Celebrating International Polar Bear Day With a Look at Conservation Photography

Today the conservation organization Polar Bears International is celebrating International Polar Bear Day, a day of action and awareness that encourages people to think about their carbon footprint and the steps they can take to reduce their impact on climate change and the loss of arctic ice.

In honor of International Polar Bear Day we thought we’d highlight the work of a pair of photographers we’ve had the opportunity to interview in recent years: Paul Nicklen and Florian Schulz. Each of them has photographed polar bears and other arctic animals, and they are leading voices in the effort to conserve arctic ecosystems.

Below is our 2009 interview with Paul Nicklen about his book Polar Obsession. When we published the interview in 2009, we also featured a handful of his photographs from the book on our “PDN Photo of the Day” blog, which you can check out here. Since we published it, it’s become one of the most popular and shared posts ever on “PDN Photo of the Day.”

More recently we spoke with German photographer Florian Schulz about his book To the Arctic, about photographing in some of the remotest places on earth, and about working as a conservation photographer.

Happy International Polar Bear Day!

A Pretty Picture Isn’t Enough: An Interview with Paul Nicklen

This interview first appeared on PDNOnline on November 20, 2009.

After beginning his career as a biologist, Paul Nicklen quit his job for the Canadian government and dedicated himself to wildlife photography. Nicklen grew up in the only non-Inuit family in a small Inuit community on Baffin Island, in the remote Nunavut territory in northern Canada. There he developed an appreciation for and knowledge of the arctic that fed his photographic work.

In 1994, while struggling to make money as a young photographer, Nicklen wrote a proposal to the Nunavut territorial government asking for funding to begin a book project documenting wildlife in the arctic and Antarctica. The government cut him a check for $8,000.

For the next 15 years, first as a freelancer and then as a National Geographic photographer, Nicklen worked to document nearly every species of wildlife in the polar regions, while never losing sight of that first proposal. “When I’m mentoring young photographers, I tell them to think of some major project all their stories can fall under, so you can have an identity some day, and do a book and all that,” Nicklen says. National Geographic Focal Point recently released Nicklen’s book, aptly titled Polar Obsession. It’s the realization of a decade and a half making pictures in some of the harshest and most remote regions of the world.

But as Paul Nicklen told PDN, beautiful pictures aren’t enough to capture the attention of audiences during this critical time for polar ecosystems.

PDN: What do you hope the book conveys to readers?

Paul Nicklen: Being a biologist for so many years and working so hard to collect data, I felt so helpless with these data sets that we worked so hard to bring back to the government. We were really slow at sharing the data and having other scientists share their data with us. Eventually, [after establishing a photography career] I did some scientific stories for Geographic, and then one day I did an article that was more of an emotional plea to the readers of Geographic. I actually thought it was going to bomb. I was very surprised that it was ranked as the number one story in Geographic that year through their readership survey, and it was ranked as the highest [readership survey] score in the last 17 years at National Geographic, so that gave me the confidence that I had found a formula of reaching out to people.

What the book does and what the article did is just to let people know how connected the animals and species are to an icy polar existence. I had a very respected scientist say to me: If we lose ice, we lose an ecosystem. Ice is like the soil in the ground. One piece of multiyear ice has 300 species of microorganisms in it. When the sun returns to the arctic in the spring, you get the big phytoplankton blooms under the ice, all this algae growing, you get the copepods and amphipods feeding on that, which makes up the biggest biomass in the arctic ecosystem. You’ve got the arctic cod feeding on that, you’ve got the seals feeding on the cod, you’ve got the whales feeding on the cod, and then you’ve got of course the polar bears feeding on the seals. This chain all the way through is tied to the ice.

When there’s a bad ice year, those copepods and amphipods are severely affected. The original projections were that the arctic was going to be ice-free by 2100. Now they say the arctic is going to be completely free of ice in the next 7-15 years, and so the projections have been off, its accelerating at a much faster rate than we ever thought. Were all getting caught off guard by how quickly its disappearing.

