Katie Orlinsky is no stranger to danger. The 31-year-old photojournalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The New Yorker has made a career documenting social-issue and conflict-based stories in hotspots around the globe. Places like Mali and West Africa, where she covered the plight of women after Jihadist takeovers there; and Mexico, where she documented the violence inflicted upon victims of the drug war. Not to mention she lives in New York City, itself no walk in the park.
But when The Red Bulletin approached her to go on assignment to document the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest sled-dog race in the icebound wilds of the Arctic, where temps not only can but reliably do dip to minus 50, Orlinsky was shaking in her L.L. Beans.
“I was freaked out,” she says. “It was a region of the world I had always been interested in, but I was definitely nervous about the cold. In the beginning, I tried to act tough because I’m surrounded by all these really badass Yukoners, but I was really just wondering if my feet were gonna fall off.”
Spoiler alert: They didn’t. But it was close.
THE RED BULLETIN: We understand you had a little trouble with your luggage.
KATIE ORLINSKY: My bag with all my cold-weather clothes didn’t arrive for my connecting flight. I’m panicking. The women who worked for the airline took the boots off their feet, gave me their coats, their scarves, they literally took the clothing off their backs. People are so kind there, but you have to be. It’s life or death in that climate.
O.K., so now you’re dressed appropriately. But what about your camera gear? What kind of challenges did you face shooting in the cold?
Batteries freeze, so you have to have extras and always keep them on your body so they stay warm. Then there’s the issue of lens fog, which happens when you move from the cold into a warm, indoor setting. I tried to leave my gear outside, but sometimes when the mushers arrived at the checkpoints and they would go inside to warm up, I wanted to follow them in for shots, but then all of a sudden the lens is fogged up for the next half hour.
Simply handling the camera must have presented a challenge.
It can get so cold that if you touch it with your bare skin, your nose and the camera will stick together and you’ll get frostbite. So you have to be careful to not let your face touch the camera.
What about your hands?
That’s the biggest challenge! It was trial and error. At one point, I had on three layers of gloves. I’d take the mitten off to shoot, but then if you need to do something more complex, like switching lenses, I had another pair of gloves. It wasn’t perfect.
The Yukon Quest stretches across 1,000 miles. How did you approach the subject matter itself?
You can get out onto the course to an extent, but you have to be careful not to get in the way. You can get there via snowmobile, but some days it’s too cold—the fuel will freeze—and sometimes it’s just too dangerous. There are rescue teams ready in case anything happens to the mushers, but they don’t want to be using those resources to rescue the media. Then, of course, there’s the unpredictable nature of it all. You can go out and wait in the thick of the trails, where there are no checkpoints, but you’ve got to be ready, because these dogs are fast! You’ll wait for five hours in negative 50 and then get one second as they pass.
So the checkpoints sound like better prospects.
I loved spending time there when all the dogs were sleeping and there’s maybe just one little headlamp of a vet or a handler putting ointment on their feet and checking up on them. The dogs are the stars, the athletes. It’s all about them.
Click through to see Orlinsky’s shots from The Yukon Quest >>
How did the project impact you personally and professionally?
This was an unexpected assignment, but it was fate: I fell in love with the area. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I came to love the sport, and the whole culture surrounding it. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of work in Alaska. I’ve been doing a long-term project about mushing. I’m working on a project about climate change. I’ve done a story about polar bears. This experience had a huge impact on my career and the focus of stories I’m working on right now.
It sounds very serendipitous, this one story leading to many others.
Seeing the beauty of it firsthand and knowing that it may not exist much longer has made me realize it’s such an important story. Sure, it’s “just” a sport, but it’s a part of northern culture, and if there’s no snow, there’s no mushing. And that’s already happening. Races have been cancelled or re-routed. Sometimes they become more dangerous. Sometimes it will get very warm and the ice melts, then freezes again but in a thin layer. Mushers can end up waist deep in cracking ice.
And then there are the huge impacts: Entire native villages falling into the sea, communities sinking because of the melting sea ice and storm surges. People call that region of the world ground zero for climate change, and it’s changing at double speed. It’s huge and vast and underreported. It’s just an important place to be doing work.