Can Photographs Save the Caribou People?

An arctic fox feeds on a caribou carcass in the Brook Mountains of Alaska's Arctic Refuge. The caribou feed wolves, foxes, wolverines, bears and dozens of other animals found throughout the refuge. (Photo: Peter Mather)

Conservation photographer Peter Mather is no stranger to the tough conditions of the north. Based in the Yukon, Mather's adventures give him opportunities to witness first-hand both the hardiness and the fragility of North America's snow-covered wilderness. It takes fortitude to withstand not only extreme weather conditions but also the twisting winds of politics.

One of Mather's primary photography projects, Caribou People, is a story about the Gwich'in aboriginal people of Alaska and Canada who depend on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for their subsistence lifestyle and culture. Mather notes, "The fight over the caribou calving grounds of Alaska's oil rich Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is more than a case of wildlife and wilderness conservation. To the Gwich'in this is also a human rights issue, as a threat to the caribou is a threat to their culture and subsistence lifestyle."

Mather's concern for the Gwich'in has pushed his project into a collaborative effort culminating in a series of expeditions into the far north to document the threats to the survival of both caribou and culture.

We talked with Mather about his work documenting the Gwich'in and his hopes for how photography might help save a wilderness and a way of life.

Daniel Tritt and his daughter Elsie enjoy the day after a successful caribou hunt. Daniel is a Gwich’in hunter from the remote community of Arctic Village, where the people depend on the caribou as their main food source. (Photo: Peter Mather)

MNN: Your project Caribou People tells the story of Native Alaskans whose life and culture depend on the health of the caribou herds. What was it like for you as a conservation photographer documenting the lives of these subsistence hunters?

Peter Mather: I love working with the Gwich’in. They are people that like being outside on the land, like myself ... and they are quiet people. They don’t say something unless it needs to be said. As a people they are really strong and have so much respect for their elders. Also, I enjoy their very dry sense of humour. They will often poke fun at themselves and each other. Being with them on the land feels like I’m at home.

The Gwich’in are Caribou People, they depend on the caribou for their cultural and physical sustenance. They are caribou. Gwich’in elder Stephen Frost of Old Crow always says, "We eat caribou three meals a day ... and half a dozen times in between."

Since the caribou depend on the health of the refuge, so do the Gwich’in. They have been leading this battle for four decades now, and we hope our efforts compliment theirs.

The Porcupine caribou herd migrating through the mountains from their calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic Refuge to their summer grounds in Canada’s Ivvavik National Park. (Photo: Peter Mather)

The caribou calving grounds are at risk should the refuge be given over to oil companies. As a response, you're leading a huge photography effort this summer. Tell us about what you want to accomplish.

Well, the calving grounds is the most important landscape of the refuge, because it is the biological heart. It is the one place where we shouldn’t have development, because that piece of land feeds all the animals.

Our goals of the project are to bring in storytellers from across Canada and the U.S. We want to expose these folks to the refuge and let them tell their stories and experiences to a larger audiences back home.

I know that if people across the U.S. hear the stories about this place, if they get to know the place, they will be invested in its future.

My hope is that we will part of a groundswell of support to reversing the decision to open the calving grounds to oil development and that we can secure a healthy wildlife refuge.

I think to have a successful movement you need more than one or two or 20 or 100 people doing. In my experience, when you have thousands of people each doing their own little piece to move the needle, that is when you see change. This project is an extension of that philosophy. We are adding our voices, we are doing our piece. And if there are thousands of more people like us out there doing their piece, then we are going to move that needle and save this place.

The Gwich’in community of Arctic Village lies just outside the refuge. The people depend on the caribou that pass by the village during the spring and fall migrations. They have been leading the fight to protect the caribou calving grounds. (Photo: Peter Mather)

Your goals are really clear: Use images to show why the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge needs to be protected and raise awareness and, importantly, to reach people outside the conservation community with your images. Why is that last goal so important to your project?

One of our mains goals is to get these stories out to alternative or new media. Outlets that don’t normally do conservation or environmental stories. For example, sportsmens’ magazines, home and garden magazines, local newspapers throughout the U.S. We want to reach a new audience and avoid preaching to the converted.

We feel that this story goes far beyond your traditional conservation story and needs a wider audience.

A caribou cow snuggles with an hours-old calf in calving grounds in the Arctic refuge. This small coastal plain that has been utilized by the caribou for thousands of years was opened to industrial oil and gas development by the Trump administration this year. (Photo: Peter Mather)

You wouldn't be doing this if you didn't believe in the power of photography to inspire action. But this is a huge and controversial issue. How do you think photographs will win over hearts and minds on protecting the ANWR?

In the past the International League of Conservation Photographers organized a number of Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions (RAVEs) where they have sent photographers and filmmakers out to document stories and images of important wild places like the Great Bear Rainforest, and they have been incredible successes. This is because images can tell a story, inspire and educate people.

Photography is the perfect medium in our modern world, because an issue can be condensed into one powerful image. I know the power of photographs, because they have inspired me throughout my life. If we can get one image that can define and condense the issue for your average viewer then we have success and that is our goal: to get that image, to start a movement.

Oil and gas development just West of the refuge in Prudhoe Bay. Gwich’in elders and caribou biologists are concerned that if this type of development occurs in the refuge, the health of the Porcupine caribou herd will be endangered. (Photo: Peter Mather)

What has been the response so far on the expeditions — from photographers as well as other supporters?

Obviously we have incredible iLCP folks involved and driving the project ... Karine Aigner, Katie Schuler and Neil Osborne and then talented locals from my hometown like Matt Jacques, Joe Bishop and Steve Hossak, then we also have people like Pat Clayton and Erika Larsen who want to join us in telling this story. We have many of the most talented and passionate photographers and filmmakers on the planet.

You've spent a lot of time in the northern reaches of the world. Is there something you've never seen, or you have but haven't photographed, that you want to document in the ANWR?

Wolverines. I’m actually already started on the project and roaming the Arctic Refuge looking for the most elusive predator on the planet.

You aren’t new to the challenge of creating photos that will inspire action and protect places under thread of development. What results have you had in the past that inspire you to work so hard on protecting ANWR?

In my home in the Yukon, I have worked for 20 years on a wilderness called the Peel Watershed. It is the homelands of four different first nations people and a place unlike any other. It was recently protected after 35 years of first nations and conservationists work on protecting this grand landscape.

The power of imagery can’t be overstated in this process. People across the Yukon supported protection of the watershed without having ever visited the remote wilderness, because its beauty was shared to them thru imagery and stories.

The pictures, films and stories inspired people to care so deeply about a place that they have never visited. It was a beautiful and powerful experience for me to play a part in.