PDN: When you began this work, were you at all aware of these concerns?

PN: No, not at all. When I first started in photography in 1994, that was around the time that game farms really broke onto the market and you could go photograph snow leopards and rent a wolverine and a black bear and grizzly all in one day for $500. Because of my science background and my biology training and my passion for the polar regions, I thought, The more people that [go to game farms], the better, the more I need to go up and shoot the habitat and show the interconnectivity between the species and the ice. So I gambled and it paid off. I shot hard for those 7 years. Then 2002 rolls around and thats when we started to get the first cries that things were changing in the arctic. I went on some scientific trips, and then by 2004 people were saying were in serious trouble. I felt lucky to already have a really big body of work at that point. Ive photographed every species in the arctic and most of the species in Antarctica now. So I was lucky to be on top of it.

PDN: Once that information started to come to light, did it change your work or your goals, or what you did with your photographs?

PN: Yes and no. I started out in photography as a pretty picture photographer. I just wanted to shoot beautiful pictures of beautiful creatures sitting in the polar regions. But that left me feeling really empty in my work. Then luckily I met [wildlife photographers] Flip Nicklin and Joel Sartore and they both mentored me, and really taught me the power of telling a story. I realized you don’t need a lot of different pictures, you can still have the candy, and then you just need a few pictures of ice and copepods to show people how its all tied together. I don’t need hundreds of pictures of people taking ice core samples. One quote from a scientist will cover all of that type of photography. So I’m again coming from the angle of celebrating the life in the arctic and saying this is what we stand to lose unless we change our ways.

PDN: Are you making more of an effort now to find ways to do be an advocate for climate change issues?

PN: I allow [all the scientists that I work with] to use my photography at no charge. The best scientists I’ve worked with were the worst communicators, by far. My goal is to bridge the gap between good scientific research and the public. These scientists are out there speaking and showing all these really bad pictures, they’re showing PowerPoint presentations of these pie charts and I think that people are glazing over. So I’m like, Why don’t you insert a few pictures to keep them entertained and then hit them with the pie charts and the graphs?

I speak as much as possible. It’s a decent way to make a living and its also really getting the message out there. I spoke to Dow Chemicals; I spoke to a bunch of ad agencies, to Microsoft and Apple; I spoke to Frito-Lay, PepsiCo. At the end of the Frito-Lay talk I got a standing ovation, and the CEO got up and said, “I’m buying 1000 copies of your book and giving it to all upper management in my company.” You just start to get the message out there any way you can.

PDN: Do you have an agent for your speaking engagements or does National Geographic set them up?

PN: I’m with the speakers bureau here at Geographic and I book my own gig the odd time. I like it because on the [Geographic speaker] Web page it talks about photographers with environmental messages, and I don’t shy away from that. I’m not trying to do these high-paying motivational speeches, I’m coming in with a message and if people don’t want to hear it they wont enjoy my talk. I had one complaint yesterday with someone saying my talk was entertaining but it was just a little too environmental. And it wasn’t even that environmental, but people just don’t want to hear it. People are busy; they’ve got their kids, their spouses, their Blackberries and cell phones going off, and its just one more thing to have to worry about.

PDN: How have the downturns in the economy and the magazine market affected what you do?

PN: It hasn’t affected me financially, maybe because I’m shooting global warming issues and polar regions. I think I’ve had my best stock year ever. But what has really hurt what I’m doing and what message were trying to get out there, is as soon as the economy tanks, climate change drops way down the list. Almost all the decisions people make are financially based [in a bad economy]. So I feel that my message is falling more on deaf ears.

PDN: How has photographic technology influenced your work?

