New York-based photographer Jen Kinney has spent the past two summers documenting the small town of Whittier, Alaska, population 180, which can be accessed from the mainland only via tunnel. She was recently awarded a grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum to continue the project during a two-year period in which she will set up and run the town’s first newspaper.
We spoke to her about Whittier and her work.
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How did you decide to start this project?
I was a waitress in Whittier in 2011. I had no connection to the place before I went; I had a family friend who knew the owner of a restaurant there. I needed to complete a senior thesis for my photography program, and I thought there must be something worth photographing in Alaska.
So, sight unseen, knowing nobody in the town, I applied to this restaurant and I got the job. I went up and stayed for three months, and kind of hated it for a little while at first—not Alaska, but Whittier, for how small it was and how isolated. But it appealed so much to my sensibility, and I suppose to my sense of absurdity.
What was the application process for the restaurant like?
It mostly just involved calling and talking to them on the phone. They had me fill out an application that had basic information, but I don’t know if they even asked me my work history. It was very casual.
Probably not a lot of competition for that job?
Actually, you know, I would be curious to know how many applicants they get every year. Because my coworkers were two girls from Lithuania—it was their first time in America, a Thai woman who had been working for them for seven years, and someone who’s now one of my very good friends there, Young, who was born in Korea but grew up in Oakland and has been in Alaska on and off for like eight years. He and Ieva, one of the Lithuanian girls, fell madly in love, and they’re still together two years later. She returned to Whittier the next summer to be with him again. It was a really unusual group of people and a really unusual place to work.
So there’s enough business from 180 people to support a restaurant with a staff of like 10?
It’s only open in the summer, because in the summer Whittier actually gets a huge population influx. I heard it’s as high as 700 living there. It feels more like 500, I would think. But I couldn’t speak to the real numbers.
Whittier gets thousands of visitors every year because it’s between Anchorage and the Prince William Sound. If you want to get out to the water the easiest way from Anchorage is to go through Whittier. The reason that the U.S. Army even bothered to go to the trouble of building the tunnel to Whittier is that otherwise it’s miles and miles and miles to the water.
And what are the people doing that are going to the water? Do they work there?
One of the biggest sources of income in Alaska is fishing. I actually got the chance this past summer to spend three nights on a commercial salmon fishing boat. People really do come from all over the country and the world to do that. So that’s probably number one. And then after that, the cruise ships come through Whittier, so most of the big Alaska cruise ships—Princess, Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line—they dock up in Whittier and then take buses to Anchorage. So that’s the second. And then glacier cruises are really popular—they’ll take you out on a boat for anywhere between three and seven hours, so you go out and take pictures of glaciers and hope that you see some otters.
So the restaurant closes down in the winter. Are there year-round restaurants there?
Two restaurants stay open year-round, and three bars. There are three bars in town, and they stay open all winter. That’s about all there is to do, from what I hear. Actually in the past 15 years the Whittier Inn opened, which is the classy, high-end hotel in town. Locals don’t really go there at all. But it stays open all winter, which I always thought was sort of strange. I haven’t seen it in the winter.
So you might have an influx of people passing through. But do people stay in the town in the summer as well?
Only to do basically what I did, to work at one of the seasonal jobs. You have all the other restaurants that open up in the summer—probably six or seven restaurants like that. There’s a Chinese restaurant that’s run by a Korean family, and there’s the fish and chips restaurant I worked at, and a couple other cafes and gift shops. Then there’s a bunch of fishers who will stay in Whittier when they’re not on the boat. And there’s a cannery. The cannery probably employs the most people in the summer.
You had mentioned when we first spoke that a lot of people there were kind of escaping their past?
Yeah, that’s definitely a crucial myth, and somewhat a reality, not only about Whittier but about Alaska in general. There’s a joke that Alaska is where people go to flee things, and if that’s true then Whittier is where Alaskans go to flee things.
In 2000 they converted the tunnel to be used by both cars and trains; before 2000 only trains could pass through. Certain times of year, the train would run only once a week. So in that time especially people went there as a last resort, in some ways, an escape. Or because they liked the solitude.
One very well-known story around Whittier is about one of the longest-term residents moving there as a way to ensure that an abusive ex-husband would have no easy job of finding her.
