A Conversation With Julia de Cooker About Photographing the World’s Most Northerly Town

Julia de Cooker talks photography and the four years making “Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life”

Julia de Cooker   |   LONGYEARBYEN


 

Julia de Cooker is a photographer from France who spent four years making trips to the northern archipelago Svalbard of Norway to make large format images around Longyearbyen, the most northerly town in the world. A town with no tradition and people from all walks of life, Julia’s photo book “Svalbard, An Arcticficial Life” is a story told through her lens of a seemingly ordinary town in very extraordinary circumstances.

An island without a single tree, nobody is born or dies there, everything is imported, there are 2300 residents who hail from 40 different countries and it all makes for a town so atypical and yet still familiar. A truly unique part of the world, Julia de Cooker has distilled this conflicting identity aptly and the results are captivating and fantastic.

Julia took some time between working on her next project in the Pacific Islands to answer some questions for Gobe about her photographic process and what it was like spending four years completing a photo book project.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Grøndalen II” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

How are you Julia? Where are you writing me from and what’s happening in your world right now?

 

Julia de Cooker:

Hello! I am doing pretty well thank you. I am writing from Funafuti, Tuvalu, where I have already spent a couple of weeks working on my new photo project.

 

Gobe:

What gets you up in the morning and what is the first thing you do?

 

Julia:

A bit like anybody else I guess, my alarm gets me up and the first thing I do is coffee!

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Antenna Ny-Ålesund” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Jeanette” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Cemetery” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

When did you start making photos, was there an initial reason or inspiration?

 

Julia:

I decided I wanted to become a photographer when I was around eight years old. I have always been fascinated by light and images. I got my very first camera when I was nine, and later on, my dad offered me his old Nikon FM and let me arrange a darkroom in the bathroom. I was 15. I learnt a lot more by developing photos in the dark than by actually taking them. I really didn’t know what to photograph to be honest, it was just the whole making part the process that I enjoyed.

 

“As a photographer I intend to reveal the world as I see it, it is a question of point of view and sensitivity. Sharing these photographs only allows people to see things from a different angle, and for some to just discover a part of the world they may never have heard of.”

 

Gobe:

You recently released a book of photographs from the mysterious region of Svalbard in the curious town of Longyearbyen. What was your initial spark of interest to document life in Longyearbyen?

 

Julia:

Before going to Longyearbyen I read a lot about Svalbard’s history and how it changed and evolved in the last two decades. I thought first that I was going to work on the cohabitation of the Norwegians and the Russians on the island. I took my first trip in October 2013 and completely changed my focus. Once in Longyearbyen, I was really surprised to find such a strange place this far North. Daily life in Longyearbyen is identical (with a few exceptions) to what we know at our latitudes. Its strangeness resides mostly in its geographical position, but not only. The northernmost city of our planet holds 2300 inhabitants coming from all over the world. It appears like a melting pot where respect and mutual support is the motto. Svalbard never knew any indigenous population, which means that it is one of the very few places in the world without traditions from the past. Everything is new, everything has to be built or imported, and its modernity and comfort contrast with the strong polar wilderness surrounding. With my work “Svalbard – An Arcticficial life” I wanted to share the feeling of an unexpected place.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Colesbukta” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooke

“Tellbreen Camp” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooke

 

Gobe:

You have mentioned that your photo book does not intend to provide answers to the questions one might have of the less than ordinary town, but more a curation of your personal perspective and views. What was your motivation for sharing these photographs and is there a message you wanted to convey?

 

Julia:

This kind of work is at the edge between documentary and art. I am not documenting in terms of providing information, details and answers about the place, but my work has a documentary dimension as the place I am presenting does exist. It is real, right there, at the very North of our planet. As a photographer I intend to reveal the world as I see it, it is a question of point of view and sensitivity. Sharing these photographs only allows people to see things from a different angle, and for some to just discover a part of the world they may never have heard of.

 

“When you pass the feeling of amazement – that we usually have when discovering something new – you start noticing the contradictions that are inherent to any human culture but appears in different ways.”

 

Gobe:

You have said that your main interest in photography has always been viewing humans interact with nature, how did your time making this book influence your views?

