A musher’s life

© Chris Gibbs photography

Chris Gibbs is an English photographer. After a few years covering the Royal Air Force, he decided to move to Alaska with his wife and began to work freelance. This is where he met Allen Lau who was then working in a hardware store. Allen was passionate about dogs and dreaming of a new life.
A musher’s life. His earnest and maybe unattainable hope: run the Iditarod, the mythical race organised every year in Alaska. But between the fantasised and idyllic vision of an adventurer musher living free in vast open spaces and reality there is sometimes a wide gap. And realizing that is a tough blow. This is basically what Chris Gibbs’ work tells us. His black and white photographs highlight how tough and stripped Allen’s daily life as a musher is. But they also demonstrate how much love and tenderness a man can give to his dogs.

Zoohey : How did you come up with the idea of this «Dog musher» series? How do you know Allen Lau and why did you want to take pictures of him?
Chris Gibbs : I met Allen back in the late 1990’s, he worked at our local Eagle River hardware store where I filled up my VW camper van with propane. Allen always made a big fuss over our Alaskan Malamute “Mac” and Mac always enjoyed visiting with Allen at the store. I lost touch with Allen when he moved up to Palmer, Alaska, until our paths crossed again around 2010.
I was sitting outside a cafe in Wasilla, Alaska in 2010 with a friend when Allen walked over and said, “ hey, Mac! ” and to be honest I didn’t remember where I knew him from, he’d changed, looked a lot older, and wore his long beard. I bought Allen a coffee, and as we sat he asked me if I wanted
to make some documentary pictures of him and his dogs, I said yes.

© Chris Gibbs Photography

Z : When were those pictures taken? How long did it take you to finalize your work?
C.G : We started taking pictures in 2010 in Palmer, and its ongoing, even up in Petersville where he now lives, no end plan in sight.

Z : Any particular reason for using black & white for this series?
C.G : I’m a black & white shooter, love it, was raised on it. It just fits the bill for documentary work in my opinion.

Z : There is a strong contrast in your pictures between the softness of dogs on one side and Allen Lau’s rough skin on the other: was it deliberate?
C.G : Yes, Allen’s life is hard, and its rough. He’s tough to have a relationship with, his life full of drama and strife, but he loves his dogs at the expense of every human relationship.

« Allen’s life is hard (…) he’s tough to have a relationship with. But he loves his dogs at the expense of every human relationship. »

Z : Any idea as to what led Allen Lau to become a musher?
C.G : I think Allen stumbled into mushing, he had a large male Labrador Pyrenean cross dog named “Quigley” up in Palmer and a small white female sled dog landed at his door, he named her “Alaska” and her and “ Q ” made his first litter of puppies. From that point forward, Allen set his sights on one day becoming a musher and running the Iditarod one day.

Z : How would you describe the special link between Allen Lau and his dogs?
C.G : Allen loves those dogs, they certainly hang on his every action, no dening that fact. Last I saw him it was north of 20 dogs, they’re what Allen refers to as “ Alaska Quigly’s ” named after the first two dogs in Palmer, Alaska. But in reality, mixed breed sledding dogs are refered to as “Alaska Huskies” up here. They’re friendly dogs, very smart too, they’ll follow Allen around everwhere he goes.

Z : Did you have hard time sharing Allen Lau’s tough everyday life for a while ? What were the main difficulties you had to face during that period of time?
C.G : It’s tough being around people like Allen, everything tends to become a drama, and the people he surrounds himself tend to be of a similar mindset. Sometimes you find yourself getting sucked into the mix (unwillingly).
Then there’s the money issue, these characters have none, so they tend to take advantage of each other, its a learnt behavior, I often felt they took advantage of each other unnecessarily. I have a rule not to hand over cash, but I will donate things that may be helpful, these guys all drink, and smoke, even though they’re broke.

Z : Do you have news from Allen? Do you know if he finally ran Iditarod ? Is he still musher in Alaska?
C.G : Not seen Allen for a year or so, he lives up in Petersville, Alaska now, that’s an hour and a half drive for me, and then an hours hike out over swampy ground to his cabin. He’s not done any races lately as far as I know, the Iditorod is a very expensive race to enter, maybe its beyond his means right now. He’s still running the dogs over the swamp, mainy to transport his supplies to the cabin, they’re being used to haul freight daily.

« He’s still running the dogs over the swamp, mainy to transport his supplies to the cabin, they’re being used to haul freight daily. »

Z : Si vous ne deviez retenir qu’une image de cette série, ce serait laquelle ?
C.G : Probably the one of him holding a puppy on my website, but there are many I like.

© Chris Gibbs Photography

Z : Do you plan other projects with animals?
C.G : Not at the moment, but there are a few interesting Iditarod mushers I’d like to meet one day.

Z : Do you still live in Alaska? What do you love more there?
C.G : Yes, we’re back in Eagle River, Alaska. I still shop at that hardware store where I first met Allen, the old VW Campervan is gone, as is old Mac our Alaskan Malamute, who Allen loved.

*Anchorage is the most important city of Alaska located south of the state.

To see all the Chris's photo documentary on his website:

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