BEYOND THE LENS WITH A POLAR PHOTOGRAPHER
ANTARCTICA / GUIDEBOOK / POLAR PERSPECTIVES
Words: Fraser Morton
Photography: Sam Edmonds
A POLAR GUIDE'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE LAST GREAT WILDERNESS
Sam is the man: A polar photographer, guide and environmentalist.
I met Australian Sam Edmonds onboard the Ocean Endeavour in March 2018. I was there to film and photograph a documentary project for Eco-Business News with climate change activist group 2041, led by British adventurers Robert and Barney Swan.
Our first encounter was when he grabbed my arm to help me step from the ship to his zodiac, as we bobbed up and down in the Southern Ocean of Antarctica.
We got to chatting and sharing stories about work, and I quickly learnt that Sam has one of the best jobs in the world. He gets paid to go to Antarctica and the Arctic where he takes photographs of oceanscapes, wildlife and remote vistas. He has a unique insight into the polar regions that most people in the world don’t get to see.
Here, in our first Polar Perspective, we discuss his passion for the polar regions and some issues currently facing the last great wilderness of Antarctica.
How did you become a polar guide?
The idea of wilderness guiding in general seemed to make a lot of sense as a profession I would pursue as it rolls most of my skill sets into one. Also because it’s tethered to so many ideas about conservation and an almost Thoreauvian appreciation of the outdoors that I have advocated for most of my life.
How I got into guiding in a polar context really came about because I had managed to gain two seasons of experience in the Antarctic whilst filming the TV series “Whale Wars”.
ABOVE: SAM FILMED THE SERIES WHALE WARS FOR ANIMAL PLANET.
It was during that time that I obviously had the unique experience of learning about the continent first-hand, but upon reflection, was probably where I refined a lot of my “soft skills” as well: Working in a team under immense pressure, working in adverse conditions, building a rapport with people and generally being at sea for long periods of time.
What subjects are you drawn to photograph in the polar regions and why?
I often find myself in a sort of dual mode when I’m photographing in Antarctica. On the one hand, places like the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia afford an immense amount of wildlife photography to be undertaken, so I’m often working with that sort of visual language and in that stream of natural history documentation.
However, on the other hand, I’m also really fascinated by Antarctic tourism and how our collective perception of this ostensibly unexplored continent is being shaped by this unprecedented amount of average people that are seeing it with their own eyes for the first time.
So, most of the time I find myself switching between these two trains of thought and these two starkly different visuals languages as I explore both those themes as much as I can.
What motivates you to keep going south to Antarctica?
I’m often asked this by guests onboard the ship, and especially when we have just come in from a very cold, wet and windy katabatibc experience somewhere! To be honest, I don’t really have an answer. I think that speaks volumes about these kind of subconscious answers that Antarctica provides for many of us as human beings.
I’ve asked almost every guest I’ve guided over the years, “Why did you come to Antarctica?”
There’s a startlingly wide spectrum of answers, but there always seems to be this theme of seeking the unknown and pushing one’s boundaries. It’s surprising how much a very cold and seemingly desolate place can seem to embrace you and offer solace.
Most incredible thing you have witnessed in Antarctica?
That’s a really tough question to answer. Partly because I’ve witnessed a lot of moments of transcendence and camaraderie that were very astounding in their own right.
But most of those were as a result of immersing ourselves within the incredible Antarctic environment. However, there was one moment this most recent summer season (2017/2018) that seemed quite surreal and unprecedented.
It was in Antarctic Sound while we were transiting from East to West. A pod of killer whales was seemingly trying to isolate a fin whale calf from its parents, but at the same time a number of fur seals were swimming by and the usual suspects of sea birds were flying overhead in astounding numbers. I think we spent about four hours on the bow of ship just sprinting from port to starboard and back as all these animals surfaced and breached and frolicked right next to the boat.
I remember even some of the most experienced guides onboard were in disbelief at what they were seeing, let alone the guests who had never been to Antarctica before. So that was pretty special.
What worries you about Antarctica and threats to the ecosystem?
Like most places on Earth, even Antarctica hasn’t managed to escape the reach of our species as an array of threats are becoming increasingly ominous for this continent.
The impacts of anthropogenic climate change are being felt on the peninsula, but we are still yet to quantify the impacts of it locally. It will have detrimental effects on some aspects of the ecosystem but at the same time, some species like Gentoo penguins are thriving under the higher temperatures.
Personally, I’m very concerned by the exponential increase in krill fishing practices in Antarctica.
Russia, China and a number of other nations have openly expressed their intent to rely heavily on krill harvesting, which is incredibly scary. For anyone that has been to Antarctica, they have witnessed first-hand the importance of krill.
It’s the backbone of the entire ecosystem there and to exploit and tamper with that would be to pull the rug out from underneath the entire ecosystem. This needs to be addressed immediately and we will have to take a long hard look in the mirror as a species if we decide that that is a gamble we are willing to take.
How do you describe Antarctica to people who have never been?
I often tell people that if they have ever wondered what the planet was like before Homosapiens, you can catch a glimpse of it in Antarctica. In many ways, I think that’s what makes this place so special. It is the world’s last remaining wilderness.
I feel like the photos I took down in Antarctica don’t do it justice one bit. Can a photograph capture the essence of Antarctica?
I’m not convinced that an image can capture the essence of anything. Photojournalism is going through some rather tough growing pains at the moment as it grapples with tearing down that precarious, false sense of “objectivity” that it advocated for so long.
And I think this is really healthy. Especially in an age where we consume to many images, yet so little of us are consciously visually literate. What I do think visual media can do for us and what applies to the polar regions is the collective voice of visual documentation that can start to shape a better understanding.
All visual crafts are inherently subjective, but as a chorus of viewpoints starts to harmonize, the power of bearing witness increases exponentially. This is when we see movements begin and things start to change.
Do you have a favourite quote you’ve read about Antarctica?
“The first great thing is to find yourself and for that you need solitude and contemplation - at least sometimes. I can tell you deliverance will not come from the rushing noisy centers of civilisation. It will come from the lonely places.”
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A Brief Bio/ Summary
Australian Sam, 29, is a polar photographic guide, naturalist and writer based in Sydney, Australia.
Sam has focused extensively on issues of ecology and conservation, most notably in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and often culminating in a photographic exploration of the fringes between humanity and wilderness.
In 2013, Sam documented the race to stop whaling in the Ross Sea. In 2014, he explored issues of culture and identity among refugees in Southern Sweden and in 2015 to 2016 worked with NGOs in Canada to successfully stop the ban of grizzly bear trophy hunting throughout British Columbia.
Sam’s work has been recognised by a string of awards and publications including National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Australian Geographic, a first place in the International Conservation Photography Awards and as a finalist in the ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year award.
Sam now splits his time between his home of Sydney, various regions of the Arctic and the Antarctic Peninsula. He is presently a contributing writer for Australian Photography Magazine, Capture Magazine and Photo Life Magazine.