New on Sidetracked:

  • NORWAYFINAL-17-ed
  • Ten
  • IMG_6322

Rough. Real. Remote.

Mads Pihl takes us behind the scenes of the creation and logistics of this extraordinary series.

It’s not always easy for people to understand that producing photos and film in Greenland is a permanent backcountry experience. Most of those I talk to with little or no knowledge of the country will look at the map and go: “Oh, but there must be a road so we can go there or there, right?”  Well… no.

Here, we work in conditions where long hikes, endless boat rides through remote fjord systems, weeks of camping out, and getting along with a rough Arctic climate is all part of the package. These are also the conditions I work under in my everyday life as a destination and location manager, and photographer.  Quite a fun job to be honest – particularly as we are rewarded with stunning landscapes, northern lights and spectacular ice caps.

In late 2010 we started a project to share our remote region here in Greenland through a series of documented adventure journeys and, after the first series debuted in the summer of 2011 with six winter short films, we decided that we’d put a film crew, three adventure travellers, and quite a few locals through a second round of challenging backcountry film and photo productions.

On board we also had Red Bull trial biker Petr Kraus, literally half a ton of gear, including three mountainbikes, and a Red Epic camera setup – and there I was, the local destination manager who also doubles as the adventure photographer while making sure that the logistics are squared away and the locations are set up and ready.

The trip we took involved a core crew of seven people and a 20 day trip through a small Greenlandic region about the size of Greece.

I can’t help also being the adventure traveler while I am photographing. I too want to ride that mountain bike, hike up on that glacier, kayak one of the longest fiords in the country, and sit down for a plate of barbecued seal with locals in a hunting and fishing community.

Rough Real RemoteRough Real RemoteRough Real RemoteRough Real Remote
You cannot be deeply emotionally involved in something and understand that you’re deeply emotionally involved at the same time – Franz Brentano

10,000 people live in 8 scattered towns and villages only connected by sea and sporadic flights along this rugged coastline, the Arctic Circle cuts right through the region and, even though it was August, we set off not really knowing what the weather would throw at us or if we’d get stuck somewhere for days because a plane, a boat or something else was unable to pick us up. 

We had called the project Rough. Real. Remote. Our goal was to tell the story of a rough yet beautiful landscape, the people who inhabit it, and the remoteness of a country built upon hunting, fishing, and a 4,500 year old love affair with the Arctic climate. For me, as a photographer, this meant trying to capture that trilogy of experiences and emotions in photos while the film crew worked on their six part narrative about the journey of three friends.

The only trouble with that sort of work was and will always be that I can’t help also being the adventure traveler while I am photographing. I too want to ride that mountain bike, hike up on that glacier (oh, THAT glacier… you mean the Greenland Ice Cap? Uhh, yes!), kayak one of the longest fiords in the country, and sit down for a plate of barbecued seal with locals in a hunting and fishing community.

But of course I can’t. There is a limit to how much it is possible to get immersed in an activity when you also have to find a way to tell a visual story of what it feels like. Or to paraphrase the philosopher Franz Brentano: ”You cannot be deeply emotionally involved in something and understand that you’re deeply emotionally involved at the same time”.

Some might say that is too bad, and then opt for the emotions triggered by raw adventure, but for me the emotional part is connecting a backcountry experience in the company of great friends, taking photos and documenting how people, landscapes, and wildlife interact.

I love photography, and I loved taking part in an adventure like this trip where people enjoy being part of a wider frame and do their best to produce strong images and tell great stories.

And in that light we couldn’t have chosen a better context than this trip, which began in Greenland’s main international airport, Kangerlussuaq, a town consisting of 550 people, a huge runway at the bottom of a 180 kilometer long fiord, and the Ice Cap always on the horizon 25 kilometers to the East.

This place is known for a super stable inland climate, 300 days of sunshine every year, and great conditions for shooting late summer bike action and glacier hiking. Of course, being known for something does not mean that you deliver on every occasion, and just to get things going in the right vein we spent the first 40 hours of the trip sitting inside soggy camp tents and our small 4WD bus at a glacier front in the backcountry in driving rain desperately watching valuable production days washed down the river in front of the glacier wall.

Rough Real RemoteRough Real RemoteRough Real RemoteRough Real Remote

I don’t think anyone in that bus can say they didn’t for a moment think that we’d all done a year of preparations in vein, but as the weather finally cleared we went into hyperdrive and shot from 5AM till 11PM for two days, capturing great moments of action, silence, beauty and adventure along the edge of the world’s second largest glacier. We were there, and the project was moving. The sense of elation was a strong as the glare from the Ice Cap.

Moving on with our itinerary I had to step out of my photographer role more than a few times to deal with changes in logistics, various crew and stakeholder interpretations of what ”good enough” meant, a washed out road and a missing bridge that forced us to completely rewrite three days along the way – going from hiking into musk ox territory to kayaking along the shores of the Kangerlussuaq fiord – and a number of near-war like clashes over what constitutes proper food for real people… 

And I guess that is just the nature of working up here. You cannot assign yourself just one role. While you might be a filmmaker, photographer, trial biker or adventure traveler you’re always also the handyman, the friend, the chef, the porter, the diplomat, the driver, the optimist, and the repairman of stuff you never knew you could repair.

That is how we worked, and I might have been in charge of both logistics and project execution, but honestly, I had more than my share of moments where someone had to pull me aside and tell me ”look, just go easy on this. Why don’t you take some photos for a while and get your mind off this issue?”. Our passion for the project was as immense as our passion for our country, our people and our environment. We strived to succeed.

In the end we came away with an experience that not only helped change the way we produce adventure films here in our region but I also believe that we got off to a good start in telling a story about a faraway corner of the world that very few people know about.

While you might be a filmmaker, photographer, trial biker or adventure traveler you’re always also the handyman, the friend, the chef, the porter, the diplomat, the driver, the optimist, and the repairman of stuff you never knew you could repair.

Rough Real RemoteRough Real RemoteRough Real RemoteRough Real Remote


Simon Urwin

Mads was once a social anthropologist but six years in Sisimiut, Greenland
has transformed him into a bottom-up oriented destination and location manager with a passion for photography.

He has never led an expedition anywhere and will never ascend an impossible peak in a faraway land, but he loves bringing skilled people together to make things happen on the ground that benefit both small local companies and large international stakeholders while doing his best to help promote the amazing adventures in Greenland.

Find out more about Mads via his website: www.northbound.gl or follow him on Twitter @northboundphoto

Share