Brian Adams’ best photograph: three men in an Inuit steam house

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This was taken in Quinhagak, Alaska, in 2015. I was documenting daily Inuit life. The idea was to travel from Quinhagak, on the south-western coast, to Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) way up in the north, then across to the Canadian border in the east. I’m from Alaska and have been working as a photographer across the state since I was 20. I had a bank of images in my mind I knew had never been shot. I had never seen, for example, a contemporary photograph of Alaskans in a steam house. But I didn’t expect to get a shot of three men sitting in one right off the bat.

When I walked past, I just waved. They said, “Hey!” and I kept walking. I thought there was no way they were going to say yes to a photo. But I realised if I didn’t go back and ask, I would regret it for the rest of my life. And they said: “Yeah, go ahead.” The men – from left, Robert White, William Sharp and John Sharp – were laughing, but I was mostly in shock, since they were so cool with it.

Many of these Inuit villages don’t have running water, so most homes have a steam house – a sauna, basically. White and his friends said that this was where they would come after working all day, “to relax and get clean”. They’d go in and just sweat it out.

I am Inuit, specifically Inupiaq, but I grew up Girdwood, a very white town and as a child I felt disconnected from my own culture. I’ve been trying to fix that ever since I started working. This project was done with the Inuit Circumpolar Council of Alaska. I went to 20 villages, and mostly let the people I met lead me, though there were certain topics I hoped they would discuss, such as the climate crisis. In Alaska, there isn’t a debate. It is happening. We’re losing our land. It’s either melting or sinking. In a few of the coastal villages I went to, they are trying to stop the erosion with boulders and handmade walls of sand.

The project was complex: Alaska is just so big. Quinhagak is 420 miles from Anchorage, where I’m based, and Utqiagvik 720 miles – but you can’t just drive. These villages are off the road system. You have to fly to the nearest hub then take a small charter plane to your destination. You might have to stop in three other villages en route, depending on who or what they have to drop off. It’s called a milk run. There might be cans of soda and bags of rice on the seat next to you as you take off.

When I finished I Am Inuit, we were in full-on dark winter. I made a lot of my favourite work in Kaktovik, despite the fact that by then the sun was up for only 40 minutes a day. I was determined to get the most out of those minutes. Because I wanted to have it all natural, I didn’t take a flash. There was a moment when I thought: “You should have looked into this before you left.”

People have such a remote, romanticised vision of Alaska. For sure, it is a gorgeous place. It’s easy to just walk around and take pretty photos. But I wanted to break down those stereotypes. This is how we live our lives every day. This is our normal.

o I Am Inuit by Brian Adams and Julie Decker is published by Benteli.

Brian Adams’ CV

Brian Adams.

Born: Anchorage, Alaska, 1985.

Trained: “Three months out of school, I worked as a photographer’s assistant for two years.”

Influences: “My friends, family and culture.”

High point: “I have loved it all!”

Low point: “As for most people, 2020 has been a rough year for me. All of my work has come from clients outside of Alaska. I am worried about the Alaskan economy.”

Top tip: “Work on personal projects – not just something you think would make an editor or teacher happy, but a story you really want to tell.”

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