 

Julia:

It made me want to know more. More places. Different places. It’s only when you take your time to know someplace, to dig more and more information, when you have stayed long enough to adopt the way of living that you can really understand the uniqueness of a place and how people interact with it. I am trying not to become too pessimistic, but when you pass the feeling of amazement – that we usually have when discovering something new– you start noticing the contradictions that are inherent to any human culture but appears in different ways.

 

Gobe:

Do you believe photography and art are important to highlight the importance of conservation and protection of nature and the lands it abounds in? If so, why?

 

Julia:

I do. It is an invitation to contemplation. Showing with images is sometimes stronger than words, especially today where everything has to go fast. Art invites you to slow down and brings awareness of today’s matters. Many photographers can raise ecological and political questions, sometimes in an implicit way.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Dead Reindeer” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Road to Mine 7” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

Did you intend to publish a book from the beginning of this project?

 

Julia:

Yes, I did. I thought of the whole project as a book and I have been working on the photos as a story.

 

Gobe:

Do you have any thoughts or advice for photographers aspiring to get a publishing deal for documentary work like yours?

 

Julia:

I can’t consider my trajectory as an example so I don’t really have advice. But what helped me during the whole project was to focus on what made a deep sense to me.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“The Bathers” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

Coal Conveyor Barentsburg from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

You spent four years working on the project, what were your biggest challenges that presented themselves along the way?

 

Julia:

I have learnt to take things slow. When I started this project I thought it would be done within a year, which obviously didn’t happen. I think the biggest challenge was to pursue the project until I had the feeling that it was done, that the story I wanted to tell existed. But it was at the same time challenging to know where to stop. This kind of projects can go on for years, there is always something more to tell, something new.

 

© Julia de Cooker

Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“The Priest” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

How were you received by the residents of the town?

 

Julia:

Most of them were enthusiastic about the book, and the exhibition. I was touched when some people told me that it was the first time they saw Svalbard photographed this way and that I captured the singularity of that place.

 

Gobe:

Did you develop personal relationships with any of these intriguing characters during your time there?

 

Julia:

I actually did. The girl in the bar became a very close friend of mine, and I keep in good contact with some of them.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Tellbreen” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Nick’s Limo” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

Do you have a favourite photograph from the series?

 

Julia:

When I shot the limo –the only staged photo that isn’t a portrait– I had the feeling that the photo was going to be the emblem of the whole series. I thought about this photograph for days and days before I could actually make it, and I knew it was going to be a strong statement. But almost every photo brings up a special memory, the recollection of many feelings.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Lenin, Barentsburg” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Longyearbyen at Night” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:
I’m curious about your process, you shot the project on film (From what I can tell…), did you develop or scan the photographs yourself? How much time was spent on the project outside of actually making the photographs?

 

Julia:

I am no longer developing the photos but I am indeed doing the scans myself. It has been a very long process. For the whole project (three trips) I may have collected around 350/400 photos. So the editing part was really long. We’re counting in months.

 

Gobe:

What was your favoured gear setup?

 

Julia:

I love the relationships I have with the image when I shoot in large format with the Toyo CF45.

 

Gobe:

Who or what are some of your inspirations?

 

Julia:

I am a huge fan of Joel Sternfeld.

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Polar Garden” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

© Julia de Cooker

“Barentsburg at Night” from Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life. © Julia de Cooker

 

Gobe:

What personal projects can we look forward to from you next, what are you enjoying exploring at the moment?

 

Julia:

I have traded the polar climate for something warmer for now. The island I am focusing on now is much smaller. The story to tell will be different, but in a very weird, way the work in Svalbard keeps inhabiting me.

 

Gobe:

What’s the last film you watched that left a lasting impression on you?

 

Julia:

The Rider, written and directed by Chloé Zhao.
It was, in my point of view, a very sensitive, rightful and intelligent film.

 

You can purchase your very own copy of the book Julia de Cooker  “Svalbard – An Arcticficial Life” right here and from selected art bookstores across the globe. I thoroughly recommend doing so, print is dead long live print and all of that.

 

 


 

F U L L  N A M E

Julia de Cooker

 

juliadecooker.com   |   @juliadecooker

 

H O M E T O W N

France

 

T H E  B O O K

Svalbard: An Arcticficial Life

 


For more conversations with inspiration photographers and dreamers you can peruse through our interviews page.


 

 

By | 2018-12-05T00:28:44+00:00 October 30th, 2018|Categories: Best of the best, Interviews, Photography|Tags: , , , , , |