If you’re like me, you assume that in 2012, most “adventure” photographers work with a support team–a crew of people who navigate, translate, and protect the photographer. Olaf Otto Becker is not one of those photographers. The German artist spent three years traveling up and down the western coast of Greenland–totally alone and afloat in a rubber dinghy–with only rudimentary supplies and his large-format camera.
Becker traversed tens of thousands of miles of shoreline, at the mercy of a landscape that is so brutal even Norse vikings couldn’t take it (early settlers recorded being forced to kill their weakest members in mercy during the island’s regular famines). Today, the coastline is dotted with a few major towns and tourism centers as well. Though it’s the largest island on the planet, it’s losing 59 cubic miles of landmass a year, thanks to climate change.
“Reality is sometimes astonishing, but what you see today will be changed tomorrow,” Becker tells Joerg Colberg. “So a photograph can help to understand the change.” German-born Becker was seduced by the otherworldly northern light and landscape while on a visit to Iceland, and later, became intrigued by a map of Greenland that showed vast unmarked swathes of land. He decided to devote himself to capturing what he calls “a wild, unspoiled landscape.” A one-time painter who went to school for communication design, Becker had little experience with survival skills. He bought an inflatable Zodiac dinghy and hired a native Greenlander to teach him to pilot it.
His photographs from those years, published in a monograph called Broken Line, number less than a hundred, each the product of careful deliberate planning. Becker would often spend weeks preparing to take a shot, waiting for the perfect conditions. The long-exposure images are haunting, full of luminescent waters and glowing glacial ice, and every so often, a human, clambering across dirty snow melts or clinging to the coastline in ramshackle fishing huts. It’s difficult to reconcile the knowledge that such pathetic-looking creatures are slowly but surely destroying the sublime landscapes in Becker’s photographs, but they are.
As argued by Utata’s Greg Fallis, his photographs contain a strong political subtext, though it may not be immediately obvious. Each image is accompanied by the precise GPS coordinates of where it was shot, implying that Becker (or some other person) will eventually return to that exact location, perhaps to photograph it once more. What they find, warns climate data, will be a vastly changed place.