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


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.”

Iceberg 14 was in good position to have harpooned this bowhead. John Hopson Jr was driving the boat, Jerry Ahmaogak manning the harpoon and Stanley Brower the shoulder gun. Before sending them out, Captain Jason Ahmaogak gave John strict orders not to harpoon any whale over 35 feet. After the first whale had been put up in the ice cellar, from where it will periodically be drawn upon feed the community throughout the year, there was room for a 35 foot whale and nothing larger. John could tell this whale was well into the 40 foot range, so he let it pass. Not long afterward, Iceberg 6, captained by the oldest active whaling captain, Jack Panik, 69, received the gift of a 43 foot, 8 inch bowhead. Due to a high wind forecast that renders the ice we were camped on too dangerous to be on, we are back on shore – maybe until after graduation ceremonies at Alak school tomorrow evening. My iPhone battery was dead for almost two full days. Those last couple of days out there, wonderful! Beautiful! Blessed! It was cold. I'm not sure it ever got above single digits and I am sure it dropped below zero. There were a few times I worried I might be in danger of hypothermia in a few hours but then we would see another whale and I would warm right up. #bowhead #whale #iñupiat #iñupiatwhaling #bowheadwhaling #iñupiatbowheadwhaling #wainwright #olgoonik #ulgunik #alaska

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On the first day of whaling in 1995, I landed my since-crashed little Citabria at the Wainwright airstrip and then began a walk around the village, hoping a whaling crew would invite me to follow. After I had circled nearly the whole village and would soon have no place to go but back to my airplane, I came upon Ben Ahmaogak Sr and crew loading up, getting ready to go down. We chatted for a few minutes, but to ask if I could join them seemed like too rude of a thing to do. "You want to follow?" Ben asked. I stayed with Ben, wife Florence and Iceberg 14 for an often cold and physically challenging but wonderful month. Ben and Iceberg 14 landed this whale. Florence passed away in 2007 and Ben in 2008. I came for both funerals. I got to witness Jason and other grandchildren go out at 3:00 AM the morning after they buried their grandfather and help the crew of Walter Nayakik bring in a bowhead. Ben had designated his grandson Jason and daughter Mary Ellen to be co-captains. I had planned to come back in 2009 to document the shift in generations, but took a bad fall, shattered my shoulder and it had to be replaced with titanium. I postponed it for another time, but other things kept diverting me elsewhere. To my great shock and disbelief, I find myself turning into an old man. I turn 67 just two-and-a-half months from. So I came this year, just in case I am not strong enough next. I am proud of the young whalers who have succeeded Ben and Florence. They are tough. They are smart. They are knowledgeable. They are determined. They all get along. There is no fighting and bickering among them. A quarter century ago I heard someone say, "this culture is dying. Twenty-five years from they won't be whaling anymore…" That person knew nothing. He did not know about the strong hearts that beat in the chests of these young hunters of today. #olgoonik #ulgunik #wainwright #arctic #alaska #iñupiatwhaling #iñupiatbowheadwhaling #bowheadwhaling #generations #carryingon

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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.

Remember earlier today when I posted the pic I took yesterday of the dog paw prints on the bike trail and said I didn't plan to take any pictures until evening when I would take a drive, photograph one person and then turn around and drive right back? That's just what I did and this is the person, VIP baby Julianna at 23 hours old. As you can see, I actually photographed two people, Julianna and her mother Jeri Dee Bodfish. If you want to get technical on me, then there are two more people in the picture as well – John Hopson Jr, ready to harpoon the third whale that came to Iceberg 14, the crew captained by Julianna's dad, Jason Ahmaogak this past spring, as well as Julianna's aunt Mary Ellen Ahmaogak. I can't jump up from my computer and make a quick drive to the Alaska Native Medical Center every time someone I know has a baby. I would like to, but I just can't. I did for Julianna because in 1995, Jason's grandpa – his Aapa Ben Ahmaogak, her great-grandpa, founder of Iceberg 14 not only brought me into his tent, home, and boat for the whaling season, but he and wife Florence adopted me and this means something to me. Ben designated Jason and Mary Ellen to be Iceberg 14 co-captains, so when I learned Julianna had been born and her parents would likely take her back to Wainwright tomorrow, I had to go in and get the picture. At first, I took the usual kind of pictures, but I wanted one that said Julianna had been born into a whaling family. But how, in a regular hospital room? I tried a couple with her father's big, strong, hand on her abdomen, but lots of people have big, strong, hands. Then Jason got his phone out to show me videos from last spring… I make no prophecies, predictions or place any expectations upon Julianna, (who is also Qignalliaq – Aqpayuk – Nashoalook) but I will note Mary Ellen has harpooned bowhead. #baby #newborn #iñupiatbowheadhunt #iñupiatbowheadwhaling #wainwrightalaska olgoonikalaska #anmc #anchorage #alaska

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“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.