The village of Wales lies at the westernmost tip of Alaska, on the coast of the Bering Sea. Fifteen miles to the west, in the middle of the Bering Strait, are the two remote islands of Little Diomede and Big Diomede. Big Diomede is Russian territory, while Little Diomede is part of the United States. Three miles apart, they are separated by the International Date Line.
Pressed against the steep edges of the rocky island, on the west side of Little Diomede, lies a small village. Some 80 people are living there. When they look out of their windows to the west they are not only looking at Russia but they are also literally looking at tomorrow.
Twice a month, a helicopter service flies from the mainland, bringing supplies, visitors and family to the island. Sometimes, the helicopter is grounded for several weeks due to bad weather or maintenance.
The people in Wales and on Little Diomede hunt for sea mammals, mainly walrus and bearded seal, but also bowhead whale and polar bear. In spring thousands of bowhead whales migrate to the north, through the Bering Strait, searching for food in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. In the fall, they migrate the opposite way, making the Bering Strait the most important Arctic corridor for sea mammals. Because of climate change, the seasons are changing rapidly, making it more difficult to hunt. The weather, sea and ice conditions in the narrow Bering Strait are very rough and are becoming more and more unpredictable.
In these images, winter is almost coming and the people in the two villages, Wales and Little Diomede, are waiting for the hunting season to start.
My thanks go out to all the families and people who allowed me into their homes, including Robert Soolook, Edward Soolook, Frances Ozenna, Pamela Potter, Robert Michaud, Luther Komonaseak, Winton Weyapuk, Lucy Kitchen, Maggy Weyapuk, Amos Oxereok, Lew Tobin, Margaret Williams, Geoff York, Henry Huntington, and everyone from Inaliq, Wales, the Little Diomede school, and the Wales school.
Birds regularly fly from Little Diomede to its neighboring island Big Diomede three miles away, but people rarely do. Little Diomede lies in Alaska. Big Diomede is part of Russia. The international dateline, lying between the two islands, separates them by one day.
Getting to Little Diomede can be enough of a challenge. One of the most isolated places in Alaska, Little Diomede has helicopter service from Nome and Wales, Alaska, but it is primarily for the mail rather than passengers, and it is always weather dependent.
In the fall of 2015, Dutch artist Jeroen Toirkens traveled to Little Diomede as part of an artist residency with the Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab.
A photographer and filmmaker, Toirkens has documented the raw reality of the last living nomads of the Northern Hemisphere since 1999. He has followed the lives of various nomadic tribes in Central Asia, Russia, Mongolia and the Arctic region where globalization, draught, poverty and climate change make it increasingly difficult for these people to maintain their traditional way of life. In a past project, called Roots2Share, Toirkens created films of people discussing daily life in a remote village on the east Greenlandic coast. Encouraged by looking at old photographs, community members talked about hunting, family, old traditions and the nomadic way of life of days past.
Toirkens continues this type of work through his Polar Lab artist residency. He brought archival photographs of Little Diomede from the Anchorage Museum’s collection to share with the people he met as a way to invite conversation about life there.
The Anchorage Museum’s Polar Lab is series of programs and exhibitions exploring life in the North, including film, artist residencies, conversations, lectures, tours, research, outdoor programs, after-hours programs, international artists, and local perspective.
The museum invites international artists to engage the North through short- and long-term projects and non-traditional residencies. Artists enter the museum and the North to present insider views of relevant issues impacting northern people and places. Some residencies expand over multiple years and are research-based. Others offer audience engagement within or beyond museum walls.
Toirkens will create a photographic essay from his Alaska experience and interviews, which will be featured in the museum’s View From Up Here exhibition in 2016.
Toirkens knew that it would probably be difficult to reach Little Diomede so he planned to take the helicopter from Wales, another Alaska Native community, meet and photograph people there and take the helicopter to the island as soon as it would fly.
The helicopter (there is only one) went to Anchorage for maintenance, and technical problems kept the helicopter in Anchorage longer than expected, keeping Toirkens in Wales.
“During my time in Wales I started working in my project, meeting local people and photographing them,” Toirkens said. “Eventually the helicopter did fly and I arrived at the island only five days later then anticipated. Luckily I could take the return flight exactly as planned which seems to be sort of an exception.”
The transportation issues offered an unexpected bonus. “Because I stayed in Wales longer I was fortunate to experience a big drum-dance festival. Neighboring villages flew in to Wales for this three-day festival. It was a great chance for me to meet and photograph a lot of people and see their drum-dances.”
Toirkens learned that “nothing is easy in the Arctic, but since the travel itself is part of the experience I always try to enjoy the moments where things don’t work out exactly as planned and make the most out of these moments.”
Despite delays and challenges, Toirkens considered his stay in Wales and Little Diomede “perfect.”
“I have met with so many nice people with whom I have talked extensively about their traditions and way of life. I have followed a couple of families more intensively and was able to photograph their everyday life.”
Being flexible and open to the unknown is always his motto when on the road. “This work has taken me to some of the most remote places on earth meeting remarkable people along the way.”
Toirkens’ photographs of Wales and Little Diomede, where people can literally see Russia from their homes, are a form of storytelling, a visual narrative told from the artist’s observations, personal experiences, and travels to a remote place many won’t see.