Extremophiles: pushing the physical limits of photography
The lives of professional outdoors or wildlife photographers have often been portrayed as the glamorous, mountain-conquering kind as seen in Hollywood. But the reality of this lifestyle can be far removed from the image: photographers attempting to survive in the wild balance a precarious equation between risking life and making a living. Neither lens nor limb escape every situation unscathed. So, how do they do it? Sam Edmonds reports.
Biologists use the term “extremophile” to describe those organisms that thrive where most others fail. Whether that’s immersed in extreme heat, extreme cold, or extremely acidic or saline environments, these individuals seem to flourish among what would otherwise seem like incredibly challenging conditions. But at a time when the global population of photographers has never been more sizeable, competition for resources has spurred several subspecies of photographer; those willing to operate at the fringes of geography, looking to the edges of maps and the tops of mountains to seek out that next great image. As technology continues to facilitate cameras capable of copping heavier beatings from their wielders, these extreme photographers are continually able to push the envelope of both the camera’s physical capabilities and their own, often culminating in never-before-seen angles of the natural world, or even capturing a previously unknown phenomenon. But what does it take to thrive among these bitterly cold or utterly hot climes? How does one keep oneself alive when surrounded by carnivorous megafauna or thunderous ocean swells? And perhaps less obviously: is it worth the risk in the first place? At a time of such fierce competition, have the extremophiles found a niche? Or does the reward not outweigh the cost?
For most Australian photographers, the concept of a mountain is somewhat far removed from at least our physical existence. But for perhaps some kind of subconscious reason, mountains have been an incredibly popular subject for photographers throughout the medium’s history. Ever since Ansel Adams himself pointed his unwieldy, beast of a camera at the peaks of California, Utah, and Nevada have photographers continued with this vein of mountain-gazing. But in modern times, this almost sub-discipline has changed drastically. With the resolution of Adams’ camera now achievable from your average mirrorless camera, photographers are continuing to push the limits of their vantage points in the mountains. Perhaps at the forefront of this is Canadian landscape photographer Paul Zizka whose move from his home of Quebec City in Canada’s east to the sweeping vistas of Banff inspired in him an insatiable sense of adventure that was only quelled by pointing his lens at Alberta’s ominous summits.
Zizka’s day-to-day practice as a photographer usually involves trekking into some remote part of the national parks of Banff and Jasper, dodging the odd grizzly bear in order to photograph some of the most wild and rugged landscapes that the American continent has to offer. The Quebec native also runs workshops where he takes willing participants well off the beaten tourist trail, often in an attempt to re-kindle both a sense of the true outdoors as well as a sense of one’s own creative ability. “People, as a whole, have become fairly urban thinking and urban-minded, and it is amazing just doing something with people in the wild, how uncomfortable they can be, being on the lakeshore at night, or just getting a kilometre away from the car,” says Zizka. “So, it can be really great to sort of facilitate that as well, as when peoples’ lives get busy they are pretty quick to leave creativity by the wayside and it becomes a very secondary theme,” he says.
When not running workshops or exhibiting in the township of Banff itself, Zizka is regularly pushing the limits of both himself and his camera equipment among some of the world’s most unforgiving backcountry. On top of his ventures in Canada, he has also completed a 1,400km double crossing of Iceland on foot, a 1,488km solo crossing of New Zealand’s south island, and presently is the only person to have various pieces of camera equipment sitting at the bottom of all three of Banff’s Vermilion Lakes simultaneously, all of which are testament to his obsession with ice. As Zizka explains, “I have always loved ice in all its forms, so that has sort of always been one of my main interests, whether it is glacial ice or icebergs, and for that reason I like the high latitudes in general. But it just so happens that ice is a subject that does take you into pretty inhospitable terrain, and typically is among pretty inhospitable weather conditions, too.”
