Book Review: Arktikugol
By Emily Davis
Léo Delafontaine, a Parisian photographer, released his latest photography book, Arktikugol (2017), full of images he took in the summer of 2013 and spring of 2015 of a small mining community, Svalbard. A Norwegian archipelago between Norway and the North pole, Svelbard is under Russia’s eye as a mining resource, and a strategic location for new travel routes resulting from the arctic sea ice melting.
It remained demilitarized and exempt from taxation while its mines drew citizens from surrounding territories. During the soviet era, cash flow and unemployment were nonexistent, while Healthcare, food and entertainment were free. It has been described as a utopian society. Athletes, entertainers, and others with specific qualities and trades were encouraged to relocate there in order to create a fully functioning society surrounding the mines.
With the fall of the Communist regime, Svelbard began to deteriorate. Current Russian authorities’ renewed interest in the region produces buzz about its place in the resurgence of Russian power. Though the new plans for the land is focused on tourism with restaurants, hostels and an expedition center springing up, the skeleton of a mining town still remains eerily similar to ruins of the soviet era.
Delafontaine maintains the isolated feeling of the town and its citizens in many of his images. Photos of miners wearing their dust covered work uniforms and hard hats are mixed amongst photos of community citizens maintaining some semblance of their culture and art. Though there are human subjects within the photos, Delafontain captures the perspective of a nearly deserted town by showing the industrial infrastructure against the vast arctic landscapes.
Grounded in historical and political contexts, Arktikugol (2017) encapsulates what it may be like to live in a Norwegian territory with a strong Russian authoritative presence by showing an aged statue of Vladimir Lenin. The Russian language is scattered throughout the photos on signs, graffiti and Delafontaine even includes Russian mining booklet in the back inside cover. This places the photography book in the dueling dynamic of being a post-utopian society with crumbling infrastructure to a reemerging town full of Russian opportunities. Léo Delafontaine provides his audience with an insight to an almost forgotten mining territory, and the aura of its reemergence into the international world, while capturing the silent beauty of landscapes and a deteriorating mining industry.