On a sunny Thursday in June 2016, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Enaudi alighted a boat in the archipelago of Svalbard for the concert of a lifetime. The sun was out, winds were relatively tame, and his support crew were keen to make the most of the moderate weather. Breathing warmth into his naked palms, Enaudi jumped onto an inflatable boat and approached his stage: a slim, white pontoon with a black bench and a baby grand piano gleaming in the weak Arctic light. Hunks of ice floated by as he played, and a massive glacier formed the backdrop to his haunting performance. Enaudi’s piece was titled “Elegy for the Arctic”, and was meant to raise awareness of the fragile state of this ecosystem.
Frailty, however, is not what most people associate with Svalbard. Located between Norway and the North Pole, the cluster of islands is a habitat of ice and rock, beautiful and brutal in equal measure. This is a high-altitude desert, where the average summer temperature is about 3 degrees C, and the winter temperature hovers around -13 degrees C (on a good day).
Such an extreme environment may seem inhospitable, and yet, it is rich in diversity. Seabirds flock to Svalbard in thousands, filling the smaller islands with their cacophony. Families of seals and whales thrive in the waters off the coast, and on land, reindeer and arctic fox forage for food in the mountains and valleys. There is a human settlement too: a town called Longyearbin that proudly proclaims it is the northernmost township on the planet. It has about 2,000-odd residents who are all legally required to carry a firearm when venturing outside the town limits, to keep safe from the polar bears that call the island home.
It is these wild habitants of the Arctic Tundra that drew photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee here in June 2017, one year after Enaudi’s surreal piano concert. Over the course of ten days, Dhritiman explored the islands’ fjords, glaciers, and seas by boat and on foot. Some days brought clear skies and good animal sightings, and others, he says, brought waves over six metres high that “made our boat feel like a matchbox in the ocean.”