Behind the Lens – Sheri, an Inupiat Eskimo, as a full page in Alaska Vacation Planner

I only spent a few hours photographing Sheri on a typical cool, wet, and windy July day near Nome, Alaska. Of the hundreds of folks we meet on the long assignments we’ve done for the Alaska Travel Industry Association (ATIA), Sheri was one of the most enjoyable and unforgettable people we’ve worked with. I’m glad to see her featured in a full page image in the 2012 Alaska Vacation Planner.

Female Inupiat Eskimo artist from Nome, Alaska wearing traditional kuspik dress

Sheri, an Inupiat Eskimo artist in Nome, Alaska appears as a full page image in the 2012 Alaska State Vacation Planner. Shot on assignment in 2011

A kind and gentle soul with a soft pretty face, Sheri had a striking presence about her. At the time she was working at the Nome Visitor Center. She agreed to model for us in a traditional Kuspuk and with some of her artwork which consisted of her handmade sealskin purses and boots. An Inupiat Eskimo from Northwest Alaska, she is an amazingly talented artist.

Sheri is from the village of Shishmaref, 100 miles north of Nome on the windswept shores of the Chukchi Sea about 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Summer here is a mere fantasy, more accurately described as a “thaw season” where waters turn to liquid for 8 weeks. Shishmaref is a “bush” village meaning it is not connected to the road system. The nearest contiguous road is the Dalton Highway some 500 miles east. Shishmaref is close to where it all began some 20,000 years ago when native peoples walked across the Bering Land Bridge to inhabit North America.

The subsistence lifestyle, primitive infrastructure (many homes without modern pluming) and extreme isolation she grew up in is simply unimaginable to most people – including me. She grew up among caribou, musk ox, wolves, grizzlies and the occasional polar bear.

With her upbringing, I thought nothing I would ask could phase her. I was wrong. When I asked her to sit among the beautiful field of wild iris, she was reluctant and concerned about mice being down there. I had a warm fuzzy chuckle, thinking up to this point, that only “city” girls would be concerned over the possibility of a cute little rodent running around your feet. Luckily I was able to stomp out the area where I wanted her to sit which she eventually did and we made some great images.

The technical aspects of the shot were quite simple. More often than not in Alaska, you are shooting in flat light. The flat terrain meant not much background to work with. (Unfortunately, Russia was not visible from where we were.) The flat light meant soft skin tones but limited contrast. All I could do was fill the frame with Sheri and let her presence and the colors of her kuspuk and iris carry the shot. The breeze lifting some of her hair was icing on the cake. This image is a good example of the 80/20 rule where 80% of the success of the shot took place before the camera even came out of the bag.

Like most of the fine people we’ve met and photographed on our Alaska assignments, our paths are not likely to cross again. I wish Sheri the very best and I hope she continues pursuing her artwork.

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