World Press 2014: In Search of Viking Whalers

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?

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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

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