As a professional photo editor, I don’t watch movies the way most people do. Regardless of the filmmaker’s original intent—to push my buttons, tug at my heartstrings, put me on the edge of my seat, or transport me to an escapist fantasy—my involuntary photo-editor reflexes color my viewing experience. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy movies; it just means that, for me, a degree of cinematographic awareness will always factor in to that enjoyment. While I’m following the main story onscreen, I’m also considering whether the director’s color, shadow, framing, and lighting choices work or don’t.
That’s why, when I think of movies that effectively tell a story both narratively and visually, Chasing Ice, the award-winning 2012 documentary by 28-year-old filmmaker Jeff Orlowski, comes to mind. Here’s my one-sentence encapsulated review: This is totally my kind of movie. Powerful, persuasive, and beautiful, this feature-length S.O.S. detailing climate change’s devastating impact on our planet’s glacial systems—and set in some of the most dreamlike and vulnerable landscapes on the globe—was justly lauded by critics and audiences upon its release last November.
Though the film has been out for a while, the larger project that Orlowski was documenting in Chasing Ice is ongoing. That project—the documentary-within-a-documentary, if you will—is known as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), and its goal is to record the alarming rate at which our glaciers are receding. Spearheaded by nature photographer James Balog, the EIS provides Orlowski’s movie with its compelling narrative framework. Balog’s quest to capture, photographically, the rapid disappearance of glaciers attaches a human-centered narrative, and a sense of true urgency, to all of the film’s breathtakingly gorgeous footage of ice.
Balog has been a highly regarded photographer for more than 20 years, with a long list of books, awards, and National Geographic features to his name. It was back in 2007 that he and his colleagues first began setting up time-lapse cameras in frozen, remote locations in Iceland, Greenland, Montana, and Alaska, in order to measure glacial retreat. In the film, the sheer logistical difficulty of even attempting to document phenomena in some of the coldest parts of the world is made clear when the EIS’s first six months of shooting amount to a total washout. Brutally extreme environmental conditions push standard-issue equipment well beyond its limits: batteries explode, timers fail, curious animals gnaw remote cables in half. Then, just as Balog and his team are beginning to resolve their photographic equipment issues, Balog’s own equipment—as in his bodily health—begins to fail. The joints in his knee give out, rendering him more or less immobile and dependent on other members of his crew to continue the job of setting up the cameras, without his physical assistance.
But they do, in the end, get set up—and then we get to see incontrovertible evidence that our ancient glaciers are disappearing. Fast. With the aid of time-lapse photography, we’re able to witness them retreating before our very eyes, moving away from the camera and leaving behind bare earth and rocks. Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier, for example, retreats 2.3 miles over the course of three years—a greater distance than it had retreated in the previous 100 years.
Once Chasing Ice began racking up the more than 30 different awards it has gone on to receive, Balog could easily have decided that it was time to move on to something else, and parlayed his sudden semi-fame into a new project. But he didn’t. Instead, he has doubled down on this whole making-a-difference idea and dedicated himself into spreading the word on climate change. He’s adding new camera locations as I type these words—the most recent, just added in May, is in Antarctica—continuing the job of recording this irrefutable evidence and then sharing it not just on his website but in classrooms, lecture halls, books, and TED talks.
The environmentalist in me found Chasing Ice moving; the photo editor in me found it (and the underlying photographic project that it chronicles) validating. The reason is that the film makes the case for marshaling imagery—hard though it may be to obtain—in any larger campaign to win hearts and minds over to the side of taking immediate action on climate change. Studies and reports can be persuasive, to be sure. Computer-generated climate models, too. But for many people—and perhaps most people outside of the scientific and academic communities—images tell a more direct and convincing story.
Near the end of Chasing Ice, Balog reminds viewers that there is no longer any disagreement in the general scientific community about whether global warming is real; the discussion that scientists are having now is over what to do about it. But among non-scientists, despite all manner of irrefutable evidence, there are still plenty of doubters. As long as there are people who think the jury’s still out with regard to evolution, there will also be people who don’t believe that our greenhouse-gas emissions have played any role in climate change.
Balog isn’t interested in arguing with them over fine points. He’d rather just show them the pictures. “Seeing is believing,” he writes on the EIS website. “Real-world visual evidence has a unique ability to convey the reality and immediacy of global warming to a worldwide audience.” Right now, EIS cameras around the world are taking pictures of glaciers every half-hour during daylight, year-round—just as they’ve been doing since 2007—resulting in nearly 8,000 frames per camera, per year. The beautiful, terrible, unforgettable images that are the result should collectively be labeled “Exhibit A.”
All images courtesy of James Balog