It’s here, among the glaciers of Greenland or the ice-fields of Canada, that Zizka has learned some of his most valuable lessons as an extreme photographer. Namely, the need for an efficient workflow, a good sense of self-awareness, and an intimate knowledge of his gear. It’s this trifecta that keeps Paul Zizka both alive and functioning as a photographer in these environments. “I have shot underwater in winter and had the odd sort of close call where you are so into what you are doing and then half an hour later you realise, ‘Gee, I should really be more careful with those fingers if I want to have them for a while’,” says Zizka. “I think when you are in the zone you kind of have to juggle both things mentally to maintain the safety aspect of things too so you can be shooting ten or twenty years from now. Managing yourself is so important.”
For Zizka, this need to be thinking of the future has only become more evident in the last few years as his personal situation has changed, from being a young, carefree backpacker and photographer to now the father of two young daughters. This has impacted not only Zizka’s perception of risk in the field, but also served to alter the balance of the risk/opportunity equation – something that has made him infinitely more aware of the fact that there is no correlation between risk and good photographs. “If you had to climb to 5,000m and dodged bullets and walked 50 kilometres just to get an image, and the composition is poor and the light is no good then it is still a bad image. I think the more you shoot, the more you realise that and the more likely you are to be objective about that,” says Zizka. A big part of balancing this equation boils down to efficiency. The more prepared and clearer you can be in your approach to a making an image and the less time spent fiddling with gear in the field ultimately results in less exposure to risky situations. “I think having a good workflow in the field, being efficient, organised, and prepared is a huge part of the equation,” says Zizka. “I have a wife and two daughters, so I have to make it count when I’m out there. I have to be way more efficient and way more intentional about what I do out there. The more difficult conditions get, the more intentional you have to be.”
The true extremophile
If you were asked to crown one visual practitioner that truly embodies the term extremophile, Australian Abraham Joffe would at least be on the podium. As a cinematographer, in just a few short years, Joffe has travelled to all seven continents and often made a beeline for the toughest conditions he can find after he was tasked with shooting several seasons of Canon’s Netflix series, Tales by Light – which follows some of the world’s best photographers around the globe. In doing so, Joffe has tackled a whole spectrum of tasks when it comes to keeping people alive and cameras operating as his production team utilised an array of cameras from Canon DSLRs, GoPros, and drones to shoot the series. And as he readily admits, the team pushed the gear to its limits on a regular basis. “To me, the shot and story is always more important than the gear; the gear you can replace, you can insure. Getting the data home is always the biggest thing, and not to suggest that you are reckless with your gear, but I will always be happy to push it to the limits. If it does mean losing the odd piece of equipment, then that’s just part of the game really,” says Joffe, recounting the time that a drone began to instantly corrode while flying over a gaseous volcano.
As Joffe describes, often in such harsh environments, choosing the right camera is akin to choosing the right lens or the right microphone for the scene – each presenting its own strengths and weaknesses in the face of the conditions. But when shooting for the Netflix series that ostensibly sought to emphasise visual quality, the need to prioritise resolution was evident leading Joffe and team to shoot a bare minimum of 4K – something that in and of itself presents a number of hurdles when simply dealing with large cameras and large amounts of data in freezing cold blizzards or underwater. And even on such a high-budget, professional production as a Netflix shoot, Joffe admits the sting of putting tens of thousands of dollars of camera equipment in the air or over a salt lake. “No cameras are better than others, but generally anything that is sealed is pretty good. DSLRs often fare much better than cinema cameras because they are designed to be out in the elements, but we use just about every camera system that is out there,” he says. “If you have a $3,000 camera you might be more comfortable taking it to the extremes, but if you have a $30,000 camera you might reconsider...”
On top of his recent work for Canon and Netflix, Joffe’s true extremophile nature was evidenced in early 2017 when he decided to follow polar photographer Josh Holko to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, in winter to shoot polar bears…basically just for fun. Funded off his own back, Joffe and fellow cinematographer Dom West followed Holko through Svalbard’s coldest temperatures in two years in order to catch a glimpse of the eponymous “Ghosts of the Arctic”. As Joffe recounts, “Getting off the plane onto the frozen runway just hits you like needles in the face, and the simplest things become so difficult to do. Half your time was spent just keeping your body functioning, let alone your gear functioning, and then on top of that you have to stay creative, so it was a very challenging shoot. I had a frostbite on my cheek on the first day of the trip because I only had one balaclava on and soon realised that I should probably have three.”
