Harpoon station at sunset in whaling camp
The Whale Hunt is an experiment in human storytelling.
In May 2007, I spent nine days living with a family of Inupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in the United States. The first several days were spent in the village of Barrow, exploring ramshackle structures, buying gear, and otherwise helping the whaling crew to prepare for the hunt. We then traveled by snowmobile out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean, where we camped three miles from shore on thick pack ice, pitching our tents about ten feet from the open water. Boats were readied, harpoons prepared, whaling guns loaded, white tunics donned, a snow fence constructed, and then we sat silently in the -22 °F air, in constant daylight, waiting for whales to appear.
Howard readies a harpoon
A thousand-year-old tradition, the Inupiat whale hunt provides the community’s annual food supply, currently limited by international law to 22 whales a year. Each spring as the ocean thaws, ice breaks away from the mainland as a single massive chunk, which then floats out to sea, creating a canal of open water called the "lead". It is through this lead that Bowhead whales
migrate north to the Arctic Circle, where they spend summers, surfacing for air every 30-45 minutes en route. We saw hundreds of whales on the horizon, but most were too far away to attack. Finally on the fourth day two whales (each 36 feet long and weighing around 40 tons) were harpooned, hauled up onto the ice using a block and tackle system that resembles a giant tug of war between man and sea, and summarily butchered, the meat and blubber then distributed to the Barrow community.
Simeon stands at the snow fence
I documented the entire experience with a plodding sequence of 3,214 photographs, beginning with the taxi ride to Newark airport, and ending with the butchering of the second whale, seven days later. The photographs were taken at five-minute intervals, even while sleeping (using a chronometer), establishing a constant “photographic heartbeat”. In moments of high adrenaline, this photographic heartbeat would quicken (to a maximum rate of 37 pictures in five minutes while the first whale was being cut up), mimicking the changing pace of my own heartbeat.
The purpose of this project was threefold:
Hauling up a 36 foot Bowhead
First, to experiment with a new interface for human storytelling. The photographs are presented in a framework that tells the moment-to-moment story of the whale hunt. The full sequence of images is represented as a medical heartbeat graph along the bottom edge of the screen, its magnitude at each point indicating the photographic frequency (and thus the level of excitement) at that moment in time. A series of filters can be used to restrict this heartbeat timeline, isolating the many sub stories occurring within the larger narrative (the story of blood, the story of the captain, the story of the arctic ocean, etc.). Each viewer will experience the whale hunt narrative differently, and not necessarily in a linear fashion, constructing his or her own understanding of the experience.
Harvesting the whale
Second, to subject myself to the same sort of incessant automated data collection process that I usually write computer programs to conduct (in previous projects like We Feel Fine
, and Phylotaxis
). Much effort is spent making computers understand what it’s like to be human (through data mining and artificial intelligence), but rarely do humans try to see things from a computer’s perspective. I was interested in reaching some degree of empathy with the computer, a constant thankless helper in my work.
Third, to take an epic personal experience from the physical world and translate it optimally to the Internet, so that many people can share it.
I am grateful to Andrew Moore, a New York based friend and photographer who accompanied me on the trip, and to the Patkotak family of Barrow, Alaska, for their generosity in welcoming us into their house and later into their whaling camp. The Whale Hunt is really their story.
- Jonathan Harris, October 2007