Award-winning photographer Paul Nicklen speaks to Sophie Breitsameter about his new book Born to Ice, growing up in northern Canada and the unexpected diversity of life in some of the most extreme regions of the world
“Photography has the power to change minds” says award-winning photographer Paul Nicklen, co-founder of non-profit organization SeaLegacy. “But more importantly, it has the power to break down the walls of apathy and grab people at the heart and then teach them something”.
SeaLegacy was founded in 2014, but long before that, Paul Nicklen has been using the medium of photography to try to turn the tide on pollution in oceans. SeaLegacy’s mission, he explains, is to “affect change by constantly reminding people how precious, special, beautiful, fragile, complex and amazing our planet is. Using the power of beauty to motivate change as opposed to flooding people with negativity.” This is an ethos reflected in his own photography work as well. With a career spanning over 20 years, Nicklen has presented often widely unknown parts of ocean life to a mass audience, in particular through publications such as National Geographic. His stunning yet though-provoking images have earned Nicklen scores of prestigious photography awards, including the coveted BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
This summer, he released a book Born to Ice, with a foreword by Leonardo DiCaprio, which takes readers on a journey through the endangered aquatic ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctica.
You grew up in Nunavut, in northern Canada – what’s your earliest memory of the landscape?
When I was four years old my family moved to Baffin Island, to a community called Kimmirut (which, at the time, was called Lake Harbour). We didn’t have a telephone. We never had a radio. We never had a television. Instead, all of my time was spent outside with the Inuit, on land or on the sea ice, and I learned many things from them. I learned about survival skills but mostly what I learned from the Inuit was patience: the patience it takes to catch a fish or large animals like seals. It could sometimes take two days. They would stand by a seal hole or wait patiently for wildlife to come by so they could hunt to feed their families. I saw an immense level of patience.
I also learned how to freeze. I learned how to be cold. I understood what true pain was; when you lose feeling in your feet or your hands. All through my childhood, I learned what it meant to be really, truly cold.
In your latest book, Born to Ice, you capture your love affair with the polar regions. Is there a particular image in the book that is important to you?
I love the polar bear in the window (below) in Svalbard, because that image combines art, science and conservation. I also love the reflection of the polar bear diving under the ice. Again, that really tells a story.
Then you go down to Antarctica. I dove under the ice with the clearest visibility in the world with emperor penguins, looked out over 400,000 king penguins and got the chance to be in the water with a leopard seal again. I look at this book and I just get lost in so many beautiful memories.
Favourite encounters so far?
I really love species that represent a habitat and an ecosystem. Narwhals, for example, are a very powerful representation of the Arctic for me. Photographing them was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
The scary part, the negative part, about this book it could very easily become a record of things that we stand to lose. Narwhals are as vulnerable as polar bears, and as we lose sea ice – which is like soil in a garden – we are losing these animals’ habitats. The same thing goes for Antarctica. The ecosystems have been changing so rapidly.
How does the book embody your message of conservation?
It’s really a message of art, science and conservation. This book leads with the art. It has to be powerful, beautiful, emotional, and from there, if people are open to it, they will ask themselves some questions about science, learn a little bit and then understand that we are all connected – and that’s the conservation part of this book.
What’s your process like?
I want to tell the story of an animal, and in order to do that, I need to make people care about that species. Then, I need to make those images intimate, to lure people in, which means I often have to get quite close. Now, the only way to get close to some of these big charismatic megafauna is to put in hundreds of hours of sitting there and waiting and letting that animal dictate the encounter. This allows you to get that unique perspective. I will always I leave it up to the animals as to whether they want to get close to me, be that a leopard seal, a polar bear, grizzly bear, or a herd of caribou.
So this is where your Inuit lessons in patience come in handy!
Whatever it is, all you can do is be quiet humble, patient and put the time in. Try to remove luck and serendipity from the equation. You know that if you’re there long enough in a certain spot, waiting for the right light and all that stuff to come together, then that would be the serendipitous part. The light, the conditions, the mood, the weather and the patience of that animal all come together and that allows you to shoot your magic. Having all those elements come together only happens with a lot of planning and a lot of patience.
How is it, getting up close and personal to such awe-inspiring wildlife?
I think I’m very relaxed. It’s very peaceful. In order for an animal to be that relaxed with you, you yourself have to be relaxed. You can never be nervous or show signs of aggression. You have to so gentle with these animals, in order for them to decide they’re comfortable with you being in their space.
Most hair-raising experiences?
Everybody always thinks that animals are dangerous and that we have all these harrowing experiences in the field, but I’d say there are almost none. All my harrowing experiences have come from my own mistakes. Take, for example, me crashing my ultralight airplane into a lake with my wheels down and getting hurt, trapped in the cockpit and almost not making it out alive. Or it’s me running out of air and getting trapped under the sea ice when I’m diving. There has almost never been a moment with an animal that has been terrifying. It’s almost always peaceful, calm and beautiful. And, if there has been a harrowing moment, I don’t remember it because for every scary moment, there are ten thousand beautiful ones. Those are the things that I remember.
What’s a common misconception about the polar regions?
I think the misconception about the Arctic is that people assume it’s this lifeless, frozen seascape. They look over the sea ice and see nothing but barren white ice against a white-out sky. However, when you dive under the ice, you realize it’s probably one of the most densely populated ecosystems in the world, full of amphipods and copepods (types of tiny crustaceans) and massive swarms of polar cod. These tiny creatures form the foundation of the food for all the top predators: beluga whales, narwhals, bearded seals, ring seals, obviously polar bears and all the other species that feed on this bounty of life. It’s so incredibly rich.
So just what makes the ecosystem there so unique?
While it’s not as diverse as a rainforest – there are significantly fewer species – what you do get there is really big, such as the bowhead whale, the second largest whale in the world . A 100 tonne animal like that lives on some of the smallest creatures in the world, and it’s incredible how much food it takes to create such a leviathan in these icy seas.
To read our interview with Cristina Mittermeier, SeaLegacy Co-Founder, click here
Born to Ice by Paul Nicklen, published by teNeues, €100, www.teneues.com
Photography courtesy of Paul Nicklen, www.sealegacy.org
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