The winner of the 2nd prize in the DNRF’s Photo Competition 2021 is a photograph of the annual national sled dog race shot shortly after the starting point in Ilulissat, Greenland, in 2018. The picture was taken by Carsten Egevang, a photographer and researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who was part of the procurement of the interdisciplinary research project called QIMMEQ about the sled dogs’ origin and history.
At first glance, it isn’t clear what we’re seeing in the picture. Some may see a flock of birds flying over a cold and colorless sky, while others might see a music note with a fragment of a soundless melody. But if you look closer, you will soon see that the obvious moment that dominates the picture doesn’t come from a winged animal or any musical tone, but instead shows sled dogs racing in an as yet unknown snowy landscape. The winner of the 2nd prize in the DNRF’s Photo Competition is a picture of the annual sled dog race in Greenland shot shortly after the starting point in 2018. The picture was part of the procurement of the interdisciplinary research project called QIMMEQ about the sled dogs’ origin and history.
“As part of the project, we all went to the yearly sled dog race in Greenland, where coaches from all around Greenland gather every year. This time it was in Ilulissat in the central part of West Greenland. There were thirty sleds in total that qualified for the race, and I succeeded in capturing twenty-four of them in one picture. You are allowed to have ten dogs on every sled, and from there on it is just about getting going. The picture was taken just a few seconds after the sound of the starting point,” said Carsten Egevang.
The picture, named” THE RACE,” was taken in the context of the interdisciplinary research project QIMMEQ based on groundbreaking DNA research and crosses the fields of anthropology, archeology, veterinarian medicine, and biology to examine Greenland’s sled dogs, looking at the overall picture of their origin and history. Egevang’s role was to control the visual profile in the project. In contrast to the typical approach found in many research projects, Egevang and the rest of the research team had stored a relatively large number of resources for the procurement ahead of the project’s start. They knew that they would need a lot of visual material because there were already plans for a schoolbook, photobook, exhibition, and a campaign on social media. The decision to do it backwards made all the difference according to Egevang, especially in regard to breaking through in Greenland’s society.
“Out of all the research projects that I have worked with, I have never worked with anything that had such a big recognizability as this project has. Everyone in Greenland knew about us. We are talking about sled coaches from the smallest towns and all the way up to the top of the political landscape, just because sled dogs are something that everyone has an interest in. This has been a completely conscious strategy from our side,” said Egevang.
A changing landscape
Most of the annual races in Greenland stretch over 40-45 km. Back in the day, they were held on sea ice, but over time, and because of climate change, most of the races, like the one in Ilulissat where the picture was taken, are held on land.
” Over the last decades, the situation has changed a lot for Greenland’s hunters and dog sled racers, as climate changes affect the sea ice the most. Therefore, there are only a small number of places where you can do races on the sea ice the way they did it in the old days. Partly, it is getting warmer, and partly there is a lot of unpredictability regarding when or not there is ice,” said Egevang.
The picture has been used to show this. It shows how things have changed in Greenland over the last couple of years, and how Greenlanders use the dogs differently compared to before. Before, sled dogs were only work tools used either for transport or for subsistence hunting. But over the last couple of years, the sled dog race has become more and more popular in Greenland.
“When the annual sled dog race is held, the local television channel clears all its programs to be able to broadcast live from the event. So this is really something that is popular among the population. This picture is a part of the project’s goal to show how there has been a change in the way they use the dogs and how other things come into play as well now. Greenland’s sled dogs have been isolated from other dogs for many years. It is therefore the most original dog race in the world. It is the closest thing one will ever get to an ancient dog,” said Egevang.
This is partly because of Greenland’s society, which has been isolated based on its geographical location. But 120-130 years ago they also drew a line in Greenland that would divide the dogs, so there would only be sled dogs north of this line. This means that it is a very pure dog race. But the moment you start using the dogs for racing, you start to breed them along parameters other than endurance, which is what the dogs were previously used for in Greenland. For example, this involves shorter fur and longer legs, so the dogs will run faster.
“You could say that when the use of the dog changes, it poses a potential threat to that dog type that is otherwise unique by maybe mixing it with other dogs to breed different qualities. This has been seen in Canada, where the use of the dog is completely different than in Greenland. The traditional use of hunters is almost extinct, and they use the dogs for recreational purposes, among others, by using them for sled dog races. There, they have bred the dogs to become really fast, and they have almost taken the shape of Greyhounds: they become very thin, but they can’t endure the cold the same way, and they don’t have the same endurance that the sled dogs in Greenland have,” said Egevang.
No place like Greenland
Carsten Egevang’s research has always been about Greenland. Ever since he was a teenager, he has been fascinated by the country, and all of his work as a researcher and photographer is based in Greenland. Therefore, he and his research colleagues have applied for funding for a new project in Greenland, this time about the hunters and the subsistence hunting culture. The project is built around the same template as QIMMEQ, and Egevang will once again act as the project’s photographer, as well as an editor on an already scheduled book release.
“In my opinion, there isn’t anywhere else in the world that can be compared to Greenland in regard to the beautiful nature, and the roughness that is found in the nature, as well as the adjustments you see in the animals and for that matter the people that live there too. It demands a special knowledge that has to be developed over many generations, if you want to be able to live in that environment. And the people up here have internalized it. I’m always left impressed time after time,” said Egevang.