News"The ice is sick"

"The ice is sick"

In his pictures, Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson tells the stories of people experiencing climate change first hand. That’s why he’s always drawn to the Arctic. A portrait of Michael Funcke-Bartz

Giving people in the Arctic a face, telling their stories before it’s too late – that’s what Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelsson, also known as “RAX” for short, now sees as his main task. For this he has been traveling in the Arctic for more than 40 years: to fishermen and farmers in the most remote regions of Iceland and the Faroe Islands as well as to the indigenous population of northern Scandinavia. He accompanies Greenlandic Inuit hunting out on the sea ice even in extreme temperatures and the feared storms. With reindeer herders in the Siberian tundra, he experiences winter temperatures of more than minus 50 degrees Celsius as well as more than 40 degrees plus, which prevail there in summer. But he always returns to the people on the edge of the habitable world.

“You don’t just visit these people once for a quick photo, you come often until they forget you’re there and let you be a part – and maybe at some point they’ll tell you their stories,” reports Ragnar Axelsson during the conversation in Munich. This trust is a valuable asset and only grows over the years. For example, he met the old fisherman Axel Thorarensen on Iceland’s south coast by accident in 1988 when he was in the region for another photo assignment. In an unobserved moment, he snapped a few photos of himself and his dog Týri. Two years later, Ragnar Axelsson met the old fisherman again and showed him the previously unpublished photos of him on his boat. Axel smiled and agreed to be photographed in front of his fishing hut.

Jäger Masuana Kristiansen, Ingelfieldfjord, Grönland, 1987.


Jäger Masuana Kristiansen, Ingelfieldfjord, Grönland, 1987.

Ragnar Axelsson accompanied the already white-haired farmer Guðjón Þorsteinsson on his fourth visit to the black lava beach around Cape Dyrhólaey on the south coast of Iceland. It was only on this occasion that the photo was taken that has since become one of his trademarks and “that opened the doors to the world for me”. Interior shots, for example Guðjón and his brother milking in the barn, were only made on the basis of trust spanning several years. He has been accompanying sheep farmer Kristinn Guðnason for over 20 years, when thousands of sheep are driven from the mountains to the Landmannafréttur pastureland in southern Iceland in September during the sheep drive.

This endurance over decades, combined with a deep respect for people – these are perhaps the most important qualities that have made Ragnar Axelsson what he is today: A witness to the gradual global climate changes that are now hitting the Arctic with full force. No region on earth is warming at such a rate. The more the sea ice around the North Pole disappears, the more the water warms up, which in turn accelerates the melting of the ice.

Jonas Madsen, Sandey, Färöer Inseln, 1989.


Jonas Madsen, Sandey, Faroe Islands, 1989.

Meeting the old fisherman Axel Thorarensen was a key moment on this journey. “From then on, I knew I had to capture the lives and stories of these people in photographs in a rapidly changing world.” For Face of the North, his first book, he received the Icelandic Literature Prize for Best in 2016 nonfiction. Five more illustrated books followed, in which he is increasingly responsible as the author for the texts. Many international prizes and exhibitions are now a sign of recognition for his photographic work.

Ragnar Axelsson: Even as a child I was never without a camera

His father, a mechanical engineer at Reykjavik University, must have had a good sense of the second youngest of four children’s strengths: he showed him how to adjust a camera and enlarge photos in the darkroom. He brought him art books and international magazines, the photographs of which inspired Ragnar to take photographs himself. His father lent him his Leica when Ragnar was eight years old and was due to spend the summer holidays with relatives on the remote eastern part of Iceland’s south coast. “Back then, a camera like that was as expensive as a used car, but my father knew that he could rely on me.” Ragnar roamed through the rough nature with the camera, explored the bird life and was fascinated by the huge glaciers.

Rettung von Pferden, Skarðsheiði, Island, 1995. 


Rettung von Pferden, Skarðsheiði, Iceland, 1995.

“My father was very technically proficient. We even built a light aircraft together. That’s why I was very knowledgeable about the technology when I started getting my pilot’s license at the age of 17.” Life as a pilot was out of the question for him, even though he occasionally carried out patient transport flights between Iceland and Greenland as a co-pilot . “I did that mainly to get my flying lessons together. Much more important was my interest in Greenland and the Arctic, which had been awakened by the books about the early expeditions, for example to search for an east-west passage”.

