Hunting Polar Bears at Spitsbergen

“I took pictures feverishly, and when the gun went off and the dazzling mass of muscles collapsed, punctured, this marked the end of act one. I thought to myself: I won’t survive another round of such excitement.”

In August 1947, Lennart Nilsson travelled with M/S Harmoni from Tromsø in Norway to Kvitøya near Spitsbergen to document a polar bear hunt. Together with his friend, the painter Nils Öst, he spent several weeks onboard the ship. The story was first published by Se but later also in Life magazine. Reader responses were strong.

“My first impulse was to protest at such pictures and articles in the future. On second thought, I believe that if it were not for that article we, the reading public, would not know that such things exist. If those pictures will serve as a means of arousing the sympathies of people throughout the world who love nature they will have served a purpose.” (Life Magazine, November 17, 1947, Letters to the editors)

Polar Bear Hunting, 1947. ©Lennart Nilsson/TT Newsagency

Polar Bear Hunting, 1947. ©Lennart Nilsson/TT Newsagency

“The big and small bear had seen us from afar. The mother decided to try to escape by water. Her cub, around six months old, but already of a respectable size, was more interested in the ship than in its mother’s desperate growling. He trundled on, however, as fast as he could, infected by the older bear’s fear, howled heartrendingly and licked its mother’s bleeding throat when the bullet had done its work. When the lasso from the hunters fell round his own neck he was seized with a raging fury that did not end until the dead body of the mother had been hauled on board and he flung his paws around her. A sight I will never forget.”
Se magazine, No 37, 1947)

Life Magazine, Oct 27 1947