” I asked myself. 
 A couple of days later, having spoken with local residents about my icy archeological dig, I discovered the big secret: Nothing. Happened. Here. They are summer homes locals use for hunting in the warmer months. Once the season is over, the inhabitants return to town to sit out the long winter. That’s it. Nothing sinister or fatalistic.

The “winter” homes, principal residences, in central Barrow and Browerville may have full utility service provided by the city, but many still look like transient structures.

THREE

But it is the light, this otherworldly light, and a distant sodium vapor streetlight burning like a second sun—that stops you in your tracks, mesmerized. Ice fog crystals diffuse light like a silk net—even silhouetting rusted trucks against the sky.

But it is the late twilight, the last light of “magic hour,” that is the most ethereal. What may seem ordinary in the light of even the short Arctic day now becomes transcendental. A snow fence appears totemic in a deep blue limbo—earth and sky separated only by a dark line of wooden pickets and behind it, four ghostly lights.

A lone figure stands like a cardboard cutout against a retreating line of power poles.

Even a gas pump highlighted by a solitary lamp becomes a 21st century dolmen.

After Jehad’s encounter with the deserted summer hunting camp, he realized how easily he could imprint his POV as a conflict area photojournalist into a place that bore only the most superficial physical resemblance to the world he knew so well—that here in Barrow, in fact, is a thriving community that—despite the extremes of climate, geographical isolation, and financial difficulty, is rich in history, tradition and culture.

Drawing up wicked scenarios about what I saw made sense at the time. Having worked in countries including Iraq, Somalia, and Liberia I’ve seen a lot of homes in various stages of ruin. And the answers to “What happened here? Why did these people leave? Where did they go?” never involved moving away for the winter.

These people would be coming back [to their hunting camps]; their lives would continue to generate memories of the time spent there. There was a future there and I was so used to not expecting one. In a way, I suppose my brain had been trained to go to such a place when faced with certain situations possessing similarities to what I had seen in the past.

I reminded myself that this wasn’t a war zone. Nor was it is the site of one rebel attack or another. 

It was Barrow, Alaska and it was the setting for a Hollywood film.

— a Hollywood film that hopefully will depict some of the visual uniqueness of this “wild place,” a film that will honor the centuries old traditions of a generous and warm-hearted people.

NB: Jehad is currently on assignment in Baghdad: His observation on what it is now like to be there as a journalist is enlightening:

I’m in Baghdad at the moment. Very strange to be in a place that has lost its way in the news line. I remember when this place was ground zero for every journalist on the planet. Now it’s long, boring dinners with writers who are caught in webs of nostalgia. If ever there would be an interesting time to do a movie about this war it would be now. There is this strange fog or sap that is weighing everything down. Nothing seems to be moving at its natural pace. I see it like an emotional "no man's land". . . . the period between when the fighting stops and healing begins.  Until that time comes it seems as if every Iraqi here is waiting for Godot.

NB: An update on Jehad. February 24, 2011. From Tripoli, on his Facebook page: Hard to clearly understand what is happening in the city. Tanks have appeared since yesterday. All forces protecting state TV have vanished leaving empty chairs by the gate. . . . The city has has taken on the feel of Mogadishu but much, much worse. The loyalists have gone from joyful to crazed. Their pockets of street celebration have become screening points where you have to wave the green flag along with them in order to pass safely.

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