Shishmaref, a village on a small island off the coast of Alaska, is getting swallowed by the sea. Due to climate change, the island's permafrost layer - its main protection against erosion - is melting, leaving the sea little restraint from reclaiming what is left. The photographer Dana Lixenberg stayed in Shishmaref for several weeks in 2007 at the invite of Jan Louter, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the village, and her new book The Last Days of Shishmaref shares her portrait of this disappearing community.
The 600 or so Inupiaq people who live in the community have through tradition and necessity, worked with nature. Living in such extremes, there seems to be little other way but climate change, global warming, has upset the ecological balance making their task impossible to continue on Shishmaref. Al Gore has called them the first victims of climate change.
Looking at Lixenberg's photographs we sense a community that is changing in more ways than its connection to the soil beneath it's feet. The youth understandably adopt popular American culture in dress and practice while the homes and yards are littered with piles of unrepairable junk whose only potential is to be recycled. In her photos, this visual plastic pollution is another underlying metaphor - an island and culture being claimed by many forces. Relocation, as is the plan for Shishmaref, may not be what saves this community from extinction.
The photographic description Lixenberg has adopted is that of large-format, color, often artificially lit scenes combining portraiture, landscape and still-life. It builds throughout the book with a nice rhythm and consistency. It is good work but the individual photographs contain few surprises and this for me is its disappointment over time. It is clean, well executed and seductive in its clarity, but by the end page I feel like I have just re-read a book I had forgotten about.
The design of The Last Days of Shishmaref by Mevis & Van Deursen out of Amsterdam, with its alternating groupings of photos and text, is beautifully conceived. The printing is good as are the choice of materials. The Last Days of Shishmaref was co-published in 2008 by Episode and Paradox out of the Netherlands.