Carolyn Van Houten likes photographing people. And she's really good at it. In fact, it’s how she landed the photography internship at National Geographic, which is awarded to just one person annually—the winner of College Photographer of the Year. (See the work that brought her to National Geographic in the gallery below.) Her portfolio brimmed with intimate moments—a mother cradling her shaken son, a girl serenely soaking in the river that flooded her family’s home—so she was surprised when her future editor at Geographic called with a question: Was she interested in spending her internship photographing the effects of climate change on minke and humpback whales in Antarctica, the least peopled continent in the world?
I asked Carolyn what it was like to take a leave of absence from her newspaper job at the San Antonio Express-News to become, if only for a short time, an underwater whale photographer for National Geographic, and what she learned in the process.
Becky Harlan: What was your reaction when photo editor Jessie Wender asked if you were interested in photographing whales?
Carolyn Van Houten: My first reaction was, “What? Is that real?” But the second one was, “I am not prepared.” I’m not knowledgeable about science and nature photography. I was already a little apprehensive about the internship, because you want to do a good job, so thinking about an assignment that was completely out of my comfort zone was definitely nerve-racking. I asked my boss at the newspaper if I could leave early for the internship and he said, “Absolutely. If National Geographic asks you if you want to go to Antarctica, you can’t say no.” That’s a quote.
Becky: What advice helped you to prepare for your assignment?
Carolyn: Deputy director of photography Patrick Witty said to hold onto my own vision and my own voice. That I needed to make sure I wasn’t trying to photograph like I was a Geographic photographer, because I’m not a Geographic photographer in the classic sense, and I didn’t get here by being one. I got here by my work and by my voice, and he wanted to make sure I held onto that.
Becky: What do you mean by "a Geographic" photographer?
Carolyn: The people that you think of as Geographic photographers—the Bill Allards and the Stephanie Sinclairs and David Alan Harveys—don’t try to imitate them. Just try to shoot it the way you would shoot it. Seeing it new, don’t dilute that with preconceived notions about what I think it should look like but rather what I’m seeing.
Becky: How did you get ready for the trip?
Carolyn: A lot of it was planning the narrative side—best- and worst-case scenarios for photographs, different ways to get at the bigger themes we were looking for. I met with all the magazine photo editors before and got their thoughts and advice about the story.
I’ve never used an underwater housing before, other than a GoPro, so Senior Photo Editor Kathy Moran put me in touch with underwater photographer Brian Skerry, who was kind enough to spend far too much time Skyping with me, going over all the details about the housing—how to seal it, take care of it, shoot with it. I took the housing to the apartment I was renting, and I would fill my bathtub up, put the housing together without a camera in it, and stick it in there and make sure it was dry inside. Then I would put the camera in the housing, reseal it, and try it again to make sure it was airtight. I tried it a lot at home so that when we were on a Zodiac in the middle of the ocean I could put the housing together without flooding it and destroying several thousand dollars in gear.
Becky: Did the housing work once you got to Antarctica?
Carolyn: We were in a place called Wilhelmina Bay, which is notorious for having a lot of whales. It was our first day out looking for whales, and I put the housing together on the ship before we got on the Zodiac. Everything looked great. Some whales came by, and I put the camera in the water and started shooting. It was only underwater for 45 seconds, and I pull it out, and there was between a cup and two cups of water inside the housing. Of course I panicked, but the camera was somehow fine.
We go back to the ship, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong. It was sealed in all the places I knew to seal. A couple of days later the scientists told me that there was a passenger on the ship who happened to make custom underwater housings for a living. He spent two hours taking the housing apart and putting it back together. One of the attachments was loose and was no longer sealed properly, probably from traveling. So he fixed it, we tested it, and it was perfectly fine. He said, “Don’t take it out, so when you find whales again you can shoot and it will be sealed.”
Becky: So did it work after that?
Carolyn: We only had a few days left, and I still didn’t have any underwater photos of whales. We went back to Wilhelmina Bay, but there were no whales close enough to us, so we gave up and went to Cierva Cove. This was our last chance to find whales. It needed to be a sunny day to have enough clarity in the water, and it hadn’t been sunny. The scientists thought it wasn’t going to happen. There were four-foot seas. But that afternoon it happened to clear up. Some whales came close enough, so I started shooting.
When I pulled the camera out of the water it wouldn’t stop firing. The camera was dry, but it was blasting through memory cards like crazy. When the cards are full, the camera is useless. So I pull it out, unseal it, pull the cards out. I figured out that with the extra wires in there, the shutter was being pushed without me pushing the button. I put the camera back in with new cards and reseal it, but the whales are nowhere to be found. We are getting ready to head back, and these three whales swim up to our boat. I stuck the camera back in the water and made that picture. I had no idea if I had it or not. I thought I had it, but it’s really hard to tell, and I was not about to unseal the camera again. It felt a lot like shooting film.
Becky: That sounds incredibly stressful. But you got the shot in the end.
Carolyn: On the ground I had six days of actual shooting, maybe a week. With the whales, way less. It was tough.
Becky: Reflecting on it now, what did you learn from the experience?
Carolyn: Being at a newspaper, for a lot of the stories we do, you find a character and follow their narrative. Here, you have this big idea and then find characters—whether they be scientists or whales—and then make the best images you can of those characters rather than just following them along on their journey. Making stories from that big picture top down is really great, and I’d like to do more of that.
Personally, I think the underwater housing story taught me the most. I’m not proud of having to go through all of that, but it was the first time I had ever shot underwater before so I have to not be too hard on myself. It really forced me to persevere. There were a lot of times I wanted to give up, but I couldn’t. I just thought, one more time, one more time. Being really stubborn became an asset in that situation, learning how to work in really tough conditions and how to make the best of it. And I really love whales now. They’re incredibly graceful, and they’re very vocal. I liked them before, but after a humpback whale comes up next to you and starts playing with your boat and rolling around underneath it, spewing the smelliest air you’ll ever smell out at you, and literally coming within inches of your hands, you can't not love them—they’re so cool.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When Carolyn returned from her trip to Antarctica she still had time left in her internship, so she pitched, photographed, and reported a story about the U.S.’s first official climate refugees in Louisiana. A story about people. Her work on whales from Antarctica will publish in the fall.