Here comes the sun – documenting change in the world’s most northerly town
April 11, 2022
Back in March, Graeme Chesters, the first recipient of AP’s Rising Star Bursary, made his second trip to document the people and landscape around Longyearbyen – the most northerly town in the world, located on the Island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago (you can read about his first trip here).
The bursary, arranged in partnership with leading used specialist MPB, gives amateur photographers a unique opportunity to work on a long-term project on the theme of ‘Change’. Graeme received up to £5,000 in expenses, along with mentoring and support from top pro Peter Dench and the AP team, while MPB is providing him with an ongoing photography-kit loan from its extensive supply of quality used gear.
All pictures credit Graeme Chesters
Impressive – and worrying
Graeme began by explaining how he noticed more changes in the landscape on this second trip. “When you start moving out of Longyearbyen, travelling with a dog team to get out into the more remote areas, you can witness some impressive and sometimes worrying sights. I visited some of the ice caves in Scott Turnerbreen Glacier, for example, (below) and it was quite revealing. The caves get cut out by melt water in the summer season, which creates a gap, and then they refreeze. So they are different every year.
In the strata of the caves you can see periods of change – all sorts of things are recorded. Glaciologists use the air that is trapped in bubbles to examine and test for carbon levels, so they can see the change in composition in terms of the atmosphere.
What you also see is the advent of certain algae and bacteria in the ice at different points, particularly over the last few years. There has been more rain in recent years and the temperature can now vary widely. When we arrived at the caves the temperature got as low as – 32. But as we were leaving there was a day where it got above freezing, and it rained. That is quite catastrophic – you remove the opportunity for people to travel by snowmobile, because of all a sudden the routes they are using round the town melt quickly and you have flood conditions.
Also when the routes refreeze, there is ice on top of snow, which makes life very difficult for reindeer trying to dig through the snow to get to the tundra for food.’
Ice on the move
Meltwater can also accelerate the movement of glaciers – quite literally, as Graeme explains. ‘It’s quite frightening – as the temperatures rise, particularly during the summer period, and meltwater manages to work its way through the glacier and get to the bottom, it creates a surface for the glaciers to move and slip more quickly. A glacier moves to the sea anyway, but water underneath can move it much more quickly.’
As Graeme wryly notes, nobody in Longyearbyen believes climate change isn’t happening – they can see it happening all around them. ‘The locals told me I needed to be extra careful in places where before there was a semi-permanent ice and far more predictability. On another occasion pancake and sea ice largely melted in a couple of days and was blown back out into the fjord – the fjords used to freeze and you could walk across them, now they freeze and unfreeze.’
There is also an increased risk of avalanches. ‘We had to avoid going through one narrow passage as the temperature had warmed up by 10 degrees, increasing the risk of avalanche. Travelling along the bottom of a narrow valley was too dangerous.’
For this second trip, Graeme took a Fujifilm X-T4, a Fujifilm 50-140mm f/2.8 lens, the Fujifilm 33mm f/1.4 and the 18mm f/1.4 primes and an X-100V as a back-up – all carefully checked and supplied by MPB.
“All the kit stood up really well,’ Graeme reports. ‘The new batteries in the XT4 lasted a lot better, and anyway, you are keeping them inside down jackets, as close to your body as possible, to keep them warm.
However, a NISI filter on the X-1OOV exploded on me – their glass is normally very good but this one just shattered.’
Most of the landscape shots on this second trip were taken handheld. ‘Setting up a tripod when out with a dog sled or on a snowmobile was just too dangerous in terms of frostbite. Anything you touch can cause problems, as the metal can stick to your skin, causing a freezer burn. There are 6.5 stops of in-body image stabilisation on the X-T4, and I’m using the 50-140mm which is also stabilised, so I can shoot handheld with confidence.’
Graeme found some other kit wasn’t quite up to scratch, however. ‘I also took a GoPro Hero 10, but once the temperature went below – 15, it reported the battery was too cold and refused to work. I was quite surprised about that. The Fujifilm kit was brilliant in the extreme cold, though, it’s overengineered in this respect.’
Graeme also got some interesting shots around Coles Bay, the site of long-abandoned mines, some of which were owned by enterprises from the former Soviet Union. ‘The old Soviet-controlled mines were abandoned in early 80, but because nothing rots there because of the temperature, it’s all preserved. There is still all the equipment around the pit head, while the dormitories, which were also used as a stopping off point for other travellers, revealed old Russian newspapers from the 80s.
Then you come across shelves with flour, live rounds of ammunition, whisky, vodka…It’s an interesting and moving environment but there is also a significant polar bear risk. When you are wandering around with the wind howling outside and the snow piling up, it really brings home what it must have been like during the Soviet era, doing a tough job in a very tough industry.’
‘As a photographer, I was really struck by the way the landscape responds to light on this second trip, and the return of the sun,’ Graeme adds. ‘On top of the mountain range opposite Longyearbyen you go through every pastel shade, depending on how cloudy it is… pinks to burnt ambers to oranges, and it’s so incredibly dramatic. It is changing constantly. Your eyes are constantly being drawn by the re-emergence of light, which dramatizes the landscape – I probably got the best part of 2,500 photos as I was so fascinated by how the light is constantly changing.’
The sun came back – or more accurately, rose – in mind February, but because Longyearbyen is in a valley, the sunlight doesn’t actually reach the town until March 8th. ‘Within six weeks you move straight through the return of the sun through to the midnight sun from April 18th. So you get long extended blue hours and the way the snow is affected by the refracted light across the valley is quite incredible. That is the one thing I would really draw me back. There light there is different to anything else I have seen.’
So what were the biggest lessons Graeme learned on this second trip in terms of his landscape photography? ‘You learn to look at lot more closely at the relationship between the sea and the land, and the constant movement between water, ice and snow,’ he explains. ‘I find it fascinating the way ice forms, particularly pancake ice. You see circles emerge as ice bashes off other pieces and is moved by waves. Both trips have made me pay more attention to processes in the landscape that are changing that landscape bit-by-bit and day-by-day. You can come back to the same place but light will be different, not to mention the structures you will be seeing in the ice and the snow too. This landscape really demands your close attention and I hope to take that concentration to other locations too.’
Here comes the sun
Now well known to the local community, Graeme also attended the annual festival to mark the return of the sun on March 4th. ‘There are competing stories about the ‘Sykehustrrapa’ – the (old) Hospital Steps where the community gathers to mark the return of the sun, and some discussion as to who rebuilt them after they were destroyed by German bombardment in WW2,’ he explains. ‘The first sunrise takes place in mid-February on Svalbard, but the mountains surrounding Longyearbyen shield the community from direct sunlight until the beginning of March, and the story goes that patients were wheeled out to greet it and so the hospital marks the point at which the sun’s return is heralded. In this version the steps were left to remain when the hospital was moved to the centre of town, both as a reminder and focus for this tradition.’
About Graeme Chesters
Graeme is a photographer and writer based in the North West. After 20 years working as an academic, including a stint as an associate professor at the University of Bradford, he is now working freelance on a variety of photographic and journalistic projects. Graeme is also a Fellow of both the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Geographical Society. See graemechesters.com.