Santa Fe, NMLannan Foundation announced that it has awarded its first Cultural Freedom Fellowship to Subhankar Banerjee, a wilderness photographer based in Bellevue, Washington, who is working to increase public awareness about issues that threaten the health and well-being of the planet.
Mr. Banerjee’s current work involves advocating for permanent protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, located in the remote northeast corner of Alaska. Over a period of two years he traveled approximately 4,000 miles photographing the vast wilderness of the refuge, one of the most breathtaking, pristine and culturally significant ecosystems in the world. This land is considered sacred by the Gwich’in people who reside in Alaska and Canada, but industry lobbyists have long attempted to persuade the United States government to open up the refuge to drilling for oil and gas.
Mr. Banerjee, who is from Kolkata (Calcutta) India, received $100,000 to continue his work to protect the Arctic and to study other topics related to the environmental and social effects of globalization. In addition to the fellowship, Lannan is also providing financial and technical support to promote the story of his Arctic journey by funding a lecture tour and a series of exhibitions of his photographs. Mr. Banerjee’s lecture tour is based on the book Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land (The Mountaineers Books, 2003), which features his photographs and essays by prominent conservationists advocating for permanent protection of the refuge.
“We are extremely pleased to award the first Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship to Subhankar Banerjee,” said foundation president Patrick Lannan. “Subhankar is more than a conservationisthe is a cultural freedom fighter who points out the importance of interdependent relationships between land, water, wildlife, and the various human cultures that make up the world. At his own personal expense, he gave up a lucrative career in the field of computer science and went into debt to finance his visit to the refuge. His spectacular photographs achieved what others could not - exposing the lie that the Arctic Refuge is a frozen wasteland - put forth by those who place short-term profit above cultural diversity and the health of the planet.”
The phrase ‘Cultural Freedom’ is a wonderful oneI take it to mean freedom to continue one’s way of life. The word ‘culture’ to me signifies both cultures of our own species as well as various cultures of all other living beings with whom we share this planet, and their freedom to continue their ways of lives. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to experience such a freedom—a pacific loon that I saw nesting up there on the bank of a lake on the coastal tundra is a species that is 20 million years old. It is the same place where the Inupiats and Gwich’in have subsisted for over 10,000 yearsnature and culture living in harmony for all these years that we may disrupt and ruin because of the profit and greed of a few. — Subhankar Banerjee
Listen to Subhankar Banerjee talk about cultural freedom (duration: 2:13):
Subhankar Banerjee Photographs of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
Polar Bear Den
Arctic Refuge is the only national conservation area in the United States where polar bears regularly den. The coastal plain is the most consistently used land denning area for polar bears of the Beaufort Sea. The pregnant bears dig their dens in November, then give birth to one or two tiny cubs in December or January. The mothers nurse and care for the young at the den until March or early April.
“A thin ice fog moves in, shrouding the snow covered coastal plain. The sky is deep pink and the large yellow ball of the midnight sun looms over the herd. I imagine being transported back to the Pleistocene era with these ice age survivors.”
Autumn on Taiga
“The autumn colors on the taiga rival the hardwood forests of New England. There is the flame orange of dwarf birch, bright crimson of the bearberry, gold of willow and birch, and pale yellow of lichens all contrasted by the dark green of solitary spruce trees lightly scattered about the land.”
Named after the Porcupine River, the 120,000 strong Porcupine caribou herd migrates throughout the refuge and northwestern Canada. The females come to the coastal plain to give birth in late May and early June. The annual migration of this herd is the reason the refuge is sometimes called, America’s Serengeti. The Gwich’in Athabascan people of Alaska and Canada have depended on this herd for food, clothing and cultural identity for thousands of years.
“The refuge is so remote and untamed that many peaks, valleys, and lakes are still without names and shall remain that way. Marsh fleabane cluster along the lakeshore, while Nichenthraw Mountain and spruce trees are reflected on the calm water of early morning.”
Dall Sheep, dwellers of the Alpine Brooks Range
“On a cold, crisp November morning, I leave Robert’s house to visit the cemetery only a few hundred yards away. The cemetery is marked by a pair of bowhead whale jawbones; the scene is silent. This is a sign of reverence, I think—a sign of the relationship the Inupiats have with the whale.”
“We have a unique opportunity to preserve something that is in danger of vanishing—a whole and natural place, a true wilderness, where the birds are at home and we are visitors.”
“How to hunt and fish—that’s all my people know. That’s the only life we know and that’s the only food we have, so we don’t want to loose that.”
Jago River Valley
“The unending view across the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the homeland of the Inupiat and the Gwich’in is magnificent. Countless rivers, streams, and creeks flow either south into the Yukon River and distant Bering Sea, or north toward the ice-mantled Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean.”