“Guðjón Þorsteinsson was walking along the shore at Dyrhólaey, hunting down a mink that had been wreaking havoc on his nesting eider ducks. His frequent companion on such outings was his dog, Gái, an accomplished mink-killer.”
It is thus that Ragnar Axelsson remembers his old friend. In this photograph from his book Faces of the North, the renowned Icelandic photographer frames Þorsteinsson, an elderly but youthful gentleman who lived at Garðakot in southern Iceland. For the latest instalment of NGTI Raw File—a series spotlighting the stories behind stunning travel photographs—we reached out to Axelsson, who is known for his prolific coverage of human stories in the Arctic, including Greenland, Siberia, and his native Iceland. For this monthly series, photographers share their most special shots with us, breaking down the stories behind them.
IN FOCUS: Ragnar Axelsson, 63, worked as a photojournalist for over 44 years, in addition to carrying out independent and freelance projects throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. For his work across remote swathes of land in the Arctic—photographing and documenting the landscape, human communities and animals of these regions—Axelsson was awarded the Order of the Falcon (Knight’s Cross), Iceland’s highest civilian honour. Currently, Axelsson is in the middle of a three-year project across eight Arctic countries to document the challenges to human survival posed by climate change.
SIGNATURE SHOT: The photograph in focus is an environmental portrait of Guðjón Þorsteinsson, a resident of a village in southern Iceland. Axelsson, who lived on the island, recalls making good friends with Guðjón and expressing the desire to photograph him. “Though Guðjón showed his age, he was agile and had a youthful way about him: he scaled the cliffs at Dyrhólaey and collected eggs from Lundadrangur rock arch as if it were a walk in the park,” recalls Axelsson.
On his fourth visit to the island and after a few instances where he would photograph the elderly man, the photographer accompanied Guðjón on a hunt for for a mink who had been killing his eider ducks.
“The air was misty and the surf was roaring. Heavy waves crashed over the boulders lining the coast below a nesting eider. Guðjón crouched beside the bird and spoke, ‘This duck must be psychic or at least very good at predicting the weather,’ Guðjón said. ‘There might be a nasty storm where the waves reach way up the shore’.”
“Guðjón and I walked home from the shore along a winding road. Gái, the dog, had managed to kill two minks. Guðjón peered up to the mountains with a knowing look in his eye, as if he had seen someone he recognised: a spirit that followed us along. When I took his picture, it was as though time stood still: he seemed immortal, as if part of the landscape and the mountains, a creature of nature who descended only briefly to the human world to lift our spirits,” Axelsson recounts.
Guðjón died in 2006 at the age of 81.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.