Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 National Geographic Photo Contest

Christmas came early this year, when a short email arrived announcing that my polar bear image won Grand Prize in the 2013 National Geographic Photo Contest. I am looking forward to finally, after 30 long years of working as a professional photographer, visiting the Geographic’s legendary offices.

In my newspaper days, we were all contest hounds, living and dying by the monthly press photographers’ clip contest results. Our 2% merit raises were on the line. I was happy to leave that all behind, telling myself the every time an editor licensed and paid for one of my images on the Corbis or Getty sites, I won the most important contest of all. 

Upon reflection, I was an idiot. 

Without a major publication backing me for assignments and publication, most images are so much ‘content,’ disappearing into the vast publishing maw. I am one more anonymous stock provider. For a long time, I was content with that. I made a fine living licensing images that I created on my own projects. So long as my royalty check arrived on time, I could buy another plane ticket and go merrily on my way.

But high profile contests like the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and National Geographic’s contest offer something important for those us who are not utterly shameless self-promoters or contract photographers. An audience. It’s a chance to show photographs and tell their stories to a far wider audience than any blog or stock sale can match.

And to be honest, the money doesn’t hurt either. 

I've posted National Geographic's announcement and interview, but the video of the contest's judging offers some wonderful insights as well.

The 2013 National Geographic Photography Contest Winners

During the month of November, National Geographic magazine invited photographers from around the world to submit photos in three categories: People, Places and Nature. We received more than 7,000 entries from over 150 countries, with amateur and professional photographers across the globe participating. You can view all of the winning images here.
We asked Senior Photo Editor Susan Welchman, and National Geographiccontributing photographers Stephanie Sinclair and Ed Kashi to judge this year’s photo contest at the Society’s headquarters in Washington, DC, on December 9th.
Imagine a darkened room with images projected on a huge screen, and almost total silence except for the ‘yeas’ and ‘nays’ of the judges and the occasional discussion over specific photos. Several hours later, after multiple rounds of editing, the finalists became clear and the real debate began.
Ultimately, the judges unanimously agreed the Grand Prize should be awarded to Paul Souders for his image of a polar bear lurking beneath melting sea ice in Hudson Bay, Canada. After realizing the photographer had won an award in another contest for a very similar photo, we thought it would be interesting to hear from Paul directly.

Grand Prize and Nature Winner Paul Souders, Seattle, Washington The Ice Bear A polar bear peers up from beneath the melting sea ice on Hudson Bay as the setting midnight sun glows red from the smoke of distant fires during a record-breaking spell of hot weather. The Manitoba population of polar bears, the southernmost in the world, is particularly threatened by a warming climate and reduced sea ice.
Grand Prize and Nature Winner
Paul Souders, Seattle, Washington
The Ice Bear
A polar bear peers up from beneath the melting sea ice on Hudson Bay as the setting midnight sun glows red from the smoke of distant fires during a record-breaking spell of hot weather. The Manitoba population of polar bears, the southernmost in the world, is particularly threatened by a warming climate and reduced sea ice.

