Out the window and under the wing of the twin-prop driven puddle jumper, frozen taiga and oxbowed rivers stretched to meet the horizon, filling the frame with a swirled mosaic of a thousand tones of white, grey and green. Heading to the Canadian subarctic making films for PBI for the first time I was unsure of what I was getting myself into. I knew there would be bears, I knew it would be cold, but beyond that I was a newbie with a camera in a pair of oversized surplus boots.
Stepping onto the two story tall research buggy I am met by a sort of arctic all-star team as the last rays of a rare sunny day fade to orange. Dead ahead is Ian Stirling, a scientist who has dedicated nearly 40 years of research in the polar regions to better understand behavioral ecology and population dynamics, most notably on polar bears of the north. To my right is Søren Koch, ambassador of the World Wildlife Fund Denmark and premier wildlife photographer, to my left is Dan Cox, director of the Arctic Documentary Project, lensman of two National Geographic covers and PBI’s principal photographer; BJ Kirschhoffer, cold weather tech wizard and purveyor or fine fur mittens settles in behind the wheel.
Pushing off the launch deck, the buggy jolted and bounced across the frozen tundra. As we entered a field of radio banter and frozen cratered lakes, you’d be pardoned if you thought your mars rover had gone astray, landing instead on a cold desolate outer planet. Merely two hours onto the frozen landscape you get the feeling like you are getting out there. Precautions are taken to limit human time on the ground, a few minutes too long shooting without gloves could mean serous tissue damage. It’s a raw place where things could get fatal fast. However in these places, elemental hazards bring their own rewards. Here, unparalleled access to polar bear populations and the raking winter light of the north provide two ingredients that make for spectacular image making. However, working with scientists like Ian and these world class photographers, making images becomes more than mere aesthetics.
As Ian noted in a paper for wildlife professionals and researchers,” the similarities between traditional nature photography and conservation photography are many, the most outstanding difference lies in the fact that the latter is born out of purpose”. Scientists like Ian have dedicated a life’s work to understanding and conserving the animals at the earths poles, taking head on the philosophical management challenges of today and the environment of tomorrow. He notes, ” the need for the kinds of images that touch people’s hearts and change people’s minds is growing…we need to advocate for shooting the whole scene and not just the select pieces that we, the architects of the image, choose to show the public.” As a documentary filmmaker and social scientist this critical evaluation fascinates me, the necessity to make documentary images that capture and communicate the complex interplay of humans and the environment around them- to elicit social change.
With an early start this morning we followed bears into the first light, streaming video to classrooms and homes in the lower latitudes via remote controlled cameras and a patched IT network. To think that this is what conservation communications has become- live visuals from the far north, accessed from any computer or data phone in the world- is truly remarkable, however it’s arguably a necessity. Ian notes, “In the long term, the loss of an iconic species such as the polar bear is but a symbol of much larger and hugely significant changes that will occur in many ecosystems throughout the world if the climate continues to warm; especially if, as projected by the IPCC, such warming is largely a consequence of excess anthropogenic productivity of greenhouse gases. The tasking of societal change to media, storytelling and the power of the image by environmental scientists armed with a half century of data is a powerful if not overwhelming notion. But, it’s worth having a crack at and that’s something I can raise a glass of scotch to.
It’s dark now and the temperature is falling far below zero fahrenheit, winds are picking up as a blizzard moves in for the night. Beyond the rock spit north of camp, pack ice is forming, bears pace below the decks, waiting impatiently and ravenously for ice to fully form to begin hunting. Old hands say this is the most pack ice and coldest temps they have seen this early in years, let’s hope it keeps up.