PN: It’s just huge. I was on a story in 2004 for Geographic diving in the fastest ocean currents in the world, really technical diving, and to go down with multiple film housings and multiple strobes—when you shoot underwater strobes you have to shoot manual exposure, TTL just does not work underwater—and my project wasn’t going well. I talked to Kathy Moran, my editor, and she said, I can see you’re trying, it looks really difficult, but you’re not getting it, you’re just missing it. Right then I went and bought two brand new, expensive [Canon] EOS 1D film cameras, and I thought I’ll just buy a digital [Canon] 1D Mark II just to have on the side so I can start dabbling. Well those film bodies never came out of their boxes. I paid $3000 each and I sold them on eBay for $200 each and I’ve never looked back. That was in 2004. Now I can put a camera in my housing, put in a 16MB card that will shoot 500 frames. I’ve got [the equivalent of] 15 rolls of film underwater without having to go back up and change film, and I can instantly see what my lights are doing, I can instantly check my histogram.

When I did the leopard seal story [published in the book], all of a sudden I’m having an encounter with this animal that’s feeding me penguins, it’s the most magical encounter I’ve ever had with an animal, and if I had film I would have shot 35 frames, I would have lost most of those to bad exposure or other things, and I would have turned my back on that animal and ended that encounter. Swim away from an animal like that, you end the encounter. So here I am, I was able to shoot 15 “rolls” on my first dive with a leopard seal and I ended up shooting that entire assignment in four days. Normally an assignment is 12 weeks. So that’s what digital has done for me. And in the underwater world its very dark, and now I can switch to 1000 ISO. On one of my assignments [I was hand-holding], doing ten second exposures at night underwater and just sitting on the bottom. I never would have considered doing anything like that with film.

PDN: What advice would you give to young people who are interested in photographing wildlife as a career?

PN: I would tell them to get really used to the idea of rejection. Start off high. Shoot something you are really proud of. Send it to someone where you want it [published]. When they send you a rejection letter, send it to three more people who are next on the ladder, and if you get rejections from them send it to 90 more people, until someone picks it up.

People get so emotional in this business and they get the first rejection letter and the negative thoughts start to run through their heads. It takes a lot of patience, because no one else is going to believe in you until you build up that portfolio. You have to keep hammering away.

Don’t quit your day job until you have all of the equipment that you need and enough money to travel. I quit my government job, announced to the world that I was a professional photographer and I had saved 60 thousand dollars. Within one year of running my business I was flat broke and had not sold a picture. It took me three years before I was breaking even in my business, six years before I was making a profit, and then I got lucky to get into the Geographic system. Know that its going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, by far.

PDN: Has the majority of your work been self-assigned or have you done it on assignment?

PN: The first six years of my career were freelance, just shooting all my own personal stock, trying to get noticed by National Geographic. I did a bunch of stories for Canadian Geographic and Equinox and other magazines, but I wanted the big yellow monster. In 2001 I got my first assignment with Geographic and then they assigned the next two after that, and then the last eight have been my proposals.

PDN: How many projects are you able to do in a year?

PN: I’ve been shooting for [National Geographic] for eight years and I’ve shot 11 projects, so 1.3, I would say. And that’s pretty busy. You’re not [spending] a lot of time in the field but you have a lot of research time, you’re doing lectures, you’re editing, you’re at home buying and fixing gear trying to get ready for the trips.

PDN: Are there other organizations that you work for, or do your Geographic assignments eat up all of your time?

PN: I just did an assignment not too long ago for New York Times Magazine. That’s about it, and that was a real push for me, I had to squeeze them in one week between Geographic lectures and traveling. I’m really a bit of a recluse. When I’m not shooting I like to put my camera away, I like to hide it. You need down time and my dream is to fly my airplane. I bought an airplane five years ago and it sat in my driveway for those five years and I finally got to fly it this summer.

I’m also associated with the International League of Conservation Photographers. I do work with them, lecture with them and go on their RAVES, (Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions), so I go try and help their cause as well. I’m busier than I want to be, but the snowball started to roll on its own and I cant run from it at this stage. If I’m tired and exhausted and working hard, that’s it, you’ve got to keep going.

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