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  • February 21, 2014

World Press 2014: In Search of Viking Whalers

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Proof Staff

Each year, an international panel of visual luminaries gathers at World Press Photo in Amsterdam to judge tens of thousands of images submitted by photojournalists from around the world. The results of this year’s contest were announced on February 14, with six awards going to photographers on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and a seventh for a project funded with the magazine’s support. Over the next few days, we will go behind the scenes of the winning shots with the photographers and their picture editors. Here, Marcus Bleasdale and Pamela Chen share insights from their thought process behind the making of The Last of the Viking Whalers, which took 3rd place in the Contemporary Issue Story category.

Pamela Chen, Senior Photo Editor

Stories about modern whaling are polarizing. So often it is either defended on the grounds of cultural independence, or accused on the grounds of animal rights and conservation. Marcus Bleasdale’s story is about neither of these things. We wanted to present a real look at what happens to these coastal communities in Norway when whaling goes away for good. When the village where your ancestors lived begins to disappear, what is lost? And for the few who choose to stay, what do you want future generations to remember about your vanishing way of life?

With dreams of studying film, 16-year-old Aurora Ellingsen will soon leave Skrova to attend the regional high school, the first step in a journey that will likely take her far from her parents and her island roots.
With dreams of studying film, 16-year-old Aurora Ellingsen will soon leave Skrova to attend the regional high school, the first step in a journey that will likely take her far from her parents and her island roots.

To gain the trust of these tight-knit fishing and whaling communities, we needed to understand them better. We read stacks of books on Norwegian history. Marcus consulted the author of a dissertation he had studied, Dr. Ole Lindquist, whose paper was impressively titled, Whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the economy and culture of peasant fishermen in Norway, Orkney, Shetland, Faroe Islands and Iceland, CA 900-1900 AD, and Norse Greenland, CA 1000-1500 AD (Volume II Pt.2).

Over the phone, Dr. Lindquist summarized his perspective on the history of whaling from the Stone Age until today, which Marcus scribbled down on a sheet of paper and shared with me.

whaling-timeline
Marcus Bleasdale researched the history of whaling and recorded this handwritten timeline during a telephone conversation with Dr. Ole Lindquist.

Although Dr. Lindquist’s actual findings were not surfaced in the final presentation, Marcus credits him with helping to contextualize the present-day story we were covering. “The amount of time Dr. Lindquist spent studying whaling communities held anything we could do in a shadow. Those whose research we rely on to inform our storytelling along the way, are essential for the success of it.”

Marcus Bleasdale
In the pale light of the midnight sun, a minke whale is butchered on the deck of the Jan Bjørn, one of the few whaling boats still working the waters off Norway’s Lofoten Islands. The minke whale is not endangered and Norway meets less than half its sustainable quota.

In another case, Marcus’ commitment to understanding these communities was rewarded with a brief but memorable moment of truth. We had stumbled on a description of a rare book published in 1924, Den siste viking or The Last of the Vikings by Johan Bojer. It took weeks to find an English language copy in a used book store in Portland, Oregon. In the book, Bojer writes about a father wanting to take his son to the sea to fish in Lofoten, and about a mother wanting her children to stay on land where it safe, close to her.

Ironically, today the mothers want their children to become fishermen, because it means they will remain in the community. And so this tale became a guiding light. And as it turns out, we had that in common with the whalers themselves. While in the field, Marcus spoke about the book as an inspiration for our story to one of the few fathers passing on the whaling tradition to his son. Marcus recalled, “the eyes of the whaler glazed over in recognition, and he said, ‘Oh! That is my favorite book.’”

Marcus Bleasdale, Photographer

Last of the Viking Whalers was probably the most difficult story to get started on that I ever had. The concept of whaling is very controversial which has always been the main barrier to getting onto the boats and getting to know the whalers. Coupled with the fact that the last activist to sink a whaleboat in Norway did so by posing as a National Geographic photographer. I knew it was going to be an uphill climb, but I had spent several years covering conflicts away from home and my wife and I decided that doing this story would be a good way of us spending some more time together.

Eilert Nilsen searches for whales among the fjords of Lofoten. The harpoon gun reflected in the bridge window is tipped with a powerful explosive to help ensure a quick kill.
Eilert Nilsen searches for whales among the fjords of Lofoten. The harpoon gun reflected in the bridge window is tipped with a powerful explosive to help ensure a quick kill.

Through friends and family I managed to get hold of a lifelong whaler named Jan Bjørn, who sounded pretty straightforward and open, but also a bit skeptical. We arranged a date to meet in northern Norway and I flew back from Eastern Congo (Where I was covering the conflict) to meet with him at the beginning of the whaling season.

I arrived in his hometown, but found no boat. I called his number several times and received no answer. After two days waiting, I received a message that he had left the day before my arrival for a 3-week trip. I wasn’t happy. I had travelled all the way from Congo for this meeting to be stood up by a whaler. I went home.

A few weeks later I contacted him again and asked if we could set up another meeting. This time, he was there. I jumped on board when he invited me to and we had a meeting in the galley where he presented me with a plateful of whale steak: a test. If I ate it, he would allow me on board. If I didn’t, I would be on the first bus home again. Thankfully, I have eaten snake, monkey, seal, seagull and crocodile on my travels, so this posed no obstacle.

