In the editorial world, it is usually the writer who comes up with an idea for a story and then, like an afterthought, a photographer is assigned. I’ve always wondered why? Why have we become so fixated on having a writer be the lead – especially in mediums that require strong visuals? Last year I was lucky enough to be the driving force behind a couple of stories that were published, and I loved the entire process. From the random internet searches to starting up my car and heading out to meet my chosen subject, every moment is special. And even though there are challenges, the rewards that come with taking the risk and the serendipity that can occur never ceases to amaze me. Finding stories that need and should be told is such an important part of being a photographer.
The story of Kivalina, Alaska is one such story, and I would have never known about this dwindling piece of America if it weren’t for a man named Luke Cole. The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) is a legal organization that was started by Mr. Cole, also a friend of my brother. When he graduated from Harvard in 1987, Luke could have joined the many who cashed in their prestigious educations for a lucrative career in an established firm. Instead, Luke started the first legal practice that merged poverty and the environmental law.
After many legal victories that protected the rights of individuals who were victims of corporations that skirted the law, Luke was tragically killed in an automobile accident in Uganda. He was only 46 years old. Kivalina was one of CRPE’s many victories, but this 1.9 mile island 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle is still in the middle of a battle that may be ours one day. The future of the Native American people who live and hunt there is uncertain because by 2025 (just 10 years from now), Kivalina may be completely engulfed by the ocean, thus becoming the first U.S. casualty of climate change.
After finding out that I had a chance to travel with Luke’s successor, Brent Newell, I scrambled to get the money together to afford the 3 planes it takes to get to Kivalina. I emptied my bank account, started a crowd fundraiser and waited for my tax return to arrive in the mail. My return never came, so I nervously called my brother, asking for a loan. He revealed to me that Luke had unselfishly loaned him $1500 during law school. Thanks to the generosity of my brother (and Luke), I was on my way.
I continue to be amazed by the number of people (including members of the media) who don’t know about Kivalina. After you view these photos, please make it a point to tell others about this beautiful place. One might disagree on how/why climate change is happening, but the reality is, it is happening. Kivalina and the other coastal communities that are facing the same fate should be a warning to us all.
Here are a few of the images from my journey:
Our cargo plane flight from Kotzebue to Kivalina. It was about the size of a minivan and was packed with, of all things, Coca Cola. Except for what residents hunt or gather, most of the food flown is in processed.
Kivalina as we flew in. You can see the ice breaking up on the coastline. About 10 years ago, that ice would have been thick, solid and still intact until late May or June. This was May; when we arrived they told us it had broken up within two days. It usually takes weeks to break apart.
It took three planes to get to Kivalina; the last leg is on a small cargo plane. Brent is used to this kind of travel now and has experienced some flights where the storms were so bad, the pilot had to use GPS to land in Kivalina.
Brent Newell took this photo. He was on the other side of the plane and said, “Do you see that structure with the American flag on it?”
The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, was invited to Kivalina to represent leaders in a suit against Red Dog mine. Leaders said the waste dumped from the mine into the Wulik River, Kivalina’s water supply, violating the Clean Water Act.
Red Dog settled and provided Kivalina with water filters until the completion of a pipeline that would direct mining waste away from the river and into the ocean.
Brent and I spent much of our spare time in the home of Lucy Adams, a village elder and elected leader on the City Council. Here she is making him one of Brent’s favorites: her special sourdough pancakes. When I was sitting there I watched them and it seemed like they were both so familiar with one another, like this was almost a homecoming or holiday-like ritual that all families share.
On this visit, Lucy lamented that the seal skins she uses to make hats and winter boots were becoming harder to work with because the skins did not dry out correctly in the warmer and shorter winters.
Russell Adams is a local artisan who makes jewelry and other pieces out of walrus, mastodon and whale-bone. Besides subsistence hunting, many residents create art to sell in larger markets in order to survive.
Brent and I walked to the other side of the island, about a mile down the airstrip and to the garbage dump. One of Kivalina’s retired whaling captains, Andrew Koenig, joined us.
Here, Brent and Andrew stand on sandbags that failed to protect the village from storms and rising sea levels several years ago, which are now being used to protect the landing strip.
The Army Corps of Engineers ultimately built a rock revetment in 2008 that only protects the village (not the landing strip), has a lifespan of 10 years, and does not protect the village from storm surge flooding.
During our walk up to the dump we were greeted by two teenage girls’ joy – they were riding an ATV. The children of Kivalina roam the island, and when the sun stays out, they often play into the wee hours of morning.
At the Kivalina graveyard, graves are precariously close to the waterline. I asked Andrew if I could photograph the graveyard, and he chuckled and said, “Sure, but they’re not going to get up and pose for ya.”
A man stands near the rock wall the Army Corps of Engineers built in 2008. It is likely that the wall will not last beyond 2018.
A girl rides her bike near the rock wall. Residents often see waves crash over the barrier in late fall and early winter before the ice forms. Bad storms flood the garbage dump, landing strip and village.
Brent stands near the Kivalina garbage dump at the north end of the island. Erosion from the sea has broken into the dump and storms are beginning to wash the piles of garbage into the sea.
Standing there, Brent said, “This is America, where’s the EPA?”
Some of the residents even said to me, “Excuse our garbage; we usually wait until it gets warmer to gather it up and take it down to the dump.”
The dump is about a mile away, so they usually load up garbage in carts that attach to their ATVs. I wondered how we would feel if we were all forced to watch our garbage pile up with nowhere else better to put it.
Justin Bieber’s photo in the window of a home. Even amid the polar bear skins and caribou skulls, you are frequently reminded that Kivalina is still in the U.S.
Snow geese were plentiful near Kivalina during our visit. Here Brent and I share snow goose soup with Leroy Adams and his family. Hunters share what they have hunted with the community.
The nearest village north of Kivalina, Point Hope, shares whale. I was lucky enough to eat bowhead and beluga whale that had been part of a recent hunt shared by Point Hope.
Children play near puddles late into the evening. This photo was taken around 11 p.m. I asked them if they had a bedtime, which they seemed to think was a crazy question. When school is out and the sun stays up, the children play until exhaustion gets the better of them.
This was one of my favorite moments between Lucy and Brent. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but after some somber discussion about the island, Brent made Lucy laugh and the moment was priceless.
Lucy Adams’ walls were covered with photographs. I was drawn to this wall in particular, which was filled with different generations of the Adams’ family. Enoch Adams Sr. (now deceased) is on the left; he was a World War II veteran.
A view of the sea near Kivalina in May. The ice had broken up in two days. Normally it would have been solid into June with break-up lasting several weeks during which time the villagers hunt bearded seal. With such thin ice that breaks up quickly, hunting whale in April is increasingly dangerous, while the bearded seal hunt almost impossible.
I want to thank CRPE, Brent Newell, the family of Luke Cole, my brother and sister-in-law and all of my donors for making this trip possible. While the story really is about Kivalina and the Inupiat people, I feel it’s necessary to share some photos of Luke. He will always be a part of this island and in the hearts of its residents.
The last time I saw Luke was at my brother’s wedding in the mid 90’s. I will never forget this moment: Luke, center, started singing Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and my brother started singing along. My now sister-in-law rolled her eyes in her classic semi-amusement.
When I was in Lucy’s home I found this photo of Luke and his wife at the Obama Inauguration/Luke and Enoch Adams Jr. in Kivalina. It was then I realized how much Luke not only a legal impact on the community, but he touched them personally as well. I never thought I would go from watching him joyfully singing at a wedding, to seeing him on the walls of Native Americans in the Arctic some 20 years later. Life is beautiful that way.