Considered the leading photographer of the Arctic, Subhankar Banerjee coaxes viewers to look deeply and broadly through his lens. Banerjee’s “Long Environmentalism in the Near North” opens in the UNM Art Gallery on June 6, presenting the Arctic in all its panoramic contradictions and complexities. The exhibition seems especially prescient at a time when President Donald Trump has vowed to pursue drilling in the Arctic National Refuge, as outlined in his 2018 budget request.
To describe Banerjee is to collide with a cosmology of titles: activist/photographer, University of New Mexico Lannan Foundation Endowed Chair of Land Arts of the American West. He’s also a professor of art and ecology in the UNM art department.
At least two of his photographs have courted political controversy. Beneath the opaque images of animals and snow lurk contradictions of environmentalism, capitalism and culture. Native Arctic tribes look to caribou and reindeer for food, shelter, fuel and tools. Beneath the land’s frosted surface lie unexplored reserves of fossil fuels.
In an area warming at twice the global average, scientists project increasing freeze-thaw cycles and freezing rain. These shifts will have significant implications for the ability of the caribou and reindeer populations to find food and raise calves.
Banerjee recorded four seasons of life on the refuge within the area of proposed drilling. Born in Calcutta, India, he used his life savings and cashed out his retirement account to fund the 14 months he spent there. He published the results in his 2003 book “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, A Photographic Journey.”
In 2003, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., displayed his color photographs on the floor of the U.S. Senate to help defeat a move to open the range to exploratory drilling. “Caribou Migration I, 2002” was included in her plea for protection, action that catapulted Banerjee to instant national fame.
The Santa Fe-based Lannan Foundation offered him a $500,000 unrestricted Freedom Fellowship.
The photographer took his 9-foot photos from the open back of a small bush plane at minus 45 degrees in 50-mph wind. The images reduce the migrating caribou to a trail of ants moving across frozen vistas.
“The biological side is all about conservation protection,” Banerjee said. “The human rights side is all about cultural cosmology. The two sides are what I call unlikely allies.”
Echoes of a tragic episode in Stalinist history lurk beneath his Siberian photograph of a native Even tribesman herding reindeer into a corral. Cultural legends say their shamans can drum themselves into a trance to become winged reindeer.
To wipe out shamanism, Soviet officials lifted the men in helicopters, then pushed them out the doors, taunting them to fly.
“When we look at Santa Claus flying around with reindeer, that comes from this place,” Banerjee said.
A tight look at Banerjee’s “At the Corral —— Nikolayev Matvey Gathering Reindeer,” 2007, reveals a tiny herdsman straddling a reindeer in the far right corner.
Reindeer eat lichen. With more rain freezing at night, the animals can’t break through the surface with their hoofs. Entire herds are starving to death.
The photographer’s 2006 green aerial wetland landscape ignited another kind of firestorm, revealing the rectangular tracks of large seismic study vehicles amid the caribou hoofprints. It’s also where geese from New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge migrate and nest during the summer. Conservation and Native groups filed suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior for illegally distributing permits to oil companies.
“The next month, we took it to the 1st District Court in Alaska,” Banerjee said. “The court determined they had not done enough studies of this place.”
The decision to open up the Alaskan Arctic to oil drilling or preserve it has been raging in the halls of the U.S. Congress for more than four decades.
“Sometimes these contradictions can’t be resolved,” Banerjee said. “That’s what art does.”