Q&A with National Geographic Photographer Nick Cobbing

Photojournalist and filmmaker Nick Cobbing aims to highlight themes of science and natural history through personal stories. A native of the United Kingdom, Nick frequently works in the polar regions, and has accompanied scientists on research expeditions, based on icebreaking ships or even camped on the Arctic ice.

What makes Svalbard and the Arctic a great subject for photography?

The sheer range of opportunities for photography in Arctic Svalbard hits you from the moment you step off the plane in Longyearbyen. It can take a day or two to relax into it. The key is to be open and embrace opportunities when they come—whether that’s a call to go out on deck to see whales or an invitation to explore the shoreline with naturalists. It helps to arrive with some flexibility, as wildlife sightings can happen in the middle of dinner or very early in the morning. Keep your camera batteries charged and yourself refreshed with sleep.

Tell us about your favorite or most memorable National Geographic assignment in this region.

While on assignment for National Geographic magazine, I worked on a research vessel producing a story about the science of sea ice. The expedition went further north than Svalbard and took place in the winter when temperatures are much lower. I was working in minus-36 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures. We were on a small ship locked by ice floes, drifting with the ice. This was the culmination of many years of work researching and reporting on sea ice, but in the polar night and in the extreme cold, it was as if I were seeing the landscape for the first time.

How do you hope the experience of visiting these destinations with you will change our travelers?

Visiting the high Arctic region widens our perspective, and it can change our ideas about scale because we see the vastness of the planet. Watching species survive in this harsh landscape shows us how precious life is. Seeing firsthand how a polar bear or a walrus is highly adapted to the extreme weather, we’re reminded of the resilience of nature, which can boost our resolve to take on life back home. Being immersed in this unique ecosystem instills a profound respect for nature.

This area is greatly affected by climate change, and seeing these changes firsthand can inspire us to take better care of our environment after returning. To be able to see the story playing out in front of us makes it real, instead of just another newspaper headline.

What motivates you as a photographer and a filmmaker?

It’s a great privilege to be able to communicate the ideas behind wild places and natural ecosystems, and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to do that with a camera in a creative way. Focusing my gaze and concentration on one thing is like an act of meditation, and it makes me happy. Everyday life can be very distracting and the discipline of photography—focusing interest and applying curiosity—gives me new energy.

Why is travel important?

Travel opens our eyes to the world and to new ideas. Experiences gained while traveling can change the way we lead our own lives and allow us to see the world anew, from an enhanced perspective. Travel can encourage us to find out more about a place, a culture, or an ecosystem. It can also inspire us to read more and broaden our knowledge of a subject. With an open mind, traveling is an opportunity for learning.

Fun Fact: I would never travel without what?

For Arctic Svalbard: A good pair of binoculars is as important as my cameras for finding wildlife. It’s fun to spot something far away and then draw it to the attention of the guests. A luxury is noise-cancelling headphones for long flights. An essential is sunscreen for polar destinations, as the sun is fierce on cloudless days.

What is your favorite travel memory?

My best travel memories all involve friendships—experiencing something new and unexpected, then sharing the story with a friend and looking at each other to say, “Did that just happen?” My strongest friendships were forged by travel. While photographing scientific field work, the unexpected moments will often stick in my mind: grounded by bad weather and forced to take shelter in a wild place; being thankful for simple things like shelter, food, and water. It’s during the downtime, while waiting for the end of a scientific experiment or an animal to appear, that I have time to really appreciate the landscape and take it all in.

Many of my happiest memories in the Arctic are triggered by sounds, like the call of an ivory gull traveling across the seemingly endless ice, gliding on the winds and piercing the emptiness with the cry of life itself.