MONICA CORCORAN: How long have you been shooting wildlife and how/why did you get into it?
PAUL SOUDERS: I’ve worked as a professional photographer for nearly 30 years. It’s the only job I’ve ever had that didn’t involve pumping gas or pushing a lawn mower.
But I never set out to be a nature photographer, I wanted to be a news shooter, and I started my first job at a small daily paper in Rockville, Md., with dreams of journalistic glory. I covered a lot of high school sports, portrait assignments and weather features. It felt like telling the story of my community, one day at a time. At some point, I decided a change of scene was in order. Never one for half measures, I packed up everything I owned and drove 4300 miles to Anchorage, Alaska, to take a job at the state’s biggest newspaper. It was 27 below zero the day I arrived, but it was entirely new and magical. There was a moose in my backyard and I could see bald eagles on my morning commute.
And that’s when I started moving away from news work and toward photographing wildlife. But it’s still the same mission, telling stories about the places I see and the wildlife I encounter. I left the paper 20 years ago and I’ve worked as a travel and wildlife photographer ever since.
MONICA: A near frame of yours won the Animals in their Environment category of the 2013 Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo contest. Tell us the story behind these photos.
PAUL: I had two sharp frames of the underwater bear, and the framing was only very slightly different. I entered the BBC contest right at their deadline, and never compared the two side by side. Once it won its category in BBC (but failed to win the grand prize), I kept staring at the lower right hand corner, where the ice edge is cropped, and it started to bug me. I do prefer this frame, since it has the entire ice edge. It’s one of those little details that can make a picture work just a bit better, but not something I even noticed or cared about initially.
The bear swam up to the iceberg, ducked under and stayed underwater for several seconds as I moved my zodiac into position and then held out the camera on a six-foot boom near the entrance. I didn’t fire until she came up to breathe and take a look at me, and I kept firing the shutter as she submerged again. She hung there, just below the surface, watching me, then came up for another breath before swimming away. I couldn’t see her from where I sat in my small zodiac boat; I was shooting blind with the wide angle. I sensed it was a unique situation, but the first thought in my mind was that I really didn’t want to screw up. I’d already dunked the remote radio trigger and camera into the salt water, and had to jury rig a replacement cable by chewing off the copper wires and hand-splicing it together. I don’t know how, but somehow it worked.
MONICA: Do you have any advice for other wildlife photographers?
PAUL: My standard advice is to marry well. And don’t quit your day job.
It is REALLY hard to make a living at this. I was lucky enough to begin a photo career at a time when you could earn at least some sort of meager living at it. A newspaper photographer’s salary wasn’t much, but at least it was a job, and an amazing training ground where I got to shoot pictures every day. I worked around other, better photographers who helped me learn my craft. And I actually got paid to do it. I worry that it’s much, much harder for the next generation of photographers to make a living and build a career.
I consider myself very fortunate to continue to make a living pursuing work that I really love.
MONICA: What are your thoughts on entering photo contests?
PAUL: I like to think I’m past the point in life where I live and die by contest results and the momentary ego boost they provide.
What I do appreciate is how contests can bring storytelling photographs to a wider audience, and how they can captivate an audience of millions to see the natural world’s fragile beauty, and to motivate them to take an active interest in experiencing and protecting it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nanpu Bridge, Shanghai, China

I thought I’d gotten away with it, the old cheerful trespassing thing. Right up to the moment I saw the fat girl in the mini skirt.
I’d just brazened my way past a bored security guard downstairs, hopped an elevator to the 22nd floor and then scurried up a darkened stairwell onto the roof with whatever stealth I could muster carrying a tripod, backpack of gear on creaking knees. But now we stared at each other across the abandoned and not open-to-the-general-public rooftop.
I’m not sure who was more surprised, but I just smiled by biggest, dumbest smile, pointed out at the view and chirped “photo…okay?” and went about my business like I owned the place. She had just finished a cigarette and in her imagined privacy, was beginning to hawk up something that seemed to start from down around her pelvis.
Our mutually exclusive language skills kept any unpleasantness to a minimum. She unhappily swallowed, blinked, and went back inside. I gave a cheerful wave before crawling out onto the building’s ledge.
My second grade teacher wrote all the way back in 1967 that “Paul thinks rules are for others.” I often think of her at times like this, wondering if she had any idea how right she was.  Below me, a view of the double-helix Nanpu Bridge, scenically clogged with traffic, lay swirling and aglow in all it’s engineering glory across the Huangpu River 25 floors below.
Since I was here, I might as well take a picture or two.
Shanghai, China: October 30, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Shanghai, China

Another day of the new Chinese century begins. I blink awake in darkness and with scrambled time zones and dulled senses, I hit the streets. In the hours before dawn, kites dangle blinking and flashing UFO lights in the dark sky. That most Chinese of sounds, the deep throat clearing haaaaawk fills the air. It is accompanied by bellows of conversations, blaring tinny music, taxi horns and the rumble of coal barges heading up the Huangpu River’s murky waters.

Across the river, the old tallest building in China (c. 1998) stands dwarfed by the recent tallest building in China (c. 2008), but both look positively quaint beside the rising new tallest building in China. I’ve come in part to update my image files of the city skyline, but like a lot of things, I can’t tell if I’m early to the party or late.

A crescent moon rises and the skies begins to lighten, and soon traffic springs to swerving, honking, chaotic life. It quickly achieves its default setting: Gridlock.

