Through the lens of Ash Adams

Finding depth and complexity in the Alaskan landscape and its people.

Ash Adams is an international photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. Her recent work focuses on Alaskan identity and the many stories that populate her state’s wild landscape. Beneath all her images — from haunting twilit landscapes to intimate home spaces — runs a current of deep connection between human beings and the land they occupy.

Are you from Alaska or did you move there? 

I am not originally from Alaska, but moved there from New York in 2011. I grew up in the Midwest, and after working on the West Coast and then the East Coast, I wanted to have a different experience and really settle into a place and get to know it. I didn’t expect to love Alaska as much as I do. It is endlessly fascinating here, and I love the kinds of stories I’m able to work on.

Where did your interest in photography come from?

I started making pictures as a young teenager. I took photography as a subject in school with a very encouraging teacher, and I just ran with it after that. Like many young people, I felt like an outsider who never quite fit in anywhere. Photography is a lovely fit for an outsider; it’s a craft that allows you to be a professional outsider.

What, in general, do you hope to capture in your subjects?

I’m hoping to capture a moment between moments that lets viewers feel a person’s humanity, in human being rather than human doing. I’m usually hoping to find the smallest bit of stillness to communicate the weight of a person.

What’s the main thing you’ve learned about Alaskans’ relationship to the land? 

Oh, this is a tough one. I’ve learned so much, and every person’s relationship to land is so different. Alaska, for one thing, is so big; my project While in Between was born out of just that reality. So much of Alaska is not connected by roads, so small planes are the primary mode of transport. There’s this need for so much planning for travel and an ability to truly feel what it is to be in a remote place. There is a symbiosis between people and the land everywhere, but in Alaska you really feel it. People hunt and harvest from the land here, and a person can really get out into wilderness. There’s also this complexity of connection to wilderness and also the presence of resource extraction and development; Alaska is absolutely a constant discussion of what land means and how it is valued and how that differs between people. Call Her Alaska is another body of work that tries to look at those complexities and how they coexist in this place.

You’ve photographed women in Alaska who are revitalizing Indigenous tattooing traditions. What meaning do these tattoos carry, and why are they being revived today? 

The Tavlugun is a traditional Indigenous tattoo that was traditionally done by and for Indigenous women to mark milestones in their lives, but, as with so many Indigenous traditions, colonization all but wiped out the practice. Today the tattoos mean something different to each woman who gets them, but many say that it is a response to oppression — a claiming of one’s heritage and birthright.

Tell us about the day you spent with the Salmon Sisters.

Spending the day with the Salmon Sisters was lovely (for the latest issue of BESIDE Magazine). Emma and her mother filleted, brined, and smoked salmon on the Homer Spit and at their family’s shop, and the day had this natural, seaside flow to it. Although everyone was working, there was a joy to the process that translated to the images, I think.

How have these journeys and encounters helped you grow as a human?

Every person I meet teaches me something about the world and therefore also something about myself. Every person that says yes to letting me into their world for a second has given me a gift that I still do not have words for, but it feels like something vulnerable, like love.

Is there a local cause or organization you’d like to talk about, that’s close to your heart?

This is also a tough one — there’s so many. The Anchorage Museum does so much great work in the state, and they have been so supportive of my work. The Alaska Humanities Forum is another organization that funds and pushes arts initiatives within the state.

What three Instagram accounts most inspire you?

I have to admit, I’m not an “Instagrammer” per se, but there are some really inspirational people whose work I follow and am inspired by. Matt Eich (@matteich), Stacy Kranitz (@stacykranitz), and Brian Adams (@brianadamsphotography) all have this ability to really just let people be who they are in their photographs, so I’m always excited to see posts by them.

Issue 09

Ash Adams is a featured photographer in our latest issue.

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