Self portrait by Bill Hess.
Based in Wasilla, Bill Hess spent decades traveling to and photographing life in Inupiaq communities along Alaska’s Arctic coast. He first worked for newspapers and then published a quarterly magazine for the North Slope Borough. His 1999 book, The Gift of the Whale, tells the story of the Inupiat’s connection to the traditional bowhead whale hunt.
Why was telling stories of Alaska Native communities a subject you decided to dedicate your career to?
I had had this lifelong yearning for Alaska and for wild places. To get to know a place you need to know something about the true people of that place. You need to learn from them. And I wanted to know more about Alaska.
Since you first went up there in 1981, as the technology of taking photographs changed, how has spending time in these communities and telling their stories changed?
It’s changed immensely. Everybody’s a photographer now because everybody has a phone. Everybody’s taking pictures, and, believe me, some people are doing a really fine job of it. Then climate, weather, ice; the Arctic is a different place. What is the same is that the whale, and the hunting, is still the central focus of life. It is the thing that binds people together.
Is there one image you took during your career that you’re most proud of? That captures that spirit?
I followed whale hunting for a number of years before the crew I was with got a whale. Finally in ‘88, Jonathan Aiken, Sr. (Kunuk)—I believe it was my third year with his crew—landed the first whale of the season anywhere in Alaska. And it was an instant kill. A whale, after being struck, can sometimes take you on a chase that lasts awhile. But this whale just rolled right back up to the top and its flipper came up. This sounds crazy to a non-Native, but it’s kind of like the whale saying, “I have given myself to you and your crew and your people.”
Jonathan just raised his hands up in the air and he shouted out in Inupiaq. Someone else behind him shouted out, “Praise God,” and that’s essentially what Jonathan had shouted in Inupiaq. That moment was so special.
This may sound funny to people too, but going on a whale hunt in so many ways is like going to church. It may not be what someone else would think of as church, but you’ve got this big, massive temple all around you of ice, all this nature. And you’ve got this ancient tradition. There is a spirituality that goes back into time immemorial. So that moment, even though it’s not technically my best picture, my mind somehow always comes back to that picture.
How do you spend most of your time these days?
This is a really odd time. Basketball’s really big out in the bush and on the slope, and I had long wanted to do a thing where I would tie basketball into the larger culture. [The pandemic stopped that project.] But I had this drone and I wanted to use it for something. I just have this kind of love of trains. So, I started using it to photograph trains coming into, going through, and leaving Wasilla. That’s been my big project.
I should add too, you saw the cat behind me [during this online interview]. That’s actually my daughter’s cat and we’re taking care of it. But I made a book on our old cat Carrizo. That cat you saw is pretty interesting. So, I’ve been making a book on her. It stands at four hundred-some pages, which is of course ridiculous. It’s going to be called No More Cats.
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