‘Take the shot, always take the shot’. My former art tutor’s words came back to me and they seemed made for this moment. But I just stood there holding the camera, watching my ‘prey’ and wondering again if he was right.
Once, the Inuit man opposite might have been an Elder, now he was just elderly. Clad in moon-boots, down jacket and baseball cap, he stumbled through the wreckage of untold lives here at Sisimiut town dump, Greenland. He shoved his dogsled through the broken washing machines, jagged bottles and disposable nappies, stopping occasionally to retrieve another fragment of someone else’s life and heap it on board. He reminded me of one of those prehistoric corpses preserved in a peat bog, whose inscrutable faces take on a mahogany sheen and a kind of fatalistic indifference. He continued on his way, straining at the sled, peering into the setting sun and muttering to himself, or ‘chuntering’ as people would say back in Yorkshire. If the sled had been a shopping trolley, then he’d have been the archetypal lost soul.
‘Take the shot’. It could easily decorate some glossy travel journal, the kind that would-be-travellers might leaf through whilst enjoying a coffee in a prestigious bookshop – the kind of photo that says more about the viewer than subject. But sometimes, not taking the picture says more.
The October sun was racing to meet the horizon, which meant here just across the Arctic Circle the land takes on a rosy flush. But no amount of rosy tinting could disguise the dump’s futile atmosphere. Other countries bury their leftovers, but Greenland is all rock and permafrost. Here, the nearest out-of-the-way promontory is where the skidoos, empty pineapple cans, bicycles and oil drums end their lives. And what lives: the Arctic climate keeps them ‘on ice’. I suspected that I could come back here in twenty years and find the same orphan trainers and cigarette packets, perhaps the same elderly-Elder shoving his dogsled too.
He glanced my way and I tried to look inconspicuous, which wasn’t easy; Sisimiut doesn’t see many tourists in October, and fewer still visit the dump. With my eyes momentarily lowered I spotted a vintage denim jacket frost-welded into the compacted ice. I wondered who it might have belonged to, and at the irony that it might be considered ‘retro’ back in England and merit a hefty price tag. After a few moments I risked another look. He was moving again, sorting and picking as he went. I knew that once I turned my back I’d never see him again, either in life or in the miniature world of 35mm slides. The chance was slipping away. ‘Take the shot’ – but what for I wondered?
I delayed, but whether deliberately or not I couldn’t say. He vanished behind a morose-looking truck with deflated tyres, just as the sun hit the horizon and ploughed through it, enticing the shadows and the cold to pour in and claim the place for their own. The shot passed. I was left alone in the dump, with a full roll of film and wearing a half-smile I couldn’t decipher.
Afterword – a few people might be left scratching their heads wondering what this has to do with Wildwood’s art and writing . . . Well, these kind of experiences in wild places find a mirror in my story writing. Also I have something of a confession – the photo I posted is of a different dump in a different part of Greenland on a different trip. ‘Same shit different day’ you might say . . .