Along the river’s cement promenade, a pensioner unfolds hand-crafted and beautifully painted kites in the form of eagles. He heaves one skyward in the morning light, slinging it in tight circles in the hopes of gaining altitude. It crashes. He picks it up, tweaks a wing, tries again. Crashes again. Smiles as I take his photo. Tries again, utterly serene.

Nearby, a martial arts group mixes tai chi poses with flying leaps. A ballroom dance club competes with an aerobics group for sonic dominance.

All told, it feels like a lot is getting accomplished before I’ve even had my first cup of coffee. Pondering my place in this busy new world order, I stumble off the sidewalk and through the clotted traffic, greeting an uncertain new dawn.

Shanghai, China - October 28, 2013

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

2013 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year – Animals in Their Environment

Polar Bear lurking beneath melting sea ice on Hudson Bay, Canada. Photographed July 11, 2012 using a Canon 7D camera, 10-22mm lens and at the end of a six-foot camera boom. Exposure 1/320 second at f/4.
I had been making noise for years about going to Hudson Bay to photograph polar bears. The town of Churchill, Manitoba is world-famous for its polar bear viewing in the fall, but who wants to spend a fortune to ride around in a Tundra Buggy with a couple dozen other photographers and tourists?
Wouldn’t it be way more fun to do a BYOB thing? Bring your own boat?
I drove 1800 miles from my home in Seattle to the end of the road in Thompson, Manitoba, then loaded everything onto the train that runs 600 miles north to Churchill. I carried more than 500 pounds of gear; everything I might conceivably need; an 11-foot inflatable zodiac boat, an outboard motor, cases of camera and underwater gear and all the survival equipment I might possibly require. I looked like some kind of crazy survivalist hoarder.
I didn’t know what to expect when I got there. Other than a couple local operators running summer tourists out to swim with belugas, there isn’t a lot of boating on that stretch of Hudson Bay. The coastline is flat and offers no protection at all from storms blowing in off the tundra.
There’s also a huge range of tides, as much as 30 feet from high to low water. The bay is ringed by a quagmire of mud flats when the tide goes out, and if I timed things wrong I had to carry all of my gear nearly half a mile from shore to the water’s edge. It seemed to take forever, hefting the 80-pound motor, then the 75-pound boat, then all of my equipment cases across the mud flats. For an old guy like me, it was a lot of exercise.
Rather than camp out along shore, I slept in a perfectly nice hotel in town every night. But each day I used the zodiac to travel up to 30 miles offshore. I stayed out as long as the light allowed, traveling at the edge of the melting pack ice, scanning each iceberg for the shape of a polar bear.
It was exhausting work, hour after hour staring at the ice, trying to find that white on white shape. As it turns out, it’s really, really hard to find polar bears on the ice, at least without a helicopter and a suitcase full of money.
Sea ice isn’t uniformly white. After the long winter it’s jumbled and covered in dirt and crud from the sea. Polar bears aren’t pure white either. Their coats can be anywhere from ivory to butter to golden in color. In the warm light of the setting midnight sun, pretty much everything looks like a bear. Most days I was out on the water for 12 to 14 hours a day, sometimes until two in the morning. I have never worked so hard and so long to find a subject. In all that time, I saw exactly two polar bears, one of which disappeared almost immediately into the pack ice
Maybe that’s why this this image feels so much like a gift. Having come so far and worked so hard to find this one special bear, tolerant of my presence, curious but not aggressive.
I didn’t rush in when I saw her. I kept my distance and let her grow used to the boat and to my presence. At one point, she swam under a small piece of broken sea ice, and poked her head up through the hole to watch me. I stopped the boat and struggled to mount a camera on the end of a 7-foot long boom to try shooting close in with a wide-angle lens.
But nothing was working the way it was supposed to. I’d already dunked one of my remote triggers in the salt water and wound up hand wiring another by chewing off the leads and jury-rigging the exposed copper wires. It was not pretty. I slowly maneuvered the pole closer to her, struggling to hold the camera steady and fire the shutter.  I was shooting completely blind,  pointing the camera and hoping for the best.
I thought I might have a pretty cool shot when she poked her head up less than three feet from the camera. It wasn’t until a week later, as I was riding the train from Churchill south toward Winnipeg that I finally had time to look through all of my digital files. When I saw the frame of her  lurking under the water’s surface, staring back up at me, I was completely surprised.
I promptly turned into the crazy guy who runs around showing his vacation pictures to everyone on the train.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Morondava, Madagascar

