Acacia Johnson: photographing the pilots connecting rural Alaska

Bush planes are an integral part of the Alaskan way of life, bringing food, medicine and emergency transport to the remotest areas. Meet the 2021 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant winner who will be documenting this vital service.
Photographer Acacia Johnson sits in a grounded light aircraft, smiling and looking out of the open door.

Acacia Johnson (pictured) is a photographer, artist and writer from Alaska who's worked extensively in the Arctic and Antarctica. As winner of the 2021 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant, she'll be returning to her home town of Anchorage to capture pictures of Alaskan bush pilots in action – an occupation close to her heart. © Acacia Johnson

Glaciers, mountains, forests and Arctic tundra all contribute to an Alaskan wilderness that's only habitable in pockets, with just 20% accessible by road. Travelling over this wild terrain and supporting the state's far-flung communities is a network of light aircraft pilots, known as bush pilots.

The 2021 Canon Female Photojournalist Grant winner, Acacia Johnson, was raised in a family of bush pilots in Anchorage, Alaska. It's the city with the largest private seaplane base in the world. Yet Acacia found that many media representations about Alaskan pilots conflicted with her own experiences.

With the €8,000 grant, she will spend this winter finding and photographing the faces that challenge stereotypes of who and what an Alaskan bush pilot is, focusing on creating a new narrative of diversity and safety in aviation. "Less than 6% of pilots are women," she says. "I think, to a certain degree, that has to do with the effects of long-term stereotypes." Also important to Acacia is documenting the vital role the bush pilots fill, transporting food, medicine and emergency access to people in the state's remotest parts.

Acacia spent most of her twenties working as a photography guide on ships in the Arctic and Antarctic. "I think that the distance from home made me realise just what I love so much about being in Alaska, and what I would like to document," says the 31-year-old writer, artist and photographer.

An aerial photograph of light blue glaciers surrounded by ice, with a bush plane flying low above them.

One fifth the size of the US, with glaciers as big as some states, only 20% of Alaskan communities are accessible by road – the rest can only be reached by boat or bush plane. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 214mm, 1/500 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Acacia Johnson

An Alaskan bush plane parked in the fog, on snow-covered tarmac.

Acacia describes a bush plane as "a small plane equipped to land on rough terrain". For many remote Alaskan communities, they're the only means to access vital supplies and resources. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Acacia Johnson

Lingering attitudes

Romanticised legends of bush pilots largely stem from what's considered to be the golden age of bush flying, the 1920s to the 1950s. "In the early era, there were these daredevil men who took crazy risks with the planes and the weather – surviving multiple crashes, or being stranded alone for weeks in the wilderness," Acacia explains. "That led to a certain kind of cowboy attitude, and some of that is still around today."

Despite advances in safety technology, plane crashes are still more frequent in Alaska than anywhere else in the United States – a fact Acacia thinks is partly attributable to this idealising of the "dangerous escapades of men".

"My goal is to honour and preserve the colourful history of bush flying in Alaska, while looking forward to focus on aviation as an essential service," she says. "It's an incredibly easy subject to glamorise, so that will be part of the challenge." But it's also why she's interested. "I want to look that romanticised image straight in the face and figure out what's actually important. What are the stories that aren't being heard?"

Acacia is looking for the bush pilots of today – not because of their thrilling antics, but because of their affinity with the environment and the fact that they make life in remote places viable. "The people I really want to find are the people who are flying where nobody else flies. Really it is their whole life – their passion and their skill."

The project will start in Anchorage using Acacia's existing connections in the flying community, before moving out to communities where she hopes to find pilots specialised by location, including glacier flying. She also plans to visit a main transport hub for Alaska's native villages.

"By basing myself in one community at a time, I'll be able to meet pilots who have travelled to a lot of remote areas, providing the essential services that allow people to keep living in these remote places," she explains.

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An aerial photograph of a bush plane, looking small, on green and brown expanses of Alaskan landscape.

A bush plane in the tidal flats, along the coast of Cook Inlet, Alaska. In addition to the pilots and their stories, Acacia will also be documenting the "essential service" of Alaskan bush flying – a huge undertaking. "I don't think I could have done it if it wasn't for the grant," she says. "I'm ecstatic!" Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 50mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO800. © Acacia Johnson

An Alaskan bush plane on snow-covered tarmac, with a frost-covered screen and red covers on its engine and wings.

In the Alaskan winter, when Acacia will be shooting her project, temperatures can drop as low as -34°C. "The Arctic winter light is just magical beyond anything else," she says. "It is worth enduring any cold." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/4 and ISO400. © Acacia Johnson

Photographer Acacia Johnson, wearing jeans and a thick yellow jumper, sits on the large wheel of an Alaskan bush plane.

In conditions as cold as those in wintry Alaska, robust and reliable photographic equipment is absolutely essential. As well as her large-format film camera, Acacia will be working with her Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM and Canon EF 24-105mm f.4 L IS USM lenses. © Acacia Johnson

Vintage planes

The project will consist of a series of large-format portraits of pilots and planes. Bush planes are often single engine aircraft equipped to land without a formal runway on gravel, water, sand or snow. "The planes that are still preferred today were built between the 1940s and 1960s," Acacia explains. "My aunt describes the feeling as flying around in a cardboard box – they're very fragile, some of them are only stretched canvas over a very light frame. They're beautiful and delicate."

Portraits will be set against the dramatic landscape, with the winter ocean, vast tundra and Denali mountain in the distance. "Seeing the whole Alaskan landscape from above is just breathtaking," says Acacia, who in addition to a large-format film camera, will use her beloved Canon EOS 5D Mark IV to shoot the project.

Moving from community to community around Alaska with camera in hand, Acacia anticipates meeting a fair number of family connections, as well as people who remember her grandfather. She explains his significance: "As well as a bush pilot, who himself survived multiple crashes, he was an artist and was always pushing me not towards technical excellence, but to pursue my creative vision. It's cool to have a photo project that's related to that."

More than her other work, this project is personal for Acacia. It's a lasting contribution to her home community and "might only be the first chapter".

Skrivet av Emma-Lily Pendleton

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