A photographer, Instagram and the whaling life of Alaska’s North Slope

By Julia O'Malley - May 7, 2017


Bill Hess, a longtime photographer of Alaska’s Inupiat whaling culture, began posting regularly on Instagram in 2013 and 2014, when he was recovering from a couple of surgeries. He had time then, he said, to use the app to explore the work of other photographers, and soon he began to post himself.

“Probably 80 percent of what I posted was from my recliner,” he said.

Hess’s most famous book, “Gift of the Whale,” is an intimate, carefully curated portrait of Arctic whaling life in 1980s and ’90s, shot on film in black and white. On Instagram, he started out with the mundane, informal stuff of life: pictures of his morning coffee, the moose in his backyard, his grandkids and his cat Carizzo.


After he recovered and returned to the Arctic, where he is working on a long-term project documenting the latest generation of whalers, he found himself reaching for his phone more.

“I’m just thinking about what I see in front of me, that’s all,” he said. “To me the iPhone camera is just another photographic tool, right along side my Canons.”



His feed grew into a mix of regular scenes from the urban life of a grandfather in his 60s and informal outtakes from life in far-north villages where he is deeply connected after decades of photographing there.


What he posts on his feed isn’t his best documentary photo work, he said. Rather, he makes and posts images as a way to connect with people. No matter what type of photo he is making, emotional content is most important, he said.

This spring, when he arrived in Wainwright, he wasn’t going to post too much (one danger of paying too much attention to your phone is that you miss things with your camera), but people encouraged him, he said.


“I always make a few little posts, saying I’m going here, I’m going there,” he said. “This time three or four different people from Wainwright who are not in the village said, ‘We really like seeing what you’re doing, it helps keep us connected,’ … To me, it doesn’t really matter if the outside world, the world at large, sees what I’m doing. I’m posting for people connected to the village.”

It used to be that rural Alaskans communicated mainly by VHF and news came over the local public radio station, he said. Now, social media, Facebook especially, has become major connector people rely on. His Instagram posts are always re-posted on Facebook for that reason. Facebook is where the images reach the most people across the far north region.


He seldom uses Instagram’s filters.

“You know I’m a documentary photographer at heart and I like what I post to be what I see,” he said. “Those filters change the content of the photo.”


When his latest work is complete, he will include some iPhone photographs, he said. They have their own look to them. Shooting on the ice is difficult, equipment wise. A cold camera fogs up when taken in a warm tent, so when he has been on the ice, he has been using his phone in the tent. He likes that the phone is unobtrusive.


“I’m getting to the point where, I hate to say it, but I’m starting to grow old. My Canons have gotten really heavy,” he said. “Sometimes I fantasize about throwing my cameras away and just using my phone and nothing else.”


Julia O’Malley is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage. She was longtime columnist and reporter at the Anchorage Daily News and is currently the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage.