Reuben Wu on photographing Svalbard
In 2011, English photographer Reuben Wu visited Svalbard, the Arctic archipelago located midway between Norway and the North Pole. There he captured the terrifying and beautiful extremes of the islands in a brilliant collection of photographs, some of which can be viewed below. Here, arts editor Jordan Ogg asks him why he chose to visit the barren islands at the edge of the world.
"I first heard of Svalbard when I was researching locations in the Arctic to photograph. I was interested primarily in settlements in remote and extreme locations, the scarcity of light over winter and the strangeness of the landscape. What also drew me was the history and the preserved remains of abandoned mining towns in even farther flung areas of the archipelago, and places which are simply there because of the remoteness, like the Global Seed Vault.
"I initially went to Tromsø at the northern tip of the Norwegian mainland in February 2010. The low angle of the sun all day really altered my sense of time and bathed the whole city in such an incredible hue, but I wanted to go even further north and to leave behind the environment of a city. It was the next year when I was able to go to Spitsbergen, in February, just as the sun starts to emerge after months of darkness. My friend and I barely spent any time in the largest town of Longyearbyen, as we were out 'in the field' going cross-country on snowmobiles and sleeping in tiny sheds. The sun was even lower than it had been in Tromsø, barely skimming the horizon."
JO: People who journey so far north often speak of having special experiences in relation to nature, place, space and time. Is this something you can identify with?
"Svalbard isn't a place where people live in comfort. Longyearbyen is an inhospitable place in the winter time. It is the only place in the world where natural burial is illegal, as the environmental conditions mean that dead bodies simply will not decompose. Out in the field, it really came to me that I was in a completely alien place. No settlements, no other travellers, no trees. The only sign of humanity were ruined trappers' huts and ghost towns.
"Humans don't belong there and they can't survive without huge effort. I found that I had stopped thinking about life at home and had become completely absorbed by the environment – a bizarre sensory deprivation where I became unable to judge the existence of anything apart from the shape of my travelling companion in front of me. My whole experience there seemed hallucinatory, yet it felt more real than any other place I've travelled to."
JO: If you could go back again, what would you take with you and what would you leave behind?
"I would like to go back with more time on my hands. A week didn't really cut it. It's a relatively small island but there is so much to see and it's very difficult to get to those often remote places, especially in winter. For example I'd like to spend a couple of nights at the abandoned town of Pyramiden and visit Barentsburg. I'd also leave all the cameras at home which broke in the bitter cold. Unfortunately I still don't have a camera that I can completely rely on in these conditions."
JO: What’s are your lasting impressions?
"The northern lights, finally making a surprise appearance the night before we left, and, the vivid memory of speeding along the frozen Tempelfjord towards the setting sun, cutting through swathes of golden spindrift."
JO: I’ve been looking around your website and notice several images of abandoned buildings. What draws you to these spaces?
"I like JG Ballard, Philip K Dick and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky amongst others. A lot of my visual inspiration comes from those stories and the themes of ruin, decay and time run through a lot of them. I think abandoned buildings separate themselves from their original purpose of existence by the path of time. They signify that everything will come to an end, and we only have a short time to look around before we die.
"Hitler once told Albert Speer to design his buildings in a way that they would make 'good ruins'. It's totally bizarre and terrifying to consider any building in use now as a future ruin."
Click on any thumbnail to view the full size gallery.
Reuben Wu was born in 1975 and grew up in North West England. He graduated from Sheffield Hallam University in 1997 and later studied at Liverpool University before becoming an industrial designer. Aside from his photography, he is a producer, musician and DJ with synth-pop group Ladytron.
More of Reuben's photographs can be viewed at reubenwu.com