Eskimo Whaling in the 21st Century: A Powerful Photo Essay

by Owen James Burke

All throughout my life, whaling has seemed to me a relic of the past, documented through warn out harpoons and black and white photographs, more alive in museums than anywhere else.  Sure the Inuits of the north receive a quota to work within each year, and I suppose they get to pick off a few each season.  Each spring during whaling season, newspapers might produce one story, running along the lines of “Whaling Season Kicks off in Alaska”, and one depiction of a family who has just hauled a catch onto the ice.

I have always wondered, who regulates this (as internationally, whaling is generally understood to be illegal) and how do they manage to pull 40 tons of blubber onto the ice without a boat to begin the hunt?  The only thing I could feel certain about is that in no way is whaling today anything like whaling of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Photographer and experimentalist Jonathan Harris also found in himself this unexplained curiosity about modern whaling.  In his photography project, “The Whale Hunt”, he visits an Inupiat Eskimo family in Barrow, Alaska for 7 days and narrates the story of the trip through photographs.  Beginning in his taxi to Newark Airport and ending upon the butchering of the second whale, Harris snapped 3,214 pictures within a 7-day period.

“The Whale Hunt” is published online as an interactive time-line.  He has chromatically organized the story into four arrangements based upon cast, cadence (frequency of camera use), context and concept in order to try to convey sub-stories within the context of the larger project of the hunt itself.  He stayed with a family, photographed their house, their children, shared dinner, and even took a tour of the gun collection.

His job will be to impede the animal once the harpoon has been set in.

Harris helped the family in gathering and preparing supplies, as well as setting up camp 3 miles offshore on the edge of a lead, or break in the ice.  Several families gather for whaling, as it takes as many people as available to make the haul.

Once the harvest is made, the whale is rationed out to the families until there is nothing left but the jawbone and the baleen, which will ends up a trophy above the mantle.

As it turns out, I was dead wrong in my assumption, discounting transportation by airplane and the adaptation of color to the images.  In fact, aside from these two features of the story, it appeared almost no different from what you can see of 19th century whaling in Massachusetts at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  It is astonishing, yet warming, to observe a tradition that carries on so pure and true.

*via thewhalehunt*

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