Extreme Photography: James Balog on Capturing Shrinking Glaciers
Text by Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph courtesy of James Balog, Extreme Ice Survey
In a career spanning more than three decades, James Balog has taken glamour shots of gorillas, ascended the planet’s tallest redwoods to capture their profiles, and dodged lava flows on active volcanoes in order to document eruptions. It should come as no surprise, then, that the intrepid photojournalist-artist-conservationist has chosen an extreme force of nature for his latest project: glaciers.
The Extreme Ice Survey began as an assignment for National Geographic, but in true Balogian fashion, quickly turned into something much more ambitious. As of today, 27 highly sophisticated time lapse cameras are recording the retreat of some of the world’s largest glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains. It is the most wide-ranging glacier study using ground-based photography ever conducted. Don’t miss Balog and his colleagues as they document glaciers from Alaska to the Alps in the upcoming NOVA documentary “Extreme Ice” airing later this month on PBS (check your local listings for show schedules). Find out more about the project in the new book Extreme Ice Now (National Geographic Books).
Of all the canaries in the climate change coal mine, why did you chose to study glaciers?
We’re in a decisive moment of geologic history as well as human history, and glaciers are the most visible manifestation of this moment. Looking at them, people can see climate change occurring in a way that’s clear and obvious and easily understandable.
Is that what you are trying to do with the Extreme Ice Survery?
Yes, but beyond all that esoteric and philosophical thinking, what I’m trying to do is present tangible and visible evidence that makes people understand what the reality of climate change is all about.
Working on the Extreme Ice Survey looks like a pretty enviable job–who wouldn’t want to see incredible, fragile environments around the world. Can you talk about some of the more difficult parts of carrying out the survey?
For the entire first six months, I felt like I was being choked by wires. There were so many electronic, engineering and software issues…and that’s not my world. I was relying on sophisticated, clear thinking people to solve problems and make systems work together and yet we still had all kinds of glitches and failures. It was probably the singe worst phase of my entire 30 year career as a photographer. It was very high intensity, high stress, high anxiety–it was ugly.
What are the specific difficulties of operating these cameras in conditions around glaciers?
You need to be able to rely on the power supply. It’s one thing to put up a solar panel and collect some energy from the sun. It’s another thing to take that juice and run it through a couple of different kinds of voltage regulators, a big battery, and then an intermediary connecter and feed it into the mind of these very sophisticated cameras and be sure it’s going to work. So between the computer that was controlling the firing of the camera and the power supply issue, all of my headaches were in the world of electrons. With these things, you can’t take a screw driver or a hammer and nail and fix it. The problem is out in La La land and it just drove me insane.
Now that you have gotten the cameras set up, how are you filling your days on the Survey?
There are literally five people working morning noon and night on this project. It’s all we’ve done for two years. It’s not like you throw the cameras out in the field then sit back with your feet up and drink cappuccinos. We’re working our asses off. It’s a never-ending cycle of planning the next field trip and dealing with the pictures that just came in. 50 percent of the job is collecting pictures and 50 percent of the job is telling the public about it. And telling the public is a really, really, seriously full time job for several people, including me.
When are you going to finish?
The original plan had been that we would bring the cameras in this fall. That seemed like a really long time when we started the project. But now we feel–and are being encouraged by the scientists–that we should keep the cameras going for a few more years. So, funding permitting, we’ll keep the cameras out until approximately 2012.
Have you made any significant findings lately that you would like to tell us about?
The stunning thing has been that you can see some really astounding changes to these huge landscapes in astonishingly short periods of time, in some cases a matter of days or weeks. As a layperson who is professionally and technically educated, you walk through these landscapes and think: “Well, okay, whatever changes are going to happen here will happen slowly and incrementally.”
But these cameras are recording changes in places like the Sólheimajökull glacier, the Columbia Glacier and the Illulisat glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq) happening rapidly and abruptly. That’s the revelation. And it’s a bizarre combination of being excited about the drama and beauty of what we’re seeing and sort of sadness that we are making beauty out of the holocaust.
Does that bring things back around to the intersection between your creative drive and you scientific interests?
Yea. If you want to engage people through the visual arts, you can’t just show them horrors. You have to make the horror attractive or engaging in some manner. You pull them in with the sensory experience then give them the harsh message underneath. That’s how you can get to them.
- Nat Geo Expeditions