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Honest Dogs

Loyalty and Mushing Culture

As a dogsledder, I can forget the fact that my sport, my world, is visually striking. Anyone whose camera battery lasts long enough in the cold can capture the blue light of deep winter, the halo of breath rising before a headlamp, the manic power of a dog team churning snow. There are those photographers who project their own associations onto wilderness, whiteness, chained dogs looking either adorable or powerful or miserable; old stuff in new frames. Then there are those photographers, mushing groupies, who stay up all night at every dogsled race, crouched beside the trail for hours to capture a dog’s-eye view of passing teams, as much a part of the community as the mushers and handlers and veterinarians who, their faces covered, know one another by their trucks and parkas. Outsiders telling stories for outsiders, insiders telling stories for insiders, about a sport that is equal parts proud and defensive of its position on the outskirts of culture.

Photographer Katie Orlinsky is neither of these; she seems gloriously incapable of noticing the obvious from any perspective. “My intro to mushing came from a place of wonder and total ignorance,” Orlinsky told me. In Alaska, while photographing indigenous hunting in the face of climate change, she found that hanging out with sled dogs was a reinvigorating break from documenting environmental devastation (“These are X-Men dogs. Superhero dogs!”). And on some level, she related to the mushers she met: “I’ve photographed victims of trafficking in Nepal, and post-conflict Mali. These are people facing life or death against their will, but you guys are choosing it. Why? That question is really what this project is all about.” As someone who constantly took on difficult projects, it was something she wondered about herself, too.

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