Q & A with ‘I Am Inuit’ photographer Brian Adams

“I Am Inuit” photographer Brian Adams. Photo credit: Ash Adams

While his “I Am Inuit” exhibition just wrapped up at the Anchorage Museum, local photographer Brian Adams is staying busy.

The accompanying book for “I Am Inuit,” where Adams collected environmental portraits and stories of northern people, will be released this December and plans are in the works for the exhibit to travel to other museums.

Putting together the various aspects of “I Am Inuit” was extremely time consuming for the father of two, but it wasn’t something he could just gloss over.

“It was a project that needed a lot of attention,” Adams said.

He hopes to continue photographing Inuit in Alaska, but would like to expand to other northern countries like Canada, Russia and Greenland.

Adams is also working with journalist Daysha Eaton on a website and multipart radio story for KNBA looking into Pebble Mine airing this December. Their work will include photos and interviews with residents who might be affected by the mine living in places like Dillingham and Iliamna.

Another project he’s working on is a database for North American indigenous photographers. When news breaks in the Arctic or indigenous populations elsewhere, large news organizations have a tendency to send in outside photographers, who can only “scratch the surface” of what the story might be.

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“Hiring locals is a super important thing,” Adams said. “Like, I’ve come across so often in my career, where national news organizations, they send up photographers [who] parachute in and they know nothing about Alaska.”

While the outsider photographer might be able to shoot the exterior of the house, Adams said, it’s the local who gets inside.

The Northern Light recently caught up with Adams and picked his brain about photography, gear and legacy.

TNL: Why do you think your photos have made such a deep connection with people?

Adams: Well, photo wise, that’s because they’re simple, direct photos. And I love simple, direct photos that tell as much as they possibly can with the one image. I think that helps, but mostly the reason why “I Am Inuit” did so well is because it’s people getting to speak for themselves. It’s not somebody telling you how it is. It’s the Inuit getting to actually tell their own stories and I think that was one of the main reasons why that project was so successful.

What are some of the challenges of shooting in the Arctic?

The challenge is just getting to know someone well enough in a fast amount of time so that they trust you to be able to come into their home and take pictures. I think it’s getting harder now for photographers to either gain that trust or even do street photos now, because I think with like the smartphone-digital-age, where everyone is taking selfies and photos all the time, I think people have less tolerance for it and not as much patience for it. I think they’re getting a little tired of it.

What about your photography are you most proud of?

I think it’s just the stories I’ve been able to tell. I think it’s being able to document Alaska as it is now, so we can look back on the past and see where we came from. I love looking at old photos. I love looking at photos from the 1800s of Alaska, or any historical photos really. I just hope 100 years from now someone’s looking at my photos and just being like “Whoa, crazy. What a crazy time we lived in.”

What gear do you use?

I’ve always shot film and for a lot of commercial work I use digital, but primarily all I’ve been using is film. I use a Hasselblad 503CW, so medium format. I use that and I use a Mamiya 6 which is another 6×6 medium format camera, but it’s a rangefinder so it’s a little bit easier to throw up to your eye and take a quick photo.

Why film in this day and age when it might be more of a challenge to work with?

For me, I have a harder time shooting digital. With film I’ve been using the equipment so long — I started off with film. But realistically, for me, it’s the workflow. I feel like I take better pictures when I’m shooting with film. I feel like I take a little bit more time, I slow down a little bit, I like the way the film looks. I feel like there’s more depth to the film than with digital. I feel like a lot of digital images, they come out very flat. I like the Hasselblad because it doesn’t take batteries and I never have to worry about batteries dying, which is awesome. It’s just an all mechanical camera that always works.

Why medium format?

I’ve always been drawn to medium format. I started off with a 35mm camera and it just never felt for me. And then when I was a teenager reading a skateboard magazine in high school, there was this interview between these two photographers and one of them was like “Dude, you gotta switch to the Hasselblad, you gotta switch to medium format, it’s just way higher quality.” I ended up borrowing one from my high school for like a year and I eventually bought my own. It just really worked with me.

What about a scene makes you hit the shutter?

It definitely is like a mental checklist. It’s something I’ve been working on for ten years now with the Hasselblad and looking through the square viewfinder. The sun’s gotta be in the right place. the light has to be right, the geometry and the symmetry has to be right for me to actually stop and take a photo for myself. I’m always aware of where the sun is, even on a cloudy day. I’m always chasing light. It’s something that I can’t turn off. It’s kind of like growing up as a street skateboarder, you’re always looking at things now as what’s possible on a skateboard. Even when I barely skate anymore, I’m like “That ledge looks cool. The runway’s good.” It’s something you can’t turn off when it’s been turned on for so long.

What kind of legacy would you like your photos to leave behind?

I want my kids to be proud of me. I just want those images to be like “Yeah, I was here and this is what I saw” and hopefully we can all learn from what we did in the past.