Florian Schulz is an award-winning photographer whose striking images of the rapidly changing Arctic have received international recognition.
In 2012, Schulz released the book, To the Arctic, a collection of large-format photographs that offer a glimpse into a world that most people will never see, and one that is rapidly changing. Schulz spoke with associate editor Jessica Knoblauch in July of 2012.
Florian Schulz: It's because here in Germany we don't have big, open landscapes anymore that support grizzly bears or wolves or any of the big fauna. And so that's the reason why I went over to North America a lot because there I could still find the big open places.
I started coming over actually for the first time when I was 16 or 17. And, at that time, too, I realized as I was working for example on my Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam project that even in North America these big open places were actually dwindling. And when I talked to a scientist, Dr. Lance Craighead, at the time a bear biologist, he told me that even in North America there was the need of setting aside more open landscapes so that wildlife could migrate between protected areas and national parks and national forests.
I tried to create the term "freedom to roam" and also "national corridors" because I felt that people would connect with this idea and understand that there was something else needed besides just a national park. And I hope that if this new vision of national corridors would get established in North America, that idea could actually spread around the world and national corridors could be popping up in Africa and Asia … just across the world.
Jessica: And so your new book, To the Arctic, was just released and it's the result of months spent in the Arctic on assignment. What made you first want to document such a remote place?
Florian: For me, wilderness is one of the most exciting places because there nature still runs wild. There, humans haven't altered a landscape that much. So it's almost like a window back into time where humans were not playing a dominant role on the planet. I really like that because I feel I can observe nature and the wildlife in a natural pattern that always existed. And the Arctic is one of the most spectacular wild places because so many of its areas are so remote and inaccessible that you're one of the only people up there documenting it.
Jessica: Definitely. And so, you've partnered with Earthjustice and Patagonia as part of this Visions of the Arctic campaign, which works to raise awareness about the Arctic. Can you tell me a little bit about the campaign and your connection with Earthjustice?
Florian: Oh, absolutely. In a way, not many people know about the Alaskan Arctic and the Arctic in general because it's so remote, and there were statements by politicians that called it a flat white nothingness, a barren wasteland. That, in a way, was so provocative to me many years back that I said I needed to head out and really start documenting these places because most of the American public didn't really know anything about these areas.
And so, for me, to partner with Earthjustice was really beautiful because now my images would then be more purposeful because they now would be seen by a vaster community. So I went out on an Arctic aerial expedition because that would give me the biggest overview of the Alaskan Arctic. And I was able to document, on the one hand, the pristine open places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
And, on the other hand, I also saw the extent of the Prudhoe Bay oil field proposed mining sites or even existing ones like the Red Dog mine, and these were really scars in that beautiful pristine landscape. And so with these images then I hoped to make the general public a lot more aware [of] what beauty is up there and also what's at stake.
I think by now I've spent over 15 months in the Arctic in the course of the last six years. What was amazing for me is that the landscape in the Arctic isn't such a barren wasteland. You know, I saw tens of thousands of caribou covering the Arctic plains. And so in a way I started to understand how the Arctic is totally connected to the rest of the lower 48 through those migrating birds, the whales along the coastline, and of course those caribou that migrate all across Alaska.
Jessica: So how do you capture images like that?
Florian: There's always a big challenge in getting that perfect shot. One of the only things that I have going for me is I have a lot of patience when I'm doing this and I'm willing to invest a lot of time.
For me, I love documenting entire ecosystems, so I have to have [the] approach of looking at it with different angles, with different eyes. On the one hand, it's capturing shots that show the animals very small, almost the size of ants, as part of the big landscape, but then also switching to a strong telephoto lens and taking intimate portraits.
The light, of course, is always one of the most important things because that gives the mood, the atmosphere. But the beauty about the Arctic is that the sun sometimes for hours can just stay just above the horizon during the midnight hours in the summer and throw this beautiful orange light onto the caribou or onto whatever other animal you might find.
