This dreamy Arctic scene has won National Geographic’s Travel Photo Contest

Meet the photographer behind the grand prize—winning photo and learn how it was taken.Thursday, June 13, 2019

By Sarah Polger
Photographs By Weimin Chu
Upernavik is a fishing village on a tiny island in west Greenland. Historically, Greenlandic buildings were painted different colours to indicate different functions, from red storefronts to blue fishermen’s homes—a useful distinction when the landscape is blanketed in snow. This image was selected as grand prize in the 2019 National Geographic Travel Photo Contest.

On a stormy spring day, crisp winds blew across the snowy peaks outside Upernavik, Greenland. Locals considered the balmy -30°C temperature a warm March evening, so they scampered to run errands under the setting sun. Photographer Weimin Chu had settled on a slope near the airport with views of colourful homes below.

“I found the structure, colour, and mood [to be] so nice from this angle,” he recalled later, “especially the light at dusk.”

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Hoping to photograph a person strolling or children playing in the landscape, he was excited to see a small family making their way under the streetlights instead. Working with precision in the low light, he captured the image he had envisioned—and the grand prize of the 2019 National Geographic Travel Photo Contest.

Upernavik’s remoteness made an impression on Chu. “I could only see a pure white land covered by ice and snow during my entire flight. But I suddenly saw a big, warm dot in [the] far distance—it was Upernavik. The beauty of this tranquil village was really beyond my imagination. It was a wow moment for me.”

Intrigued by local communities’ daily lives, Chu has also explored the isolated villages of southern Greenland, including the town of Narsaq Kajulleq.

For years, Chu had visited the island to capture its austere landscapes; in 2019, he began to document Greenland’s people and communities, first visiting Upernavik in March. The small, northwestern fishing village is home to about 1,000 residents—making it the 13th largest village in the country. Chu originally planned to stay for two days, but extended his trip: “I had to stay for one week because there were no flights. I was lucky, because I took this winning image on my sixth day in Upernavik. If I only spent two days there, I [probably] wouldn’t have found this location this year,” Chu says. (See more photos from the 2019 Travel Photo Contest.)

Chu spent six days scouting Upernavik’s surroundings for photo opportunities, getting to know the locals at stores and the main harbour. He hoped to capture sweeping views of the city and positioned himself far enough from the street to unobtrusively photograph the activities of daily life. After making a few images in the dusk light, Chu opened his aperture and upped his ISO, hoping to freeze people’s movements; just then, a family emerged from their home, and he seized the moment.

“It felt so harmonious. The whole land was covered by white, cold snow, and the blue tint at dusk made it even cooler. But the light from the windows, street lights, and the family of three made the world warm again. I love the contrast and mood of this scene. I was busy taking continuous pictures at that time, trying to capture the best moment,” he said.

Chu began photographing during his university travels, and after three years working as an engineer, set out to focus on his photography. Then he serendipitously entered the National Geographic Photo Contest. “Just when I started leaning into photography, my photo was selected as an editors’ choice in the 2012 National Geographic Photo Contest. It [really] motivated me, and photography [has become] part of my life since that time,” Chu recalls.

Spending two months packrafting in the southern Greenland fjords fed Chu’s passion for outdoor adventure. Now he plans to continue returning to the island to focus his photography on Greenlandic communities, as well as residents’ relationship with the environment.

“Modern life has different impacts on the cultures in these different areas,” Chu said.

He also aspires to further evolve his photo projects in the mountains of Pakistan and China, merging his passion for outdoor adventure with his photography, “I’d like to share some incredible but lesser-known snowy mountains with people.”

Weimin Chu is a freelancer photographer. Follow him on Instagram @thomaschuphoto.
See the other winning photos from the 2019 National Geographic Travel Photo Contest.