Photographer Ben Huff first heard about Adak Island in a book. The place was a midway point between the United States and Russia—about a six-hour flight over the ocean from the Alaskan coastline. A place where, at the height of the Cold War, a military base housed up to 5,000 troops ready to deal with nuclear war. But then, when the Cold War ended, nearly all went home leaving an eerie mix of bunkers, houses, deteriorating military hardware, and an endless procession of cold waves crashing against the island.
Huff was instantly fascinated by the story and decided to visit. He’s now been to Adak several times and has got to know the remaining residents, while photographing the base’s slow deterioration.
I caught up with Ben to talk about why he’s so fascinated by Adak and what’s it like exploring and photographing a Cold War relic.
VICE: Have you always been into exploring and photography?
Ben Huff: I came to it a bit later than most. I probably didn’t take pictures until I was 28 or so.
But art was always part of my world in one way or another. Most of my interest in photography is sort of rooted in that mindset of exploring. I’ve always been a bit of wanderer, dreamer, and I’ve always been prone to going off by myself and getting lost. I think a lot of it came from that core of wanting to be out in the world and to discover things.
How did you first find out about Adak?
I was in a small independent bookstore in Fairbanks and I found this three-volume set called the Forgotten War, which was all about World War Two in Alaska. It wasn’t a subject I was particularly keen on, but I just sort picked it up and was flicking through the pictures. Then I came to this section on Adak and the author said the island had gone from World War Two to being very important in the Cold War. That blew my mind. Growing up in the Cold War I’ve always been interested in it from a nostalgic standpoint.
What captivated you about Adak?
I’m drawn to end of the road types, people who aren’t casting themselves out of community, but have found a community on the fringes of society from a geographical standpoint more than a societal standpoint. It was this great intersection of wildest, most romantic, beautiful, storied places on the planet that had this vein of infrastructure and war time capitalism and this whole theatre of war wrapped around it. I’m still just so captivated by this, of this place being the last frontier. This past-tense slogan we’ve thrown around in the last 50 years. I’m interested in these places we’ve co-oped or we’ve occupied, we’ve exploited, and specifically with Adak this place was of vital importance until the day it was no longer open. This wild place, that was built up, to feel like anywhere in the USA, and was then disbanded.
What’s life like for the remaining inhabitants?
At current count, there are 78 full-time residents. It’s one of those communities where the community exists purely to support the community. Most people I know that live on the island work three jobs. Like they’ll work for Alaskan Airlines two days a week, and then they do some work for the cannery or wait tables at the restaurant, and work for the city government one day a week. Everybody has three to four jobs a week and they do that to get by.
When you first visited, what was your first impression of the island and town?
I was most struck by the fact that Adak was built to look and feel any other base in the country. It could be a neighbourhood just like the one I grew up in, in Iowa or a neighbourhood in Nebraska or Illinois. It had that very safe, sterile, generic feeling and nostalgia. It very much felt like my childhood. And that was very comforting and disconcerting at the same time. If you walk to the shore of Kulak Bay and you look north there’s nothing, north of there but the Bering Strait. You are geographically so far out there, but from a built environment perspective, your surroundings are so familiar.
Article continued below, but while you're here, check out this related VICE documentary:
What’s left of Adak?
It very much feels like one day everyone was there and the next day everybody left. Of what’s left that’s still functional—there are the military duplexes where everybody lives, two restaurants, a general store, the airport, docks, the cannery, and the fuelling station. But by and large every building that the military used—hundreds of buildings—they were just left and they’ll all infected with mould and they’ve been subjected to the wind for 20 years. Most of them are completely uninhabitable and no one will ever use those buildings again. The landscape is beginning to take a lot of those places back. And there’s still an area to the north of the island that still has an unexploded ordinance, which they’re still cleaning up 20 years later.
What keeps bringing you back?
The reason I keep going back is twofold. Firstly, the book and the exhibition I have in my head isn’t done. There are holes that need to be filled. It’s a very pragmatic, artistic thing that isn’t complete. But there’s also the emotional side. I love that place and that community. Those two things hinge on each other and need each other. One day I’ll be done with this work but I’ll still want to go back. Whether I will, I don’t know.