Book Review: Arctic Kaleidoscope

Photographer Michelle Valberg shares photos, stories from her Arctic travels


“I landed in the Arctic and my whole world changed,” says photographer Michelle Valberg about her work in the Arctic, featured in her new book, Arctic Kaleidoscope.

“I landed in the Arctic and my whole world changed,” says photographer Michelle Valberg about her work in the Arctic, featured in her new book, Arctic Kaleidoscope.

Listen closely, the Arctic will tell you its story.

That’s Ottawa-based photographer Michelle Valberg’s message to the readers of her book, Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, The Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape, released earlier this year.

“Every rock, small hillock or snowdrift is a signpost, directing you to security or to your demise,” she says in the book, a large coffee-table style publication.

After 27 trips to the Arctic over a five-year period, Valberg assembled her photos into the book, a collaboration with writer Julie Beun. The result: 217, colour-filled pages of portraits, wildlife and landscape photographs and stories from Valberg’s travels.

“I landed in the Arctic and my whole world changed,” Valberg said in recent interview about her time in the North.

In the book, you can see her photos of communities, as viewed from afar, elders with faces framed by their fur-edged parka hoods, and Inuit in their camps, with close-ups of people, sealskin clothing and equipment.

The people featured in Valberg’s book are unnamed, and she doesn’t title any of the images — that’s because she said she wants the reader to “make their own connections to the photographs and experience it for what it is.”

There are also images taken from the floe edge, as well as huskies, polar bears playing, eating or fighting, a baby seal waiting alone on the ice, a narwhal flashing its long tusk, walruses grouped together in an “endless cacophony of barking, grunting and groaning,” before slipping into the ocean to eat oysters, and caribou and muskox on the tundra.

“You wait for things to come to you — there are not too many places in this world where you can experience those kinds of things happening,” Valberg said, adding that her book is intended to bring images of the North to people in the South, and maybe help change how many see the region north of 60.

Valberg, who has worked for Adventure Canada, Tourism Nunavut, Above and Beyond magazine, and the Kativik Regional Government, said she knew that not a lot of people knew about the Arctic.

“Vast, isolated and challenging….there are those who erringly think of it [the Arctic] as a sterile, inhospitable wasteland,” the book’s text reads.

However, in Arctic Kaleidoscope, Valberg says she tries to take that “black and white impression of the North and saturates it with sweeping colour, intense texture and vibrant life.”

In the book, which captures the Arctic from Kugluktuk to Greenland and Resolute Bay to Churchill, Valberg also documents the Hebron National Historic Site in Labrador where the “ghosts still linger” at the buildings established by the Moravian Church, where missionaries arrived in 1772.

In 1918, smallpox killed 86 of Hebron’s 100 residents, and by 1959, just 58 families remained there.

“I stumbled upon an untended graveyard. It was a wild, untamed spot, yet evidence that people had once loved and lived there remained,” Valberg says in the book.

Back in Ottawa, Valberg met an Inuk woman, Heidi Metcalfe-Langille, whose family was from Labrador.

Valberg showed her some of the Hebron photos, one of which was a photo of Metcalfe-Langille’s grandmother’s tombstone — a surprise to both women.

Most of the book’s photos fill an entire page or half page, some including stories of how the image was captured, or the effect that the subject had on Valberg herself.

Patience is something the photographer, who also does other commercial work in the Ottawa area, mastered while shooting the photos.

She recounts bobbing in the water in a dry suit near Arctic Bay for nearly an hour waiting for a narwhal to swim past her.

“While I patiently lingered, a seal kept playfully surfacing behind me, only to duck and dive as I turned to photograph him,” she says in the book.

At her guide’s cue, Valberg looked into the water to see a narwhal, then saw six more narwhals follow the first one.

“My heart raced with joy, to be so close to these elusive creatures was an overwhelming gift,” she says.

She notes in the book that Arctic wildlife are “heartbreakingly beautiful, dangerous, confronting…and impacted by human activity.”

Working in the Arctic has had a great effect on Valberg.

“It’s had a huge impact on my life…it broadened my sense of what I knew about the Arctic. It’s taught me to respect nature, you realize how vulnerable or insignificant you are when faced with a polar bear in front of you,” she said.

Aaju Peter, Inuk lawyer and a member of the Order of Canada, praises Valberg’s work in the foreword of Arctic Kaleidoscope.

“The Arctic is an incredible part of the world. Perhaps through Michelle’s work, we can see our way to leaving it that way,” Peter writes, calling the experience of looking at the book kajjaarnaq, an Inuktitut word that references a moment, revelation or vision so majestic and powerful that it feeds your body, soul and mind.

Valberg’s book also serves to give awareness about Project North, a non-profit organization Valberg helped create.

Arctic Kaleidoscope: The People, The Wildlife and Ever-Changing Landscape, is available for $59.95 at here or at Valberg Imaging, 111 Sherwood Drive.

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