I think what was important was to get different impressions and different perspectives. The aerial expedition helped to get a really big overview of the different dramatic areas in the Arctic. The Teshekpuk Lake area, for example, with so many lakes scattered all across the flat Arctic coastal areas. But then you have the steep mountains with glaciers across the Brooks Range that come in connection there with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And then you have the ocean, which has pack ice that normally stays in the Arctic Ocean all the way into July and that pack ice can be filled with thousands and thousands of seals.
But then you also needed to be on the ground in camouflage tents and wait for the return of snowy owls to the nest and photograph that and get insight into the life of a snowy owl as she is raising her chicks. So yeah, it was definitely a challenge to give very many different perspectives, and of course, also to find ways to photograph the king of the Arctic, the polar bear, which is a really big challenge.
Jessica: I bet. And of course that's the cover image of your book is that great close-up shot of that polar bear. Can you describe how you got that image?
Florian: Oh absolutely. Let me describe it really quick. It's a big male polar bear returning to a fin whale carcass. And this carcass has actually washed up there and it's been there already for a year. Of course in the wintertime it's frozen over. And for me, an image of a polar bear in connection with the Arctic environment was so important because it would tell the story how the animals are connected with this environment.
I set up a remote camera that was placed very close to this whale carcass. And I knew that at high tide the bears would be off in the surrounding hills because they couldn't get to the meat. I had a very brief time to put in a protective casing with the camera inside that I could trigger remotely. And just as the tide was dropping, the bears were coming back, in particular this big male. And he came actually close over to that remote camera because he was curious what this new thing was there.
And so I was in a nearby zodiac and watching intently, of course, what was going to happen, and just as he's walking in front of this casing, I pressed the trigger and that image was taken. I was of course so thrilled because that bear now was captured in a way that connected him with that Arctic landscape, the glaciers in the background, and told a lot of a story of an Arctic environment.
Jessica: So obviously these animals are wild creatures and they can be pretty protective. Did you ever have any close encounters?
Florian: [laughs] I definitely did. You have to imagine in order to get this amount of imagery that leads you through the different seasons, we had to be out there during all these different seasons. I particularly remember the challenges of camping out on the frozen ocean during the winter time in the middle of the polar bear country.
In order to stay alive out there, what needed to happen pretty much is that one of us needed to stay awake while the other person was sleeping. That meant someone standing in front of the tent walking up and down so you wouldn't get as cold with a rifle and a flair gun just to make sure that a polar bear wouldn't suddenly show up.
But one of the times, it actually happened that me and my guide were a little bit further out on the ice, and one of the bears started coming over. I, of course, was really excited at the beginning because I was able to capture these images.
But as the bear kept coming closer and you started the first time to yell at it as you would do with a grizzly bear. You say, "Hey bear, don't come any closer!" That bear just didn't care at all. Polar bears, they are just a whole different animal. They are not afraid of humans at all. And so this bear just kept coming closer. So finally my guide shot in the air, and the bear startled and took off a little bit.
So I was relieved, but a second later the bear turns around, comes closer again and I thought, "Oh my God. What are we going to do now?" And that was a really scary moment because we were just there on foot. Our snowmobiles were probably like three-quarters of a mile away.
Fortunately, the third time we shot in the air, the bear got the message that we didn't like him coming any closer and it went away. They don't really have anything else to fear. They're definitely the kings up there. It becomes so tense because the last thing you want to do is shoot a polar bear.
Jessica: You mentioned you were working with a local guide. Did you just have one person the whole time that showed you around?
Florian: Oh no, it was many different expeditions in the course of these years. In Alaska, for example, I visited different native communities. Word-of-mouth got around that I wanted to get out into the pack ice, so one of the younger hunters he said that I could come out with him. In Spitsbergen, I got to know one of what was going to be my guides over the years, and we just became very good friends, so I headed out with him multiple times.