Ragnar Axelsson became a photojournalist for the Icelandic newspaper Mor-gunblaðið. Commissions have taken him to Latvia, Lithuania, Mozambique, South Africa, China and the Ukraine. As important as this work was, it ultimately remained unsatisfactory for him. Instead, Ragnar Axelsson focuses on the arctic region, developing close ties with Inuit communities north of Qaanaaq (Thule) in far northwest Greenland and also in the island’s sparsely populated east.

work show

The exhibition “Where the world is melting” will be shown in the art foyer of the Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung in Munich until April 15th. The catalog of the same name was published by Kehrer Verlag. Further information on the Internet at

Over the years, he experiences at close range how the living conditions there have changed dramatically: the sea ice freezes later and thaws much earlier. This makes it too thin to be able to go hunting long enough with a dog sled. If it breaks up, it is usually still difficult to get through the ice floes by boat. This makes life difficult for these traditional arctic hunter communities with their sled dogs, the “heroes of the arctic”, to whom Ragnar Axelsson dedicated a photo book.

The hunters feel the changes taking place in their environment, even if their language does not have their own words for it. They say they have the impression “that the ice is sick,” says Ragnar Axelsson when we first met in Reykjavik in the winter ten years ago. I was returning from a photo tour with our younger daughter. Having become aware of the film “Gesichter der Arktis”, which was shown on Arte in 2011, I took the opportunity to make spontaneous contact.

Schmelzender Gletscher Kötlujökull, Island, 2021. 


Melting glacier Kötlujökull, Iceland, 2021.

At the time, I was working full-time on environmental and climate issues in international development cooperation. Back then, in a conversation with Ragnar Axelsson, the idea arose to use his photos to make concrete the effects of the global climate crisis on population groups that were particularly hard hit, but whose fate largely goes unnoticed. With the support of the Bonn-based Foundation for Environment and Development North Rhine-Westphalia, the exhibition “Climate Change: Images of the Arctic – North Greenland and Climate Change” was subsequently produced.

Ragnar Axelsson: A contact with the people

The photo of the late hunter Masauna Kristiansen, who has to make his way through the sea ice that is breaking up in many places with his dog sled team, stands for these fractures in the lives of people living in the polar regions: Processes of change in cultures and ecosystems take place much too quickly , which developed over thousands of years – in Greenland traces of human settlement go back almost 4000 years. The skills developed during these periods to adapt to even the most difficult climatic conditions are overtaxed. Hunting no longer offers a future for young people. Other development opportunities are rare and are primarily concentrated in a few larger settlements – a relative size for Greenland’s total population of around 57,000 people.

Schlittenhund, Thule, Grönland, 1987. 


Sled dog, Thule, Greenland, 1987.

For a long time, Ragnar Axelsson was known primarily to insiders for his unmistakable black-and-white photographs. In the meantime, he also appears more often in the news in Germany when it comes to making climate change concrete. With the photo exhibition “Where the world is melting” in Munich, an overall view of Ragnar Axelsson’s work is now being made accessible to a wider audience for the first time. This is exhibited in the art foyer of the Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung, which also took over the production.

Isabel Siben, the director and managing director of the art foyer, is also the curator of the exhibition. Ragnar Axelsson had been on her agenda for a long time, but the exhibition had to be postponed again and again due to the corona pandemic. Now it has been possible to put together the impressive first retrospective of Ragnar Axelsson’s work with almost 150 mostly large-format photos.

Ragnar Axelsson: Time is pressing, climate change is progressing

Corona also threw Ragnar Axelsson’s plans upside down: For two years he has been planning to travel from Murmansk to the North Pole on board an icebreaker in the summer in order to document the rapidly receding sea ice there. That was finally planned for this year, before the war in Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia. But even then Ragnar Axelsson does not lose his confidence – he is used to thinking in longer terms.

But time is pressing. The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on climate impacts and climate adaptation recently underlined this again: Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of the working group responsible for the report, says: “The longer we delay climate protection and adaptation, the more closely what we still have left Time window.”

The exhibition “Where the world is melting” will be shown in the art foyer of the Versicherungskammer Kulturstiftung in Munich until April 15th. The catalog of the same name was published by Kehrer Verlag. Further information on the Internet at

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