Bryan Alexander (Bryan & Cherry Alexander Photography)
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 03 October

The World According to Bryan Alexander

Veteran Arctic photographer on travelling in extremes and the polite way to enquire about the age of Walrus meat

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Desert, providing it's a cold one.

First travel experience?

I suppose it would be a family beach holiday to Budleigh Salterton in Devon when I was about five years old. I can't remember much about it other than the sea was bitterly cold. It certainly wasn't a life-changing experience and I have never been back.

Favourite journey?

Ten years ago I photographed a reindeer drive in north-west Siberia. The journey involved moving 1,000 reindeer 1,000 miles. I joined the herders for the last 200 miles. Travelling in February through forests and across tundra by reindeer sled was magical. The people I travelled with were great and the weather was perfect for most of the time. It was also amazingly beautiful with the winter sunshine sparkling on snow and hoar frost on the trees. Pushkin summed it up well when he wrote, 'Cold frost and sunshine: day of wonder!'

Top five places worldwide?

Greenland would have to be top of my list, it was the first place I travelled to in the Arctic 40 years ago. Others would include Kashmir, the Faroe Islands, Siberia and northern Scotland.

Special place to stay?

I have earned the reputation, probably justified, among my family and friends for always choosing the absolute worst hotel in town, so I think that the less I say on this particular subject the better.

Three items you always pack?

A plug for a sink, because I always find that they have been nicked from Russian hotel rooms, my favourite Lavazza coffee (unless I am travelling to Italy), and an Opinel pocket knife.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

For me a passport is just a key to a door that lets me enter a country. I have never felt proud of the stamps in mine and I neglect it terribly. My current passport looks like it's been dropped on the M6 and run over by a dozen trucks.

Passport stamp most like to have?

I have never been one who indulges in passport stamp envy.

Guilty travel pleasure?

Travelling mainly in the Arctic, I don't really get much in the way of opportunity for regular indulgences. Over the years, I have had some luxury moments though. These include an eight hour flight on a comfortable private jet and being lent a train for a 500km journey in Siberia. It's a wonderful privilege to be able to ask the driver to stop the train so you can take a photo.

Window or aisle?

Aisle, because my wife likes the window, and it's easier for a quick dash to the toilet.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

I am still waiting to be introduced.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

When I am travelling in the North I tend to eat as cheaply as possible and most restaurants in the Arctic are nothing to shout about. An exception is the Skarven restaurant in Tromsø, north Norway. They specialise in Arctic food, and if you are adventurous and don't mind being politically incorrect, you can eat seal, whale and reindeer all cooked superbly and accompanied by delicious sauces. They also serve cloudberries, my favourite arctic berry, for a dessert. It's not a cheap restaurant but for a memorable and delicious meal, it's well worth it.

There are just too many contenders for 'worst meal on the road' to declare an outright winner.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Lake Nagin in Kashmir surprised me in a wonderful way. I went there on an assignment many years ago and didn't really know what to expect. I stayed on a houseboat and when I woke up on my first morning I was met by this breathtaking view of snow-capped Himalayan peaks reflected in the mirror surface of the lake and two kingfishers sat on a mooring pole right outside my window. Simply wonderful!

The most disappointing place would have to be Nauru. A classic example of a Pacific Island paradise that has gone wrong.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Juárez in Mexico because of its high rate of violence and murder. 3,075 homicides took place there in 2010, which is definitely enough to put me off.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

An aunt who travelled independently overland to India at a time when relatively few women did. My travel hero is undoubtedly Knud Rasmussen. I think that his fifth Thule Expedition (1921-1924) was the greatest and most meaningful Arctic expedition ever.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

Although I enjoy music very much, I seldom take it with me on trips. Instead I listen to whatever is being played on local radio and what taxi drivers have on in their cabs. It's sad I know.

I was introduced to Meat Loaf by an Inuit shop keeper in north Greenland in 1980. Whenever I hear the track, Bat Out of Hell, it makes me think of him and the now abandoned village of Moriussaq.

What do you read?

When I am on the road, is about the only time I read for pleasure these days. I find that It's a great way to pass the time on long flights and the long delays at airports before the long flights. I often take books that my wife and friends have recommended, but I am also a serious Le Carré fan.

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

Travelling in the Arctic it's hard not to find people who reaffirm your faith in humanity. One time I was left stranded at a remote airfield in Siberia when the man meeting me didn't show up. I had no phone and all the other passengers and airfield workers left. There was no shelter, no cars or taxis. It was -26°C and I just stood by my luggage for an hour and a half getting colder and colder. Then out of nowhere a man appeared, he took me back to his wooden house about 1km away where his wife prepared a hot meal for me and they invited me to stay overnight with them.

In contrast, but also in Siberia. I was on a flight in an MI-8 helicopter. Also on board was a coffin containing the body of a young native girl who had died a couple of days before, as well as her mother and other grieving family members. The Russian pilot instructed the passengers to pile their baggage on top of the coffin. even though there was other space they could have used.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

"Aavimineq una pihoqaq?" (How old is this walrus meat?)

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Undoubtedly, worrying about the weather. Flights in the Arctic are much more liable to delays and cancellations from bad weather than almost anywhere else. The day before I am due to travel I begin checking the weather forecast and looking up at the sky. Of course I know it's pointless, you can't change the weather, but I do it anyway.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

I would go for a walk, could be a while.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

In 1980 I had, what for me, was a dream assignment which involved photographing Inuit life for seven months in north-west Greenland. It was a wonderful experience for me living with local Inuit families in villages and at camps as well as travelling with them by dog sled and boat on a variety of different hunts through the seasons.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

When I arrive at an airport before a flight and I get my first whiff of aviation fuel.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

1920s-1950s. Photography was already well advanced by then so I would have been able to work. It was also a time before Arctic Peoples were brought in off the land to live in permanent settlements, so there would have been more in the way of traditional culture for me to document.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

I am not a big city person so no metropolis could be perfect for me. The closest would be Copenhagen, Paris and Stockholm.

Bryan Alexander's book, 40 Below, Traditional Life in the Arctic, celebrating 40
years of photographing in the Arctic, is released on 2 November. The book launch coincides with his exhibition "Whisper of the Stars" at Pushkin House, London. 

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