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Canadian documentary photographer Louie Palu tells the stories of his time in the Arctic to photograph the military and local volunteers as they train in extreme cold weather

It’s not easy to produce big, bold journalism of the sort featured in today’s special section, The Frozen Front Line. Photojournalist Louie Palu travelled to the Arctic 24 times over five years to capture these images – more than 150,000 photographs in all – of how Canada and its allies are bracing for an unknown future wrought by climate change.

Over the course of the project, which was supported by grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Pulitzer Center, Palu flew nearly 170,000 kilometres, roughly four times the circumference of the Earth.

Palu has been a photojournalist for 30 years, and he’s no stranger to challenging assignments. Before embarking on his Arctic project, Palu spent five years covering the war in Afghanistan. From 2006 to 2010, he accompanied NATO and Afghan troops on hundreds of patrols and combat missions – and he says that getting to the front lines of insurgent-held territory there was easier than capturing some of the photographs in this series. “In the Arctic, nature is completely in control,” he says. “You must respect and understand what this place is, or it will kill you. There are not many places like that.”

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But the travel logistics are just one part of the story. The technical challenges of shooting in temperatures as low as -60 C – when frostbite can set in within two minutes – were enormous. His equipment regularly seized up. He had one of his cameras broken beyond repair and lost another three lenses due to cold and condensation. During the winter months, the sun never makes it above the horizon, meaning many of Palu’s photos were taken in near-total darkness.

It took him two years of planning to photograph an American nuclear submarine breaking through the ice in the Beaufort Sea. When Palu finally got the go-ahead, he had to fly to the Alaskan north, then hop on a tiny propeller plane that took him to an ice base; from there, he took a helicopter out to where the submarine had surfaced above the ice.

More than once, he put himself in precarious positions to get the perfect image, like the one of 50 U.S. paratroopers raining down on a training area near Fort Greely, in Alaska. What you don’t see are 350 other soldiers parachuting toward the ground, with Palu standing directly in the landing zone. He had a split second to get the photo and get out of the way, and had to attend four similar drops to get this single image.

For Palu, it was all worth it. “It’s funny – when you look at how dramatic the photographs are, everybody imagines I must get there and think, Wow, what a scene,” says Palu. “But it’s much more practical. I’m thinking, My god, it’s -40 C. My camera’s not working. My eyelashes just froze to the camera finder. But I got here, so I better make a good picture.

Louie Palu on assignment in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Kilometres travelled

  • 168,065 by plane
  • 815 by helicopter
  • 9466 by boat
  • 146 by ATV
  • 338 by snowmobile
  • 175 by train
  • 5590 by road vehicle
  • 66 on foot
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