Written by James Read
13 Wednesday 13th January 2010

Where better to go to explore nature than a place where that's all there is? Photographer Scarlett Hooft Graafland spent four months living with the Eskimos in remotest north Canada, but the cold did nothing to dull the sense of humour of her latest series You Winter, let's get divorced.

You spent four months living in the Inuit community of Igloolik - what did you learn about life in the cold?

The most important thing I learned was that in that region of the world weather determine everything - nature rules totally! When there are heavy snow storms, for example, road traffic is impossible and no airplanes can land, so there’s no way to leave.

It also affects silly things like refilling the ATM machine. Sometimes it happens that there is no cash for a whole week. It is also hard to make appointments; people really live by the weather circumstances. If good hunting weather prevails they will hurry with their snow mobiles to go hunting.

I spent a couple of weeks with a semi-nomad family travelling over the sea ice, hunting seals. If there is no catch, it also means no food. But it really makes you realise how dependant you are on nature – you tend to forget that in the western world where you can just go to the supermarket to get some food. We have lost touch with where our food comes from.


Lemonade Igloo

Okay, and how about igloos? You made an igloo for one of your photos, right?

I learned some igloo building, yes. It’s beautiful how such a structure works and how peaceful it is to sit inside one. It’s a real shelter from the cold, and the sound insulation is intriguing too. I was surprised that you could do this with such thin blocks of ice.

For my project Lemonade Igloo, I made frozen blocks of orange lemonade, cast them in wooden boxes, and asked traditional Inuit men to build an igloo out of the blocks. It took a whole day – you have to glue all the pieces together with snow and water to make a strong structure out of it. A big job.



Some of your previous photos were taken in Bolivian salt deserts - why the extreme environments?

I am mostly interested how local people survive who live in such harsh circumstances - the Inuit in the extreme cold, endless winters on the one hand, and also these Bolivians who live in the Altiplano in the highlands of Bolivia. On the borders of the salt desert, it seems almost impossible to be able to make a living. I like to experience nature as such a strong force. We humans might think we 'rule the world' but at the end of the day we are just a tiny fraction.

I like to play with this idea in some of my photos, to place elements in the landscape and create odd relationships by combining the 'man-made' and the natural as a fragmented story. The fact that I grew up in The Netherlands where each piece of land is completely cultivated might be part of it. When you fly over the Dutch landscape it is totally divided in straight lines – nothing is left untouched. It makes you long for more 'natural landscapes'.


My White Night

Do you think that artists working in arctic environments bear a responsibility to convey a message of conservation, or has this already been explored sufficiently?

I do think by now awareness of the dramatic changes in the arctic is well spread. Also you see a lot of photo documentaries about the region and the immense problems it faces. You cannot escape the context of the place and it is also a very important factor, but still to try to create works that have an existence by themselves as 'independent' art works.

To give another view as well, the Lemonade Igloo is a bit of a bizarre image: to have this bright orange ice object in the white landscape, with a traditional Inuit man in wolf skin leaning against it. Nowadays there is a big generation clash in most Inuit settlements. The elderly people still live by the old traditions and can survive in the extreme environments, whereas the youngsters sit behind computer screens and television, drinking pop and juice. So I tried to combine these two elements in this sculpture. We built the igloo close to the high school and it became a place where the young kids would hang out during the long winter. I liked it that it was used in such a way.



What makes you laugh?

I remember one day I was walking in Igloolik when I saw this huge polar bear skin hanging outside, drying. It was the first time I had seen a polar bear skin and the scale was amazing – the colour of the thick fur, the paws and ears still on it. It was very strange to have it just casually hanging over a balcony. I approached the house. In the Inuit culture it is rude to knock on a door - that is only a thing the police would do and every one leaves their doors unlocked. So I just entered the house and I saw this small old Inuit lady lying on the couch, heavily snoring. I left quietly and later found out she was the hunter of the bear (there are quotas regulating how many bears can be hunted and in Igloolik the polar bear population is fairly large). But the view of the huge skin outside and then the tiny lady inside, that made me laugh.

Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

Well, I am preparing for a journey at the moment where I will stay with a Sami family who herd a huge flock of reindeer in a mountain area in central Norway. I met them a few months ago, and will go back in March when the circumstances and light should be good to work with.

You can see all of Scarlett's You Winter, let's get divorced show at Michael Hoppen Gallery until 29 March. Also, see her website at

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