When facing these conditions, Joffe echoes Zizka’s sentiment that organisation and preparedness are the keys to success. In what can often boil down to a missing-SD-card-versus-getting-frostbite-on-your-face scenario, Joffe emphasizes the usefulness of keeping lists of both useful and useless gear, as well as the importance of having the right cables at all times. “Make detailed lists of the things that you need and then also write up a report of what you didn’t have on the shoot, but needed, and what you had that failed,” suggests Joffe. “And then when you go back to that similar part of the world you can pull out your report for reference. 95% of our issues seem to be cable related; you either don’t have a cable that you need or break the one that is working. Cables are fragile. They are often exposed, they get caught on things easily, and they often have connectors prone to failure. So, if you are in a remote area and have a certain type of HDMI or SDI cable break, where you are going to get another one?”
From mountains to deserts and beyond, if there is one environment that would seem to pose the most risk to both camera equipment and to people, it would be the ocean. Particularly in cold water, little more than a few seconds for a camera or a few minutes for a person can result in a fatality, and no stranger to this is photographer, film-maker, and producer of the Animal Planet TV’s Whale Wars, Gavin Garrison. Having spent several seasons in Antarctic waters filming the goings-on of a battle between whalers and conservationists, Garrison has spent a considerable amount of time wielding production cameras in zodiacs, flying drones over sea ice, and mounting GoPros on decks during wild storms. Perhaps unsurprisingly in these conditions, while he is a self-admitted perfectionist when it comes to gear maintenance and care, it only takes an anecdote or two from Garrison to illustrate that even on a state-of-the-art, brand new vessel (the M/V Ocean Warrior), the ocean will constantly attempt to destroy any and all cameras available to it. “One time, we were in a particularly bad storm near the Ross Sea [just off Antarctica]. In the middle of the night, the ship’s emergency water rations, which were stored in a bulkhead directly above the camera closet, erupted and drenched the cameras,” he recalls. “I spent the next two days pirating parts from the backup camera and bolting them onto the soaked cameras. I eventually got one working, which was enough to finish the project – but that was a close call.”
As California-based Garrison posits, there are a number of lessons that he has learned from operating in such conditions, but draws attention to two in particular. First, echoing Zizka, Garrison stresses the idea that how much effort was put into getting a shot, and how dangerous it might have been, does not at all translate into any kind of capital when considering the shot’s efficacy as part of a production. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the average viewer doesn’t know and doesn’t care about all the technical stuff we’re worried about,” he says. “No one will ever stop to think, ‘Wow, this photographer must have sat in below-zero weather for twelve hours to get this shot’”. With drone photography in particular, audiences generally don’t stop to think how the photo was taken, or where it was taken from. It’s just not something that enters their mind. Secondly, Garrison continues: “Temperature, elevation, and relative humidity definitely have an impact on drones and the flight profiles, but when it comes to cameras, the worst thing to watch out for is lens condensation when moving from one temperature extreme to another. If you’re caught in the field without the ability to clean your lens and there’s condensation on it, you’re in for a sad time.”
Perhaps surprisingly for the producer of an Emmy-nominated TV series, Garrison offers some very clear advice for up-and-coming extremophiles that in a kind of roundabout way might, at least in the long run, make for a more cost-effective production: buy used gear and be prepared to sacrifice some cameras, if necessary. Perhaps this occurs somewhat more frequently on the set of Whale Wars where ocean swells regularly operate in the 15-metre range, but Garrison seems to point to an industry-wide phenomenon of simply being prepared to accept the inevitable, and to financially pre-empt it. “Gear is inevitably going to get destroyed. I love finding beat up gear on eBay and putting it through its paces. We even keep sacrificial cameras on hand, for those times we know we’re going to need to get a shot the camera might not survive,” says Garrison, adding that the best way to go about this is quite obvious: “Buy used. There’s no point in taking brand new gear into the field.”
