PHOTOGRAPHS, like paintings, might paint a thousand words, but they are no substitute for physically being in a fixed place and time.
And that is certainly the view of Mike Nowill, who has a clutch of award-winning images from regular trips to Jokkmokk in Arctic Sweden.
Mike, who lives near Pickering, has made at least 15 trips to what is in effect the top of the world, capturing captivating images of reindeer races, dog sledding, motor-racing on ice, as well as colourful photos of the indigenous Sami people in their brightly embroidered clothes, animal skin shoes and fur hats.
Mike, who used to work in marketing, is employed by local Swedish organisations to take photographs they can use to encourage visitors to the area.
“I am trying to help them get more tourists,” says Mike, who has just returned from a shoot for Pirelli tyres, photographing cars on the ice roads of the Arctic wilderness.
“Visiting the Arctic is closer than you think.
“It takes me no longer than if I was going to Spain.”
Mike fell in love with the place on his very first visit. “It’s a very underrated place, but it gets under your skin.”
Arctic Sweden has eight seasons, explains Mike.
“They have winter, winter-spring, spring and so on”. Being so northerly also means it is light all summer long (“it is the land of the midnight sun,” says Mike) with just a few hours of daylight in the winter. Temperatures are extreme too, and can fall to -40C in the depths of winter.
These conditions all present their own challenges for Mike, who grew up in Sheffield.
“It can get very cold. When I went it January it was -44C. That is painful. It is very difficult to work because it is dangerous to be outside for any length of time because you risk frostbite.
“You also have difficulties with cameras at that temperature. The batteries don’t last and if there is any moisture in the camera it will freeze.
“At that temperature, you can take a jug of hot water and throw it in the air and it makes an arc of snow.”
In winter, Mike has to be organised to get the shots he needs in the short window of daylight hours – effectively from 10.30am to 1.30pm when dusk arrives.
In summer, you can lose track of time.
“Because of the midnight sun, it never gets dark in summer and that is quite bizarre. One night in summer we went for a walk around the lake at the back of the hotel. I realised there weren’t many people around, but it was 2.30 in the morning!”
The extremities of the weather and location make for wonderful photographs.
Some of Mike’s favourite shots are of packs of huskies, their hot breath creating a haze of mist in the freezing Arctic air.
The Northern Lights are another favourite for Mike to photograph. He has seen them on every visit and has apps on his phone to alert him to their activity.
“If you are there for four or five days, you are almost certain to see them,” he says.
“They are a phenomenal thing. They change all the time, it is absolutely fantastic. One time it was like the Star Trek warp factor; it was like they were coming at you. Sometimes you get really long streaks as they go across the sky, sometimes they are just on the horizon. It is different every time. It’s wonderful.”
One particularly memorable sighting came on a night out in the forest. A group went out in snow mobiles for an evening adventure. Two ice pits had been created, with fires in the centre. One pit was ringed with reindeer skins for people to sit on and keep warm. In the second, a giant pan was on the fire, cooking their supper, reindeer meat with potatoes and cream.
“We were sitting round the fire pit, eating out of miniature pans, then the Northern Lights came out. It was the most magical thing I’d ever seen.”
A great time to visit, says Mike, is the first weekend in February for the Jokkmokk market. This is when you see the area’s traditions come to life. The market has been going for over 400 years. Visitors will see Sami people in their traditional dress, reindeers in close up and husky dogs.
One highlight is the annual reindeer race, which can be a hair-raising event, admits Mike. “They put up some netting around the track then these wild animals are fastened to a sledge, and then people are plucked from the crowd to race them.” There are no reins, says Mike, and no finishing line – the reindeers only stop when they are captured by chasing onlookers.
Jokkmokk is a haven for foodies too, insists Mike, whose photography of local dishes and delicacies is mouth watering.
“The food is fantastic and the provenance of the food is exceptional,” he says. Dishes not to miss include reindeer fillet, which Mike describes as “like venison but slightly more gamey”; moose stew, again which is quite gamey (“the moose burger is to die for”); Arctic char, “like a strong-tasting trout, but tastier” and which is served with creamy mashed potatoes. Wild berries are in abundance and foraging for wild food is popular with visitors.
One of the more exhilarating activities on offer is ice driving. The 1984 World Rally Champion Stig Blomqvist runs a driving academy in Jokkmokk. Mike is a fan. “Ice driving is fantastic fun – the most fun you can have with your clothes on. Driving on the straight, you can be doing 80 to 90 mph on studded tyres.”
Mike hopes his photographs make people want to experience the place for themselves. “I think it’s a great place and a shame people don’t know about it. I really would like to help them get more people to go there and understand how brilliant it is and how much there is to do. The people are brilliant too.”