Carl Johnson’s New Book Examines Alaska’s Bristol Bay

October 11, 2016

By Dzana Tsomondo

On May 30, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled on Nunamta Aulukestai v. State of Alaska and found in favor of the plaintiffs: a coalition of village corporations, tribal governments and individuals in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region. The original case, filed in 2009, claimed a lack of public debate over the issuing of permits for the 360 square-mile “Pebble Mine,” a project extracting copper, gold and other minerals. One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Carl Johnson, happened to be a highly regarded nature, travel and outdoor photographer. Struck by the area’s unspoiled beauty and the struggle over its future, as the state’s case wound to a close in 2010, Johnson made two big decisions. The first was to leave his law practice in order to focus on photography, and the second was that Bristol Bay would be his first project.

Five years later, Johnson’s book, Where Water Is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay (Braided River) is the culmination of that work—176 pages of beautiful photography and compelling essays. The book examines how disparate peoples are connected by their shared dependence on this complex ecosystem and their desire to protect it from large-scale mineral extraction and its toxic byproducts. Where Water Is Gold is simultaneously an exhaustive, academic, visual cataloguing of a way of life, and a love letter to a place.

The diversity of the images in the book speaks to Johnson’s deep experience working in the Alaskan wilderness. Aerial photography; images of animals, insects and landscapes; portraits of fisherman and hunters; depictions of commercial and subsistence fishing—it’s all there.

In the field, Johnson took a neutral approach to the question of the Pebble Mine because he knew how strongly members of the community felt on both sides of the debate over whether to allow the mine project to continue; Where Water Is Gold is not just about wildlife conservation. “I wanted to show how incredibly rich and complex this ecosystem is, and how much people in the region rely on that intact ecosystem for a sustainable food source,” Johnson says. “So one major change from prior work was to heavily emphasize the human element of the region. Most of the truly iconic images in the book involve people in some way.”

Born and raised in South Dakota, Johnson bought a one-way ticket to Anchorage in 1999 and never left. The move helped him refine his craft. “One of the key aspects of becoming a good photographer is spending a lot of time in the field,” he explains, “and here I could do that right out of my back door.”

© Carl Johnson

A traveler at the Pen Air counter in King Salmon, Alaska, wears a jacket expressing opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine mineral-extraction project. © Carl Johnson

Johnson took the proverbial “road-less-traveled” on his way. He joined the Navy after high school and during his time in the service he pulled duty as a ship’s photographer. Upon returning to civilian life, Johnson enrolled at the University of Minnesota as a political science major, but took a couple of photography courses.

“After college I worked as a canoe guide in northern Minnesota and that’s where the [photography thing] really started to hit me,” he remembers. Johnson returned to the Twin Cities in 1995 after spending two years in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and got his first paid work doing portraits and sports photography. He put himself through law school by taking photography gigs on the side, thus beginning a double life as lawyer and commercial photographer that, a decade later, would lead him to Bristol Bay.

Once Johnson made the decision to start Where Water Is Gold, he hit the ground running. His first four days of dedicated fieldwork were an exhilarating blur. In July 2011, he was aboard a commercial fishing vessel when he captured one of the book’s most striking images: a slicker-clad figure at the prow of a ship, hurling a brightly colored buoy into choppy waters. “That was the first toss of the first buoy of the first commercial fishing [season] opener that I was actually on a boat for, and to capture that within the first couple days really helped me figure out that I was onto something,” Johnson says.

He sold some equipment to pay for his next trip, but in search of a more long-term solution, he experimented with crowdfunding. Johnson found Hatchfund, then known as USA Projects, to be the most useful crowdfunding platform, and used it to run three successful campaigns over the next few years.

“As a nonprofit [Hatchfund] works with a lot of private foundations to achieve matching grants, so I think that allowed it to provide more networking options than something like Kickstarter,” Johnson explains. “I [also] worked with a nonprofit publisher [Braided River] that was able to do its own funding to help pay for the writers and for all of the production of the book.” Johnson also set aside pictures that he could potentially sell as stock images, the profits of which he used to help underwrite the project.

Given the breadth of this book, Johnson knew that the post-production phase would be a collaborative effort. Out of 28,000 captures, he initially sent Braided River editor Mary Metz 600 images for consideration, which they whittled down together, while a design team handled sequencing. Johnson suggested some of the contributing writers, while the publisher suggested others.

It speaks to the vastness of America’s 49th state that, even after five years of hard work and the recent Supreme Court victory, that Johnson feels he is far from done with Bristol Bay. From “the freshwater harbor seals of Iliamna Lake” to “the aurora borealis out in the region,” he insists that there is a lot left on his shot list. “I will never be finished,” he asserts, “the Bristol Bay region is 40 million square miles and thirty-two villages. I made it to six of them.”

Related Links: 

Environmental Crusaders: Photographer John Weller’s Obsession With Antarctica’s Ross Sea

Into The Wild: Capturing The Planet’s Imperiled Ecosystems

How To Pitch Your Photo Book To Trade Publishers: Susan Middleton’s Spineless