Human Nature

Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge proves itself as a photographer's ideal subject

Atmos Energy expects to raise customers' bills by 60 to 90 percent this winter; TXU wants to raise its bills by 24 percent by January. It's costing $40 a week just to get to work. And all I want for Christmas are cheaper utility and gas station bills, but instead I'm trying to figure out how to make presents by recycling things I already have at home. Tin ornaments? Laundry-detergent bird feeder? Maracas made from stale rice and yogurt cups? But then there's still the matter of paying those energy bills. How much is plasma going for these days? What about on the black market? How much revenue does an ovary bring? Or two--they're a matched set. It's no wonder that when most people hear that there's oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they think, "Hell, yeah, start drilling." Oil at any cost as long as it means less cost to me, we think. It's hard to care about the means necessary when the end could mean less of a hit on the pocketbook. After last week, drilling in this (so far) protected zone is one step closer to happening because the Senate approved legislation to allow it. This week, a vote takes place in the House.

And sure to be part of this debate is Subhankar Banerjee. He's a scientist, but that has nothing to do with his involvement in oil drilling in Alaska. Five years ago he left Seattle's Boeing Corporation to be an artist. He bought lots of heavy clothes and other supplies needed to live in sub-zero temperatures, and he spent 14 months in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, photographing the ice, animals, plants (yes, there are plants) and people (yeah, people, too--thousands, in fact) that call this area about the size of South Carolina home. He slept in tents collapsing under the weight of snow to shoot--with a camera, of course--polar bears, one of three types of bears in the region. There are also caribou, sheep, musk oxen, bowhead whales and many types of birds, plus two tribes of about 15,000 people who still literally live off the land. That's why Banerjee has become part of the debate about drilling in the refuge's coastal plain. It's easier to vote for tearing up a piece of terrain when it seems like a cold, deserted wasteland. When it's teeming with life (from plant to animal to human), the decision is harder.

And Banerjee himself has come up for debate--not the artistic merit of his photographs, but the integrity of them. Some people desperately claim they're fakes--a manipulation to influence the vote and for bleeding hearts to use in their conservation efforts. But that wasn't his point. He only wanted to document an area of the world very different from his homeland of India or New Mexico where he attended school. But here he is in the middle of the great debate, much as Thomas Moran was when his paintings of the area that became Yellowstone National Park were part of those Congressional hearings. Will Banerjee's vivid UltraChrome prints of geese, bear tracks, caribou, ice caps, bodies of water and fields of non-stereotypical Arctic foliage change opinions? Can beautiful photographs of awe-inspiring landscapes jumpstart the hearts of oil-hungry legislators like the Whos in Whoville did to the Grinch? That's a lot to ask of a guy who just wanted to take some photos.

 
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