I left South Africa’s gleaming Johannesburg airport terminal muttering about the homogenization of the world,  bitching at the triumph of international anonymonist architecture. Squeaky clean, brightly lit, fairly shining with stainless steel modernity, I could be anywhere. Sydney or San Diego, Chengdu or Chicago, Dubai or Dallas. Landing in Antananarivo, I reminded myself, not for the first time, to be careful what I ask for. We were met by Ravo, our driver, translator and guide, whisked through the airport trailing a line of underfed baggage handlers and touts, deposited in a shining Land Cruiser and driven directly into the city’s gridlocked traffic.
We spent the next three hours slowly winding through the city streets. This wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo, but I was stunned into silence by the abject poverty of the place. Children and grandparents alike picked through mountains of garbage by the roadside, beggars weaved through the stalled traffic. All the while I sat in a cocoon of soft leather, air conditioning and moral discomfort.
Ten days later, I was tired, dusty and not much the wiser for my travels. Many days, photojournalism feels like one more way to monetize human misfortune.
Which is also a handy excuse to just stay in the rental car.
Once in a while, I work up the nerve to push past that doubt, and go out and face the world. I asked the driver to stop on the airport road, by a large red mud pit. A dozen men or more worked in teams, creating crude bricks. It was brutally hard labor under a scalding hot sun. I was unsure about the reception a posh western visitor trailing cameras might expect.
I was greeted with nothing but gentle curiosity and kindness. Though the portrait reflects the grim working conditions these young men face daily, I felt humbled by their hospitality, good humor and curiosity. The tough part was asking them to stop smiling and look suitably serious.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

See Different

Our world is saturated with images. We are drowning under thousands upon millions of photographs. Everybody with an iPhone is suddenly a professional photographer. Anyone with an Instagram account can instantly turn their snapshots into snapshots masquerading as fine art. 
It's not that I begrudge anyone their photographic passions or pretensions.  But over the years, I’ve devoted myself to doing things the hard way. 
Why go on a guided African safari when you can buy a busted-up Land Cruiser and get yourself thoroughly stuck and lost in the Serengeti? What better way to see the wilds of the arctic than from your very own leaky zodiac?  Why take a cruise ship to Antarctica when there’s a ill-tempered drunkard in a sailboat who’ll overcharge you, shower you with abuse and leave you hungry and cold on the icy shore?
Is it because I’m cheap, stubborn and often disagreeable?
Well…um…yes. But it’s also a great way to see things differently.
As much as I might love my Hipstamatic snapshots, I find it a whole more fun and challenging to drag out an old film camera, dig some outdated film stock out of the freezer, put on a balky, blurry lens and try to make something of my own.
Last November, I helped lead a four-week small sailboat expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula. Inspired by Dave Burnett‘s work, I spent the weeks before my departure obsessively scanning ebay and paying inflated prices for a World War II vintage Aero Ektar lens and an even older 4×5 camera. I’m pretty sure the last time someone shot Antarctica with a Speed Graphic was sometime around the Shackleton expedition.
During the trip, I shot tens of thousands of digital images as I wallowed in penguin shit, waded in freezing water, crawled around in the snow and basically had the time of my life. But when I came home, the pictures I wanted to see more than any others were those 99 4×5 sheets of expired Fujicolor 160 color negative film.
In my quarter century of photography, I’ve had neither the patience nor technical skill for large format work. But somehow in our brave new attention-deficit world, it seems the perfect antidote to the sameness that permeates so much of the work I see and that I create.
Every time I head out to shoot, I remind myself to try something new. To see different.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Independent

Lord knows, it’s been a long time coming, but I am, at long last, slowly breathing life back into the WorldFoto blog. Today’s post shares a recent clip from UK’s The Independent newspaper, which featured my image of a Gentoo Penguin caught in flight near Port Lockroy, along the Antarctic Peninsula. The image is part of an upcoming gallery of images of (nominally flightless) penguins in flight.