Pushing the limits
While it is easy to push a camera to its physical limits – and in some instances revive it from malfunctions, breakdowns and damage – for a photographer to put themselves under a similar amount of stress is exponentially more dangerous and more damaging. For many extremophiles, thankfully, this physical limit is found out the easy way: through a fairly good awareness of their personal limits, and perhaps a close call or two. But for others, this is achieved the hard way. In 2013, extreme sports photographer Krystle Wright narrowly survived a paragliding accident while photographing from the air above Pakistan. However, despite internal bruising, tendon damage, two fractures, a torn ligament, and 10 stitches, the then 26-year-old did not let the incident end her career – instead moving onward and upward with the benefit of some clear lessons learned from the episode. “It’s absolutely crucial to invest in yourself and build the right skillset to keep yourself safe in remote locations. If something goes wrong, it’s important that I can contribute equally to the team and assist where possible,” says Wright, drawing attention to the need to always be clear in communicating thoughts and feelings in the field along with having an acute sense of self-awareness. “During a two-week ski expedition in Alaska, by day nine, I was struggling really hard and realised I wasn’t having fun anymore. I spoke up and the team agreed that we needed to bail. The following day, one of the ladies was struck down with kidney stones and I’m incredibly relieved we hadn’t tried to stick it out for the sake of it on the ice. The gut instinct works in unusual ways and I’ve learned to listen to it more and more,” she says.
Perhaps somewhat less important, but nonetheless axiomatic to the practice of photography in naturally harsh settings is a theme underpinning the views of Zizka, Joffe, Garrison, and Wright alike: the ability to stay creative despite the conditions. Despite what some popular literature might posit, the human body’s primary functions often have more of an impact on our thinking than we like to admit and most often, when one is tired, hungry, cold, and alone, a mammalian instinct far more intense than the want to make photographs will quickly take over.
In many instances, extreme photographers are dealing with a precarious balance of attempting to maintain creativity in the face of both malfunctioning gear and/or a primal desire to be back inside, by a roaring fire. As outdoor sports and lifestyle photographer Stephen Matera attests, this combination can be tremendous. “Back in 2001, I was in Denali National Park [in Alaska] in March shooting the Aurora Borealis at night,” recalls Matera. “The temperature was below zero [Fahrenheit] and the LCD screen on my then film camera froze. I was still able to shoot, but had to guess at my settings!” But as Matera further describes, over the years he has been able to hone what is perhaps a defining quality of the successful extremophile: an ability to override the discomfort complex. “Being creative is challenging under good conditions. It’s really hard when it’s cold, windy, or raining. But for me when I’m shooting, I get in a creative zone mentally and I am usually able to block out the weather and stay focused on shooting,” he says. “I’ve had it happen a number of times when as soon as I finish shooting, I realise I’m cold, hungry, and exhausted.”
Passionate to the extreme
If there is one defining characteristic that certainly links this collection of extreme photographers, it is simply an intense passion for communicating thoughts, ideas, and stories about the extreme environments that they find themselves in. As Abraham Joffe describes, “Whether that it is passion to tell a story or to make an image or to make a film that you wanted to make, it is this passion that will pull you through the disappointments, the hard days, cold nights, and unpleasant conditions when you have a goal in mind.”
As Australian photographers, Joffe’s sentiment seems to ring particularly trill bells for us – a group that will more often than not find ourselves at arm’s length to a red-bellied black snake, under a scorching sun, or even in a pounding surf when making images. And, as Joffe says, the simple prospect of a warm bed and cold beer are almost always enough to get you through the worst, but also important to note are the memories being made. “A lot of the time we have been in some pretty horrible places where is has been incredibly humid, no showers for days and days, and getting bitten by sand flies. When getting up before sunrise every day and then shooting all day for six weeks at a time, that is the toughest time,” he says. “But when you are just there doing something amazing, you know that memory will live with you forever. There are so many years of our lives that will go by, and you wonder what you did during that time. So, doing thingsthat are constantly burning great memories; that makes you feel really fortunate to be in that position.”
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