Canadian photographer and filmmaker Louie Palu is a leading voice in contemporary photography, documenting socio-political issues such as war, the violation of human rights, and the abuses of power in Canada and abroad, most notably in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, and Ukraine. Palu made his first trip to the Arctic in 1993, but in recent years his investigations have intensified. His new body of work, Distant Early Warning (2015 – 18), was created on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and documents the military presence in the North American Arctic, a region in which Indigenous life is coming face to face with increased geo-political activity. Now, decades after the end of the Cold War, tensions have been heightened anew as the effects of global warming take hold across the region, and opportunities for resource extraction and the freer movement of people and goods increase. As in his earlier work, these images examine the operations of power, bearing witness to a culture of fear and hyper-preparedness as we brace for an unknown future.
Palu’s images capture the distinctive qualities of light and darkness in the Arctic, whether the long shadows and crisp blues of a sun that never sets or the spectral presence of artificial illumination on a military training operation. His photographs of signalling and survival exercises, of parachutes descending in the Arctic sky, or of soldiers practising search-and-rescue in frigid waters are juxtaposed with images of igloo-building or the drying of flayed caribou carcasses after a hunting expedition, recording the exchange of knowledge between Inuit Arctic rangers and Southern military personnel in this extreme environment.
Describing this body of work, Palu says, “For me, the Arctic is about the unknown and about the imagination. Few of us get to experience the Arctic. It’s often understood in the South through a map or a set of statistics. But it can also be a kind of blank slate for invented narratives that suit people’s fantasies of what they want the Arctic to be. I’d like to challenge people’s perceptions and provoke a shift in consciousness, to produce work that makes us ask questions about a major part of our country. What I like about looking at the operations of the military there is that all of the things that we think of as power—the things that we can do as humans—pale in comparison to what nature can do.”
Palu has recently been named a National Geographic Explorer, an acknowledgement that photography can be as important as scientific data in deepening our understanding of a region now undergoing profound and irreversible change.
The artist acknowledges support from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Geographic magazine, and the Pulitzer Center