The Picture Show

This Photographer Pairs New And Old Images To Converse With Greenland's Colonial Past


John Møller/Greenland National Museum and Archives; Minik Bidstrup

This July marks 300 years since Lutheran missionary Hans Egede arrived in Greenland, an event that signified the beginning of Denmark's colonial rule over the island.

Egede was a Danish-Norwegian missionary who traveled there in 1721 hoping to convert a group of white Europeans whose ancestors had settled in Greenland hundreds of years earlier. Unbeknownst to him those first Norse settlements had perished when the colony was neglected by Norway in the 1300s and 1400s during the Little Ice Age.

Rather than finding white Norse Vikings, Egede found the indigenous Inuit people, and he took it upon himself to colonize Greenland with the support of what at the time was called Denmark-Norway upon his arrival on July 3, 1721.

In recognition of this anniversary, NPR spoke with photographer Minik Bidstrup, whose project, "Courageously Take a Stand" –– or Saperasi isumaqaleritsi in the Greenlandic Inuit language Kalaallisut –– confronts Greenland's long colonial history from an indigenous perspective.

Bidstrup is of Greenlandic Inuit background, called Inuk in the singular. His project pairs his own images with those of another Greenlandic indigenous photographer, John Møller, who was active between 1889 and 1922.

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"I'm having photographic conversations with the past," Bidstrup says. "The theme of these conversations is centered around colonialism and its long-term effects."

Bidstrup started the project thinking Møller was Danish, and he looked for photos that he thought had "colonial undertones." Finding out Møller was Greenlandic changed his approach.

"I no longer felt the need to point out the obvious," Bistrup says, "but instead work with the subtle hints that seem to be present in Møller's work, such as loss of identity and assimilation of Danish culture and values. I then became interested in exploring what might have changed from the time Møller was photographing and now."

With the permission of the Greenland National Museum and Archives, Bidstrup paired his work and Møller's work into diptychs.

"Depending on what kind of day I am having, depending on what conversations I just had or depending on the music I am listening to, I feel differently about [Greenland's colonial history]. I feel shame, I feel pride, I get angry and I get hopeful."

This history of Greenland stretches long before its colonization. The indigenous Inuit peoples inhabited the island for 4,500 years, traveling across the Arctic as nomads to fish and hunt. After World War II, the Danes saw the opportunity for commercial fishing and brought in trading companies and trawlers. This brought in revenue but essentially ended much of the traditional Inuit village economy.

Greenland was a Danish colony until 1953; it then became a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, and in 2009, it was granted broad self-governing autonomy, including the right to declare independence. But the island of 56,000 people remains dependent on Denmark for economic aid. Today, Greenlandic Inuit peoples make up 89% of the population of the island.

"We are still here in the land we call home," Bidstrup says. "We may no longer be the same people the missionaries and colonizers met, but we are a people that were formed by enduring what was placed upon us and the fight to break free from this dependency that we never asked for."

Minik Bidstrup is an Inuk photographer from Greenland, currently based in Brooklyn, NY. You can follow his work @bidstrupp

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