The Last Days of Shishmaref
These are difficult times for the Inupiaq. The elders who once told children about their land, how it rose from the sea and became their home, now try to come to terms with the realisation that their way of life is facing an abrupt and untameable inversion.
Situated on an island just off the Alaskan coast, where the Bering and Chukchi Sea meet, the village community of Shishmaref may be lost to the tides by the year 2020. A land that has been drawn from and intimately understood by its inhabitants for centuries is now being aggressively clawed back into a sea that freezes later as each year passes. The storm tides work their attrition over longer and less distinct seasons, battering homes and destabilising the lives of over 600 people. The villagers, who Al Gore has referred to as the world’s first climate change refugees, are unable to finance relocation measures themselves and wait on the government for intervention. Conscious of this hiatus, Dana Lixenberg, on the invitation of filmmaker Jan Louter, photographed among the families and homes of this troubled community over the summer and winter of 2007.
Employing a large format process, Lixenberg has worked fluently, in a manner that has become increasingly central to photographers who are developing a fresh sensibility around new documentary work. Like her young Dutch contemporary, Rob Hornstra, or the more familiar Alec Soth, her work is accomplished and detailed, building – through its portraiture, interior details and the careful noting of the land and its seasonal shifts – a refined, substantial understanding of a community that sits at the edge of the US in every sense.
The landscape and architecture Lixenberg shows is austere and functional by turn. Housing and workspaces are built on abrasive surfaces of rock and amid browning, light-starved grasses. Often lost to snow drifts and low light throughout the year, the terrain nevertheless imposes itself, its earthen colours dominating the book for sustained passages. In the dull blue-grey light of a June night sky, children play Eskimo Baseball under the insulated webbing of power-lines. Elsewhere, a mother lifts her baby daughter onto her shoulder. Against a muddy background obscured by simple pale buildings and hanging silver sea-mist, such details seem small yet poignant interventions.
In a book abundant with unpeopled interior studies, gaffer-taped paper pictures of nature scenes and unicorn-led mythical fantasies regularly interrupt pale and scuffed walls, hinting towards the ideal, towards escape. Sun-bleached family pictures take their place among obituary photographs and ageing portraits, while school pictures speak of the universal etiquettes of adolescence and the life patterns of a wider contemporary world. Indeed wider America is still there to be seen.
It’s there in the young people, who Lixenberg has photographed beautifully. Her portraiture is assured and consistent. Young mother Nora Iyatunguk looks softly past the camera, into the space that photography conspires to define as a space of contemplation. Kids listen to Tupac and wear the clothes and attitudes of their wider American contemporaries, yet they are locked into an almost inaccessible region and bound by the sustenance and rituals that the land and sea have shaped over many generations. Looking at these pictures, it’s easy to sense the concerns that must preoccupy each life in Shishmaref and wonder how this community will continue as it eventually, inevitably relocates itself. As each section of this book closes, the sea laps against the land, appearing vivid, daunting and persistent. It becomes clear that it will explode again, working itself into the autumn storms that will surge and trespass, making these concerns ever more desperate.