I want you to try something: close your eyes, think back over your media diet for the day, and identify six photographs that you clearly remember seeing.
It's harder than you would have thought, isn't it? Photographs are everywhere: in our newspapers, on our computer and tablet screens, at our bus stops, on our food packaging. Advertisers and editors spend a lot of time and money trying to ensure that you won't forget all those sexy images at the end of the day. But I'll bet that you did forget them. It's simply impossible to retain the amount of visual information that our image-saturated culture throws at us. We're bombarded with photographic images of every possible kind: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (The media scales are most heavily weighted toward those last two categories, alas.) All of these images are out there clamoring for our attention; some are screaming, others are whispering, but all are saying: look at me!
The cruel irony, from the image producers' standpoint at least, is that we’re completely unaware of most of them. In such a maelstrom, nothing gets the chance to stand out. We’re visually numb.
As OnEarth's photo editor, I get to see incredible photography on a daily basis -- the kind that makes a powerful visual statement, the kind capable of yanking you back from numbness into consciousness. It’s beautiful photography, but it's more than that: it's meaningful. It operates in a space where the categories of documentary, science, and fine art blur and overlap. These photos challenge us to slow down, to think, to dig a little deeper. Why did the photographer focus on this subject in the foreground, and not that one in the background? What is she really trying to show us here? And, of course, the larger question at the core of those others: why should I care?
The special photographs of which I speak are the ones that remind us about the fragile bonds that connect all life on our planet. They're worth seeing, and they're worth caring about. These images (and the stories behind them) are the ones I’d like to share with you in my new blog. I hope you enjoy them.
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Now that the preamble is out of the way, let me introduce you to a photographer whose work you’ve probably seen before (perhaps in this OnEarth review, for instance). Paul Nicklen's specialty is taking photographs in sub-zero temperatures at the earth's polar regions. And yet, somewhat amazingly, this award-winning photographer never gets “cold feet.”
So far, the 20 cases of frostbite Paul has endured in his dogged pursuit of that "perfect shot" haven't deterred him. One shoot required Paul to snap, right up close, the gaping mouth of a 1,000-pound leopard seal. Another shoot found him sprawled belly-down on the ice with his camera poised as waves of Emperor penguins vaulted out of the water beside him. Both scenarios illustrate just how completely at home Paul is in this frozen environment.
In his 2011 TED Talk “Tales of Icebound Wonder,” which is alternatively funny, stunningly beautiful, and moving, Nicklen shares a revealing secret for getting such incredible photographs. “If I find myself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a lot of other photographers, I know I'm in the wrong place," he says. "If I'm cold and miserable and alone under the sea ice, and my assistant is hating me for being there, and big animals with large and sharp protruding parts are staring at me, then I know I'm in the right spot.”
He needn't worry too much. By hanging out in minus-40 temperatures in Antarctica (which he does regularly), Paul all but ensures that he won’t find himself caught in some standing-room-only crowd of photographers. He's much more often than not the only photographer around for many miles -- as was the case when he jumped into icy waters to prove that leopard seals weren’t, in fact, the vicious killers they have sometimes been depicted as. He spent days photographing one particular female leopard seal that had befriended him -- and even tried to woo him with fresh penguins. The result is a series of some of the most remarkable images of these misunderstood marine mammals ever to be captured.
Climate change has increased the urgency of his mission. The more attention that he and other members of the media can direct toward the devastating impact that loss of ice will have on the polar regions, the greater the chance that it will "inspire an audience to help avert the warming trend that is changing these remote areas quickly and irreversibly," he said in a 2012 National Geographic Live! lecture. "What I’m trying to do with my work is put faces to this. If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem.”
If those sound like the words of an environmental scientist, that's because they are: Paul also happens to be a marine biologist with a degree from the University of Victoria. He sees his photography and his science as twin components of a larger job description, which he labels interpreter or translator.
As you look at his powerful, beautiful photographs, you'll hardly be surprised to learn that they’ve already earned Paul an array of coveted honors. Last December he became the first recipient of NRDC’s Biogems Visionary award (disclaimer: NRDC publishes OnEarth). His most recent book, Polar Obsession, is now in its third printing and has won more than 20 international awards from organizations like World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International, and the BBC. He's one of only a handful of photographers in the entire world who can claim to be a member of National Geographic's most trusted cadre and has published more than a dozen stories for that magazine.
In the form of one person, Paul Nicklen combines a biologist's knowledge, a conservationist's concern, and an artist's creativity to highlight the most pressing issues facing our polar regions. Every seal, penguin, and polar bear that he photographs puts a face on the essential ways that ice and wildlife are interwoven on our coldest ecosystems -- ecosystems we're in grave danger of losing.
All images courtesy of Paul Nicklen