We then set sail for several days hunting whale. It was incredible to see such beautiful majestic animals so close and also a little sad to see them killed, but I knew they were not endangered and that it was this community that would extinct before the whales would. And this became the core of the story.

Earning a living from the sea is risky business—one reason most of Lofoten’s young people opt out. A rare exception is Raymond Nilsen, 34, one of the few young men from his island to take up fishing in recent decades.
Earning a living from the sea is risky business—one reason most of Lofoten’s young people opt out. A rare exception is Raymond Nilsen, 34, one of the few young men from his island to take up fishing in recent decades.

I spent the next year documenting all aspects of these societies, and during that time I spent more days on boats at sea than I had spent in Congo documenting the conflict the previous year, and the hopes my wife and I had of some home time looked a little remote. I documented the harsh winters on Røst where the whalers fish cod in the rough seas and the dark days, through to the spring when the whaling season begins.

We spent midsummer’s night grilling whale meat and lighting fires and drinking beer together on the rocks on the island of Skrova and in the autumn I watched as more young people left their families at 15 years of age to go to school on the mainland, never to return and live in the communities they grew up in. I made many new and still treasured friends from those communities, people who continue the fight to keep tradition alive and families together. But I fear that communities there are changing and future generations will need to look away from the sea for their living and towards the mainland.

On Røst an abandoned sheep hut testifies to the changing times.
On Røst an abandoned sheep hut testifies to the changing times.

See more of Marcus Bleasdale’s work on his website. Watch his interview on the power of photography here.

There are 17 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Vicky
    March 2, 2014

    Toたける, That is not tradition and life.That is purely killing.

  2. Shaun
    February 28, 2014

    Actually the minke whale is endangered and is listed as such, im not sure where the journalist got his information from but its completely wrong. Humans are supposed to change when they know something is wrong like whaling. Whales are incredibly smart and intelligent, killing them is ridiculous and cruel. If the towns in norway are only there becuase they kill whales im glad its ending. At some point we have to evolve from savages and into intelligent beings.

  3. Allen Sevilla
    February 25, 2014

    Media has changed the way youth view happiness and success. The simple, hardworking ways of their parents become almost pointless. Yes, change will come. For the better? The way things are going, not so. Most of the youth are moving away from things natural and real to things artificial and abstract. From planting or fishing to genetic modification and global technology. May children see joy in simple living.

  4. rebeca
    February 24, 2014

    Muchos temas para poder hablar solo de uno, los balleneros cuya cultura de subsistencia no es la mejor y con un oficio depredador que choca con quienes amamos los animales; una comunidad fuerte y cerrada soobre si misma que debe encontrar una salida a su cotidianidad; un fotógrafo que nos muestras maravillosas imágenes de un rompecabezas y nos narra sus peripecias cual antiguo cuentista. Excelente.

  5. faith
    February 23, 2014

    Loved reading this story in the magazine and love your detail into it. wonderful coverage.

  6. Marianne Dawson
    February 23, 2014

    quote from under the third picture down
    “The minke whale is not endangered and Norway meets less than half its sustainable quota.” just for reference sake… I love the way you do you in depth review of the people of Norway. They have always interested me… Thank you both…

  7. Patricia Rivera
    February 23, 2014

    It’s a compromise between tradition and progress! It’s sad to loose old traditions and for the parents to see their kids flee the nest, but at the same time, the new generations have the right to choose new carriers!

  8. laura steinbach
    February 22, 2014

    I think what you are doing is interesting. I would like to keep following your travels and what is yet to come. Thank you

  9. imaculada figueiredo
    February 22, 2014

    The photographer is always an artist, he does not paint but manages to capture something that many do not see.

  10. John w
    February 22, 2014

    ‘His community would be extinct before the whales’– and that justifies destroying other sentient creatures?? What a ridiculous statement– that we should somehow justify the murderous ruin we’ve wrecked against cetaceans by the fact that perchance they may survive our destructive reign over this beautiful Earth.

  11. jaqueline deantono
    February 22, 2014

    terrible el hombre es la bestia mas grande del planeta un depredador sin limite , y el mas bruto del mundo , al destruir su hábitat no se da cuenta que se destruye a si mismo.

  12. Manuel
    February 22, 2014

    Sad for the elders to see the traditional culture go but good for the youngs to explore.

  13. L.G. Bostwick
    February 22, 2014

    The whale is not the reason for the depopulation of Norway´s rural coast regions. This article is superficial and pretentious.

  14. Rita Campbell
    February 22, 2014

    Superb! Thank you for your efforts! I have been reading NG since I was quit young! Please keep in touch! Your friend, Rita

  15. たける
    February 21, 2014

    Taiji people also has lived to keep tradition and life.
    I hope a fair report of this Norway same report Taiji.

    太地(タイジ)の人達も、伝統と生活のために生きてきました。
    私は、このノルウェーのレポート同様、太地に対しても公正なレポートを望みます。

  16. Dan McQuade
    February 21, 2014

    Great story. Wonderful photographs.

  17. LAbradford
    February 21, 2014

    When old ways are done away with, it’s called progress. Human beings have been leaving old ways behind for a long time, if we didn’t, then we’d all still be living in caves or mud huts. These people are killing endangered whales btw, why not mention that?

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