What's always different about when I'm going out there is that I always try to spend as much time as possible. And the beauty about it is that while you're out there, while you go to a remote village or when you're heading out, you bring enough time out there to possibly get to know people and then get also a little bit more in tune with the landscape and give it enough time that also these opportunities can present themselves. Because you don't just race out there for a week and then head back home. So I think that also makes the difference for the photography.
And what was so beautiful was to get an insight of their daily lives, how they're working with the dogs, how they're hunting—we were out hunting musk oxen—and that is what I really appreciated, that you'd get a true insight, a true sense of what it's like to live in this kind of environment. And also, you adapt to that area. Things slow down. You get into the rhythm of the environment there, of how people travel there, and how they live in connection with the land.
Jessica: Since you've spent so much time there, you've probably seen how the Arctic has changed over the years, especially with climate change effects like hotter temperatures. What kind of on the ground impacts did you see?
Florian: Well to bring a very current example, Svalbard in Spitsbergen, where I have photographed a lot, they have seen temperatures of 54 degrees Fahrenheit in February. That means that during that time, suddenly it was raining instead of, of course, snowing. Normally the temperature should have been more like minus four degrees Fahrenheit or even colder. The ground, of course, is still frozen, so then suddenly a layer of ice builds up over the ground. That meant all the reindeer that live on the island, they couldn't find any food anymore because all the lichen or any vegetation was now solidly frozen over with a hard shell of ice, so now they were dying off like crazy.
Also during my travels with Inuit families in Baffin Island, there were just a lot more issues with open ice that we had to work around while we traveled north to Pond Inlet. And the Arctic Ocean was opening up a lot earlier. It's very obvious that the temperatures have risen so much faster in the Arctic that the sea ice is just going back so much earlier in the year, and it's also freezing over so much later in the year. So these are very dramatic developments.
Also, looking simply at the shorelines, for example in Alaska, you could see the erosion happening everywhere. Especially on the hillsides, the permafrost was now just melting, and that causes entire blankets of vegetation to just slide down.
It has a huge impact on the different Inuit communities and the wildlife because they can't adapt as humans can. I often think about the polar bears that are so dependent really on hunting on the ice. When they don't hunt seals, there's not much other food that they can rely on. So for them the frozen ocean and the pack ice is the most important hunting platform.
Sometimes I'm wondering how they're hanging onto these last pieces of ice. And as they're melting away, they have to jump in the water and swim for hundreds of miles. That's quite a horrifying image. What happens when it finally melts and they can't swim all the way to land anymore?
It's hard to express how dramatic the changes are. And what's even more sad is that people don't really acknowledge it enough because of course here in our more temperate areas these changes are not as dramatic. But I think the Arctic is more like a symbol of what might happen all around the word, that we're completely throwing our natural systems out of balance.
Jessica: You recently had your first baby, Nanuk, with your wife, Emil. How has being a parent affected your interest in conservation issues?
Florian: Well, in general, you really wonder, "How does the world look like when Nanuk has reached my age, when Nanuk has grown up?" I do believe that it will look a lot different and that many things won't be the same. I don't think the polar bears will be extinct yet, but I think that is not quite the point.
If the polar bears will have lost most of their habitat and they only cling on to a very small little area, the point is that if we humans have such a huge impact on this planet, then we should ask ourselves a lot more firmly, "What can we do to reduce that impact?" And we need to look for new solutions and that's a process that will go on forever. And the hope is that we will find ways to have the least amount of impact.
But I think it really is important that politicians take action specifically when we know where we're doing the wrong things. If cutting the CO2 emissions is one of the primary steps we need to push forward, then that's what we need to do. We humans have a huge impact and we need to start working very hard on reducing that.
Jessica: Florian, thank you so much for your time. It's really been a pleasure.
Florian: Yeah, thank you Jessica for taking the time and I look forward to seeing the outcome.
Jessica: Florian Schulz is an award-winning wildlife photographer whose Arctic images can be found in his latest book, To the Arctic. For more information on Earthjustice's campaign to save wild places like the Arctic, check out earthjustice.org/Arctic. And to hear more interviews with environmental experts, check out earthjustice.org/DownToEarth
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