Another persion that I got to know this past summer was a guy named Jim who’s been there for 20 years. He wound up there once for work and liked it and just kept returning until he stayed. He’s a carver, of tusks and bones. He has a little studio that overlooks the bay. And his favorite time is winter, which everyone else hates, because he likes the solitude of it. He told me one of my favorite things about Whittier. “If you can deal with yourself,” he said, “you can love Whittier.”
What are you focusing on in your photography?
I’m really interested in the use of space in Whittier and the way that the striking architectural elements create an extremely unique sense of place, with an odd mixture of isolation and community. For me, one of the launching points is definitely the sociological exploration of spaces—the way that the tunnel separates Whittier from the rest of Alaska; that separation in contrast to the claustrophobia of living with most of the town in the same building, in such close proximity to each other; and also the fact that it has this long history of military occupation, of natural disaster, and of bureaucratic mismanagement and neglect. There is a sense of living in a town that is literally its own ruins. History is so grafted into the bricks and soil. So for me the starting point is really that idea. And then the people whose lives are circumscribed by these structures, and who either fight that or who love it there. Like I do. It’s so unappealing in so many ways, and yet it’s really enchanting.
Can you tell me a bit about the military occupation?
So the old military base in Alaska was in Seward, over a hundred miles from Anchorage. It was deemed too vulnerable to attack because there were so many miles of rail connecting it. The supply chain could be cut off very easily.
Vulnerable to attack by Russia?
By the Japanese. The Japanese actually occupied about five islands in Alaska during World War II. Alaska was bombed and occupied. So it was deemed that a more secure military base was needed. Whittier was chosen because it was so close to Anchorage, because it has the water access—and a port that is ice-free year round—and also, funnily enough, because it has fog almost 80% of the time. It was thought the cloud cover would keep Whittier from being attacked from above.
This idea was also partially the motivation to build the two largest buildings in Alaska in the town and connect them by tunnel. It was a town built to look abandoned from above. The idea was that you would never actually have to go outside, also a great protection from the long snowy winters.
So it was designed to look like a ghost town?
Yeah, it kind of was. The first building that they built was the Buckner Building. It was the biggest building in Alaska at the time. It was called “the city under one roof” because it just had everything in it. It had a theater, a bowling alley, a darkroom. They grew plants inside of it, and it was to house all the soldiers, thousands of them. The entire town was built to house 30,000 people.
They actually built these things after World War II ended, I should say. It was just bunkers, for the most part, during World War II, and then the Cold War also presented a threat and made Alaska again vulnerable to attack, this time from Russia.
So in 1956 the Buckner building opened its doors. Within 10 years it was abandoned. Three years after the Buckner, the BTI opened, containing family-style apartments for officers. It was the next biggest building in Alaska and, at 15 stories, remains tied as the tallest. Today 80% of the town’s 180 residents live in that building.
It just kind of looks like a Holiday Inn.
Yes! People have actually called it “the Holiday Inn in the wilderness.” That’s exactly what it is.
Are there a lot of other structures there?
Yes, there are all these other smaller structures. The whole town, besides the two monoliths, is rather low-lying and industrial-looking. There’s the cannery. The Anchor Inn is an important structure. There’s a tradition in Alaska of building everything in one building, I guess so you never have to leave. The bottom floor is a laundromat, and above it is a restaurant, and above that is a hotel, and the top floor is the bar. There are some people who live in the hotel and work at the restaurant.
Is there a grocery store?
Yes, it’s very small and very overpriced. It’s not a convenient way to live. A lot of people end up driving to Anchorage once a month and going to Costco.
Does everyone have a car?
A lot of people have cars. There is a rental car station—I assume it closes in the winter, I’m not sure. Of course, if you have a car, you have to dig it out of the snow every time.
Do most people own or rent their homes?
That’s a good question. I assume most people own. I’m assuming the cost of living is relatively low. It’s actually really expensive. Housing is not that expensive, but food is really expensive. You won’t even get a beer cheaper than $5 anywhere in Alaska. Unless it’s a Rainier, then you might get lucky for $4.50.
And how far is from Anchorage?
It’s only about an hour. Whittier isn’t truly remote at all, just cut off. There’s another town within about 10 minutes on the other side of the tunnel. That town, Portage, was mostly destroyed in the 1964 earthquake, so there’s not much there besides a wildlife reservation, but nonetheless.
