Life on the Line: A Cultural Glimpse at the Arctic Circle

Curators’ Corner

Life on the Line: A Cultural Glimpse at the Arctic Circle


Sweden, 2010

Sometime in 2006, photographer Cristian Barnett was musing over a map of the world when he was struck by a brilliant idea for a project. After noticing the Arctic Circle passed through eight countries – United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia – Barnett decided to embark on the photography adventure of a lifetime. Over the next eight years, the London-based photographer made 11 trips to the Arctic Circle, immersing himself in the tiny communities that dot one of the most isolated parts of the planet and documenting the fascinating individuals who live therein.

When the average person ponders the Arctic, not much comes to mind other than polar bears, bitter cold and the endless, featureless tundra.   In Life on the Line, Barnett dazzlingly dispels this misconception of the great white north.  Through exotic – and at times amusing – portraits, Barnett exposes the rich cultures we know little, if anything, about.

On this invisible latitudinal line (66 Degrees, 33 Minutes North of the Equator), the artist encountered Inuit tribes in Canada, Nenet tribes in Russia, reindeer herders in Alaska, unlimited daylight during the summer and endless darkness during the height of winter. In July, Barnett experienced temperatures as high as 68 degrees in Sweden, and in winter, a chilling low of – 20 degrees in Russia and Canada. Below five degrees, his camera, a Hasselband 503, would malfunction, frequently delaying shoots. That problem, however, was the least of Barnett’s concerns. He writes that the project took a toll – physically and financially – but ultimately, it was worth it.

“I have never undertaken anything like this before and often struggle to finish far smaller project ideas. I’m not sure if I will do anything like this again—I will still be paying for it for a number of years to come—but I certainly don’t regret it,” he told Slate via email.

The Arctic Circle, home to roughly four million people, is one of the most misunderstood regions in the world, Barnett says. While life in the north might seem strange to us ‘southerners’, the artist’s eight-year experience gave him a new-found appreciation for the Arctic. He describes this cultural epiphany on his website:

“I have been honored to spend time among many Arctic people – the Gwichin, Saami, Khanti, Nenets, Evenks, Yakuts and Inuit – and clearly the Arctic Circle is much more than snow and polar bears. There are many thriving modern settlements where you are more likely to meet a hairdresser than a reindeer herder. There is much more diversity to life here than one might imagine.”

Barnett’s impressive portraits were collaborated and released as a hardcover book, Life on the Line, last year. To view more images from this project and to learn more about the artist, visit Cristian Barnett’s website.

Arctic Circle Greenland, 2013

Greenland, 2013

Arctic Circle Russia, 2012

Russia, 2012

Arctic Circle Finland, 2006

Finland, 2006

Arctic Circle Russia 2013

Russia 2013

All photos courtesy of Cristian Barnett