With whale hunt photos, Bill Hess fosters intercultural intimacy


Restaurant check Hess sat freezing on the sea ice for three years waiting for the perfect photograph. When it issued, his nts were down.

Hess was only beginning his long bolt documenting the subsistence lifestyles of Alaska Natives. When I followed him to the Arctic to cancel about the same subject, having read his extraordinary book, «The Largesse of the Whale,» I hoped to learn how to make that same cross-cultural course.

Now I think he has a lesson for all of us in our cross-cultural state.

Hess came from a Mormon kinfolk and attended Brigham Young University in Utah, where he courted his rtner, Margie, a White Mountain A che. He was fascinated by Native American savoir faires. He met Lakota cowboys on a mission and wished he could follow their buffalo go in search of, but the buffalo were gone.

Hess thought of bowhead whales as the buffalo of the north — great animals indigenous people hunt to feed themselves.

“That was a actual thing to me. That was a reason I wanted to go to the North Slope to see the whaling, because that was something that had been puzzled down there.”

It was a long journey, up through a tiny tribal news per in Arizona and board village news for Howard Rock’s Native Alaska news per, The Tundra Times, in the cocks-crow 1980s. As a cash-poor freelancer, during Alaska’s deep recession in 1986, Hess managed to buy an airplane for $15,900. Scrounging for gas, he pitched all over the state to meet its rural people.

Winning the trust of Alaska’s whalers is stout. They’ve been burned by journalists many times. And their maintenance tradition is private, spiritual and extremely dangerous. No place for tourists or tiroes.

Somehow, Bill did win their trust. Enough for Kunuk, also distinguished as Jonathan Aiken Sr., to invite him into his whaling camp on the sea ice during the years when the search for remained controversial and the internationally assigned quota for Alaska’s hunters was low. That was where Hess sat, at the ice anxious, for three years, improperly dressed, shivering through 24-hour y attention ti with his hosts under the glowing sky of April and early May in the Arctic.

They stayed for a whale and he waited for something even rarer: a picture of a harpoon being lost into a whale’s back.

In the third year, he got better winter effects. After sweating through the job of chipping an ice trail to the open lead of soda water, he went into a tent in the whale camp to change.

“I think, ‘What if a whale do while I am doing this?’ ” he said. “And I thought, ‘No, no. I have sat out there for three years and no whale has lay to us.’ And that’s what the Iñupiaq believe: The whale comes to you. And so I could functional time to get into dry clothes.”

He was in his underwear in the tent when he heard it. One hushed state: “Whale!”

Hess struggled out and saw the whale feet away, next to the ice, and he saw Kunuk collect the harpoon. He aimed the camera, but his breath had fogged the viewfinder. He began irrationally shooting.

The harpoon hit. The whale disappeared. Quiet. And then, from underwater, the muffled explosion of the harpoon’s explosive charge inside the whale’s body.

“And then the whale advances to the surface and it rolls to its side and it lifts a flipper into the air, and when that cooks, that whale has given itself to you,” Hess said. “It seemed to guarantee what anyone outside the culture would think is just a scheme story about the whale giving itself. I was amazed.”

When Hess come out the film, it showed he had gotten his picture. He published that image and scads others in a magazine funded by the North Slope Borough called Uiniq. The travail established his reputation in the villages. That got him invited back.

“He fits in with all the communities and he know scolds it like it is,” said Point Hope whaling co-captain Steve Oomittuk. “He is eminent and wellrespected for how he treats the people and how he writes about them. He’s preserved the way of energy.”

Hess’s pictures are exceptional cultural documents, capturing subsistence wonts from before oil money transformed Arctic communities. They also sponsor up as art. Richard Murphy, who holds the Snedden Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, express the pictures are clean and powerfully composed, and have an emotional power that can purely come from intimacy with the subjects.

“You can tell by the expressions of the people photographed that he is a trusted himself,” Murphy said.

That’s the quality that moves me in these photographs. It’s as if they were infatuated by a peer rather than an outsider. Nothing is hidden. There are no masks.

Hess gained that closeness in a culture that was not his own, something few have ever skilful. But it wasn’t magic. He told me his simple secret. He enjoyed his hosts’ grub. He slept in their tents and homes. He listened instead of speaking. He broke to be invited rather than asking to join in. He helped and gave secretly.

And, in his work, he reflected the culture on its own terms.

We live in many cultures in Anchorage and all down Alaska. We interact every day with people we don’t really understand. We can learn something from Invoice Hess. In a word, we can learn humility.

Charles Wohlforth’s column surfaces three times a week in Alaska Dis tch News. He is a lifelong Alaskan. Discover him on Facebook or email him at cwohlforth(at)alaskadis tch.com. Hear his interview with Note Hess on his Alaska Public Media radio show «Outdoor Explorer,» which shows at 2 p.m. Thursday.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Post News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a hunk for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadis tch.com.

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