As Greenland melts–faster than anyone predicted; more than half of the ice sheet disappeared last summer–it’s accelerating the already-rapid pace of change in traditional Inuit culture there. In 2013, Paris-based photographer Sébastien Tixier traveled to the 77th parallel to document how life is changing. An Inuit family might be more likely to buy dinner at a convenience store than to eat traditional food like whale or seal meat, increasingly hard to catch from shrinking ice.
When Tixier arrived, in the middle of the winter, it didn’t snow for three days. “It was rather unexpected to me in March, and indeed this was one of the warmest winters there,” he says. “In the north the quality of the sea ice is also affected, and it leads to change in the habits or traditions: Hunters in the north hardly reach the same location on the sea ice as they used to go before. This means different hunting places, generally less interesting for them. When I was journeying with the hunters, we had to move from the location initially planned for the first night due to the poor quality of the ice. ‘Siku ajorpoq’–the ice is bad–simply said one of the hunters.”
Inuit culture has been evolving since long before any effects of climate change. Greenland became a Danish colony in 1814, and by the mid-20th century, Denmark was beginning to build Danish-looking housing projects, settling people who had always lived in nomadic villages in larger, permanent towns. Phones, TV, and later the Internet, sped up the Westernization of the culture.
“The country is really at a crossing of paths,” says Tixier. “Its people begin to embrace Western lifestyles and modes of consumption. Supermarkets, cell phones are making their way into Inuit culture, and I wanted my work to capture how these rapid changes raise questions about society and identity. It was not just the landscape or icebergs, it really was documenting the mutations and questioning what that means.”
When Tixier traveled to the northernmost town in the country, Qaanaaq, some of the hunters didn’t have running water–but they did have Facebook.
Some people are less willing to accept the changes. “When I arrived in Greenland, the election [had] just finished,” he says. “It was very dividing elections. … People are torn between a desire to catch up with the modern world, and a feeling that they are turning away from their roots, and how to find a sustainable balance–if ever possible. As I felt it, there also was a large contrast of perception among the generations.”
It’s going to keep changing. As the ice sheet continues to melt faster, traditional hunting and subsistence living will be harder; farming, on the other hand, will start to become easier. In 2007, parts of Greenland were warm enough to grow broccoli for the first time.
It still isn’t exactly warm in the winter: Tixier had to keep his camera battery tucked into his vest, with a cable running down his sleeve, so it would keep working, and he added larger knobs to the camera so he could operate it with mittens. “I had to be careful not to breathe on top of the viewfinder,” he says. “Otherwise it would have been immediately covered with a layer of ice which would make me unable to focus.”
The collection of photographs is available in a book called Allanngorpoq, which means “being transformed” in Greenlandic.
All Photos: Sébastien Tixier