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.
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.
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.