The Photographer at the Top of the World

When a Danish special forces operative was stationed in remote Greenland, he found his calling: getting up-close and personal with the rarified creatures on the edge of the Earth.

The Photographer at the Top of the World

When Morten Hilmer joined the Danish special forces a decade ago, he had no idea how definitively it would shape his life. His assignment: patrol the remote coast of Greenland, by dog sled. Hilmer and five compatriots were flown to the very top of the frozen land mass (an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark), equipped with a team of 12 sled dogs, and given four and a half months to work their way down the isolated island. The journey, in which he encountered polar bears, musk oxen, Arctic foxes and more, inspired Hilmer to get even closer to nature. Today he’s a full-time polar photographer specializing in the coldest regions of the planet — places like Svalbard, a glacier-covered archipelago more than 500 miles north of mainland Norway. Producer Paolo Impagliazzo accompanied Hilmer and a team of dogs to Svalbard for two weeks to produce “Silence of the North,” which also features footage from Greenland, Norway and other lands above the Arctic Circle.

Hilmer spoke with Narratively’s Brendan Spiegel about what drives him to visit the edge of the Earth, what it’s like to stare directly into the face of an angry musk ox, and of course, the finer points of tasting polar bear meat.

Brendan: Why the Arctic?

Morten: I’ve always been deeply fascinated by nature; first it was the forests around where I live (there’s a little bit in the video where I walk through a forest in Denmark — that’s very close to where I live). When I was lucky enough to be one of six guys picked to go to Greenland, I learned how to respect nature and live in it. That gave me the confidence to go to these places on my own. I don’t think I would have dared that before.

Everyone always asks me ‘why don’t you go to Africa or somewhere not so cold?’ I tell them that I have been to Africa and all around Europe, but there is something special when everything is just on the edge of what is actually possible — on the edge of what is possible for the animals and for the people.

Do you usually travel alone?

Every winter I plan a few trips to Greenland and one or two to Norway. Typically I go there myself, with my tent and my pole and a sled and just spend a few weeks.

Especially with the pictures that I like to do, it’s a challenge to be more than one person I think. The moment there’s a crew there, it’s like, ‘wait a second, we need the mic to be ready,’ and then the fox is gone. When you’re alone you can de-stress and put 100% focus on the animals and being there.

In Greenland and on Svalbard I use the dogs, but when I’m in Norway I just pack my tent and equipment and pull it on my sled with snowshoes. I try to go with only three lenses, otherwise it’s too much to carry on the mountaintops — so I try to travel light.

Which animal do you find most intriguing to photograph?

Probably the Arctic fox actually. With a polar bear, when he gets too close to you, either you have to run or he has to run, because you definitely don’t want to pet him. That’s a fascinating animal but you know — slow movements, not a lot of attitude and you only get him for a short while. The foxes are not so scared. You can get very close and they will come around you. On my three-month expedition to eastern Greenland for the photographic project “The Land Without Sun” — I shot in winter when the sun did not rise for three months — the foxes became familiar with me. Once I was photographing a fox and suddenly he climbed up on a little patch of ice and rode himself over to me and started to sleep with me. For me that’s the top of what I can experience, to be there as a part of nature, not as a tourist. An animal is actually getting himself to sleep in front of me; that’s really fantastic.

Have you had any close calls with those larger animals?

One time we were following the musk oxen in the middle of the winter when it’s totally dark, 24-7. We came to one of these old unmanned hunters’ cabins, and suddenly the dogs were barking at something. I turned on my headlight and there was a musk ox ten meters from us. Because we surprised the ox he attacked the dogs. All the dogs had lines attached to the sled and I was on my skis so I was caught in the middle of all these lines, with the ox like two meters away from me going totally bananas on the dogs. My only chance was to shoot the musk ox in self-defense. That’s the only musk ox I ever had to shoot. But nothing goes to waste — you can use the meat as food for the dogs, and use the skin. Everything is used, that’s the way it goes, but it was a very scary experience.

One of the most dramatic moments in the film is when you cut to the polar bear head. Why did you decide to include that as part of your story?

I’m part of an American association called ILCP — the International League of Conservation Photographers. I went to Greenland basically to try to motivate the hunters to sell their licenses for the polar bears so tourist companies could buy these licenses and protect the bears in that way. When a hunter shoots a polar bear he doesn’t get a lot of money, but this way he would be offered twice as much to not shoot the bear. Unfortunately the government didn’t like my idea…but then I decided that I should better understand how it all works.

It’s so easy to sit here in Denmark, next to a supermarket, with a lot of money for everything; it’s easy for me to sit here and judge these people far away. So I decided to get to know them and know their culture. I made some good friends there and they asked if I would like to eat polar bears with them. I could either say ‘no, because I don’t want you to shoot the polar bears,’ but then on the other hand I was like, why not? I’m not afraid to live the way you do because I want to know you better. I want to respect the way you live. We talked about how for this guy the hunt was everything he had. He learned from his father, and he from his father before him — this was the way for them to survive.

Has that changed your opinion on whether it’s OK for them to hunt polar bears?

No. I still think if you have an animal like the polar bear that is on the way to disappearing from this planet, shooting it is the same as shooting a hole in the boat you are sinking in.

My project was about offering them an alternative. I think most of the people who do serious conservation work, they realize that before people take you seriously you have to respect them. Being there, understanding, showing the world what it’s like there, I think in the long-term that’s a better solution than just telling them what they do is wrong.

Actually the idea about selling the licenses, they now do that with the narwhals [in Greenland]. Instead of killing the narwhals, they catch them and put a GPS receiver on them and release them again, and they get more money than if they were to shoot them.

I have to ask – how did the polar bear taste?

It wasn’t something that I really liked. Sometimes when you eat animals that are predators, I think they have a very strong taste. So for me, it was not so delicious. It was really not so delicious at all.

You say in the video that you’re driven to find the silence in nature but also the silence within you. What’s your life like when you’re not out there on the edge of the earth?

At the moment I am single. And I am that a lot, probably because I do travel all the time. After the special forces I moved back to my little apartment outside Aarhus, the second biggest city in Denmark, but then after spending so much time in Greenland I sat in my apartment and said ‘I really can’t live here.’ It’s too claustrophobic with all the people and cars. So I moved to the countryside in Denmark. I looked at the map and looked for one of the places with the fewest people per square kilometer. I found myself a pretty nice old farm here. That’s where I live now, with my dog, and I have a few pigs walking around outside and I have some chickens and some geese and some bees. Living a good life making my own jam, collecting fruit, shooting a little with my longbow. Compared to the average Danish guy I think I have a pretty strange life actually.

Where’s next? Is there anywhere left on the planet where you haven’t been?

In January I go to the Antarctic and I’m very much looking forward to that, but actually I don’t like to go to new places always. I like to return to the same places. Like in the little town in Greenland, I’ve been there six or seven times. The first time I’m there I get to know people, the second time people get a little more used to me and maybe invite me in. The third time they invite me on a sled trip, the fourth time I can have my own dogs and start to really be familiar with the landscapes. I know where the foxes are; I know where the polar bears are. I prefer to find a few really good places and keep coming back to them.