I think that’s another thing that intrigues me about Whittier: people have a sense of Alaska of being a wilderness, and it disrupts their assumptions to see a microcosm of a city within the midst of this wild, barren landscape.
Do people go out much? Is there skiing, or—?
People go snowmobiling, kayaking, hiking, fishing. Any kind of water sports are really popular. I have yet to stay there for a winter, and so I’m very curious about that, because the biggest ski resort in all of Alaska is only 30 minutes away in Girdwood. That town is known for being really athletic and young and active. My sense is that Whittier is not really like that in the winter.
How old is the population?
There’s 32 kids in the school. Which nearly doubled from my first year there, because some of the younger kids got out of preschool, and there was an unexpected influx of people. The school itself is actually award-winning, which was also surprising to me. It’s kind of run like a Montessori school in which the kids have to make five-year plans.
So there’s not many kids, and the majority are probably over 50, if I had to hazard a guess. The smallest demographic has to be high-school age up to, like, 25. There’s almost no one in that age bracket. I’ve spoken to a good deal of people who have lived there 13 years or more, and they’re all for the most part in their 50s.
And do you get a sense of sort of a general proportion of natives to transplants?
I’ve only met one person who was born in Whittier and still lives in Whittier at the age of 40. I know one girl I met my first summer, but I don’t know if she’s still there, was about 18 and a third-generation Whittier resident. She was born and raised there. Her grandfather was stationed in Whittier in World War II and he liked it so much he came back, and he had his kids there and they had their kids there.
But that doesn’t seem very common at all. The next longest resident has been there for 34 years, but she came over from New Hampshire. There’s a lot of people who are from Alaska and have come to live in Whittier, but it’s probably mostly from the lower 48 or somewhere else in the world.
So I guess you’ve taken a lot of photos of the residents?
Yes, my goal is to talk to as many residents as possible. Every resident would be amazing. I have a lot of pictures of the infrastructure and sort of an overview of the town, so now what I’m interested in getting are these stories. The grant I’ve been awarded is to continue photographing, but more importantly to start an oral history. So far I’ve done only three interviews, but I want to interview almost everyone if that’s possible. The work will exist finally as a book that combines my photographs, historical images of Whittier, and the text of these interviews.
It’s been a really interesting experience speaking to people about Whittier. People are kind of accustomed to Whittier as being portrayed with a bit of ridicule, and are a little suspicious at times. There’s a book about Whittier’s history, it’s the only one I’ve found so far, it’s called The Strangest Town in Alaska. And ten years ago this documentary crew went up there to make a documentary that didn’t end up working out, but its working title was Prisoners of Whittier.
So the discourse around it is very negative, for the most part. And it’s something that I struggle with, too. I read a book jacket recently—it was a biography of Martha Gellhorn. She was a journalist, a war correspondent, but she also happened to be married to Hemingway for a while. It was this very in-depth biography of her, and yet this book jacket says, “Martha Gellhorn was one of the greatest war correspondents of her time. And yet she’s generally known as being just one of Hemingway’s wives. This book disproves that.” And of course, that’s paradoxical and absurd, to have to cite the false impression in order to talk about it. It reinforces the very cliché it’s trying to dispel.
So sometimes I’ve experienced that with Whittier. It’s problematic, and something I still struggle with. It’s hard to discuss without prefacing that discussion by calling it “the strangest town” or “the armpit of Alaska” or any of the other prejudices that paint Whittier as nothing but really strange.
Well, it is really strange!
It is really strange, yeah—that’s absolutely true, but that’s not the whole story. That’s the hard thing to balance.
I guess maybe the thing is that it is really strange, but it’s still these people’s lives.
Yes, and playing to any one cliché about Whittier shuts down all of the conversations that those lives and those stories could open up. The path that leads from Anywhere, America to Whittier, Alaska is very different from the path that leads to New York City.
I’ve found Whittier to be a really interesting lens on America. You get to see realities that we face across this country—environmental change, urban decay, addiction, community togetherness and disruption—play out on this really tiny, tiny scale. And all of the architectural oddities are in the end only a frame to get to this place where we can talk about space and the impact it has on this really diverse mixture of lives that come through. The strangeness is this great surrounding principle, but in the end it’s just a framework, an excuse to listen to really interesting things that have resonance outside of the context.