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Greenland’s breed shares close common ancestry with the first sled dogs.

CARSTEN EGEVANG

Photographing the tough Greenland sled dog

Greenland holds a special fascination for wildlife photographer Carsten Egevang. He studied it as a young biology student. After completing his Ph.D., he changed direction, applying his scientific expertise to a photographic career. Since then, Egevang has earned notable recognition, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Egevang’s photography combines research expertise and knowledge of Greenland. During extended stays, he visits remote locations, gaining local residents’ trust. On one such trip, he made the photograph appearing on the 26 June cover of Science.

CARSTEN EGEVANGCARSTEN EGEVANG

At the time, Egevang was working on the Qimmeq project, an interdisciplinary effort researching and communicating the importance of the Greenland sled dog.

The trip was a 4-day venture. A small group rode their dog sleds to Ilulissat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a traditional Greenland seal hunt. Temperatures dropped rapidly, freezing icicles on the dogs’ fur. As detailed in this week’s research by Sinding et al., this tough breed is the closet living relative to the first sled dogs from 9500 years ago.

I spoke with Egevang to learn more about the Qimmeq project and how his expertise influences his visual storytelling. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Please explain the Qimmeq project and where the idea came from.
The project started more than 5 years ago. The number of Greenland sled dogs were decreasing in Greenland at a rapid pace over the past 25 years. Their population has dropped by half. It was important to communicate to the world and certainly to the people of Greenland how unique their dog is. We wanted to document that, using research and communication. Once you dig into all the great stories that there are about the sled dog, you get an array of interesting things.

a pack of Greenland sled dogs runningCARSTEN EGEVANG

A team of sled dogs pulls up to 1 ton across sea ice.

What is the message you hope to tell with these pictures for the Qimmeq project?
I wanted to show how the dogs are still used in the way that people have been doing for hundreds of years. Compared with places like Canada, the use of the sled dogs has changed into a more recreational activity. In Greenland, the dogs are very much a working animal. It is unique in every sense of the word.

I wanted to show how the dogs are used in modern-day Greenland, which is a mix of new and old. It’s not like the people in Greenland don’t have internet access or satellite telephones or modern facilities. They still use their dogs like they’ve been doing for hundreds of years, because it is still the best way to get around.

A musher on a dog sledCARSTEN EGEVANG

A musher or driver of a sled uses a whip to communicate direction and speed to the dogs. The whip is rarely used for punishment.

What is your relationship with the authors of the Science paper on the 26 June cover? How did you work with them?
We already knew each other when we started the project. The project consists of many small projects. Some were working on a book for teaching, some were doing a film. We met up one or two times per year to tell each other what we were doing. That was extremely helpful in terms of which photographs would be useful.

Greenland sled dog shaking snow offCARSTEN EGEVANG

Shaking snow off fur in subfreezing temperatures

When you go to Greenland on these photography trips, would the team be together, or would you work independently and report back afterward?
It worked in all sorts of ways. We usually planned these workshops at the same time as the annual dog sled race in Greenland. So we got to spend time with the local mushers. Dogs coming from all over Greenland participate in the race. We got a chance to obtain DNA samples and talk to local people about the future of the sled dogs. Giving back to the community is in my mind very important.

A musher stand next to his dogs and sledCARSTEN EGEVANG

Hunter Peter Avike walks ahead of his sled dogs in the Thule area.

How does your own research background influence how you capture pictures?
I have this background that tells me why things are interesting. When I started to move away from doing pure research, I learned a lot from being together with the local people. I got to experience how important hunting is for the people of Greenland. It is much more than putting food on the table. It’s deeply rooted in the way of thinking and their identity. Over the years, I combined my scientific background with insights of how people are thinking and acting in Greenland. Having that background information certainly helps me put more content into my photography.

A dog sled passes water and a glacierCARSTEN EGEVANG

Hunters pass by the Scoresbysund fjord, using the ice edge to guide them. Climate-related changes have made the sea ice more unpredictable.

Explain your photography style in general.
I started out as a traditional wildlife photographer doing only color images. I really hated black and white because I thought it was old-fashioned and didn’t show the beauty of the country. Over the years my outlook slowly changed. Now, I think using black and white gives me a chance to portray the harshness of Greenland’s rough country. It forces the viewer to make a decision when looking at the image. You can’t just overwhelm them with nice colors, like a blue iceberg or a red sunset. To me, black and white becomes more realistic and focuses more on the composition of the picture.

A Greenland sled dog in the snowCARSTEN EGEVANG

Concerns over population declines during the past 25 years emphasize the importance of conserving this rare breed.

How did you make the decision to leave research for photography?
Growing up I had always been interested in nature, birds, and animals. I thought that I would be doing that for the rest of my life. No doubt about it. But I gradually found it to be more pleasing to get this direct feedback, this direct contact with people through my photography.

Research is sometimes very narrow. It’s a very small group of people you actually communicate with. It is completely opposite with my photography. I can reach a very broad audience and get this immediate feedback from the pictures I take. I like that.

Greenland sled dogs howlCARSTEN EGEVANG

During storms, Greenland sled dogs curl up, letting snow cover them to provide protection from Arctic winds.

What did you learn from your experience with this project? 
When I shifted from being a researcher into doing full-time photography, I made a decision that I work best alone. When I am photographing, I like to go by myself. It’s much easier to get close to people.

Working on the sled dog project, I realized the power of different people working together. By combining various fields of expertise, you can reach a much bigger audience. To me this was an eye opener. I would like to do more of these kinds of projects instead of just working as a lone wolf.

CARSTEN EGEVANG

Emily Petersen is the Senior Photo Editor at Science.