Paul Nicklen, a photographer with National Geographic, was going to call his latest collection of images Bipolar Obsession on a lark, to reflect his trips to both poles. He settled instead on Polar Obsession and freely admits that he is, in fact, obsessed—not just with the animals and his pictures of them, but with getting out the story of how the animals’ lives are changing. In these excerpts from our talk, he discusses the future of still photography, the value of preventive storytelling, and our “ADHD society.”
When did you first pick up a camera? Did you have formal training?
It was probably 1988 when I first started. I don’t have training. I never went to any photo school. I shot on my own for five, six, seven years. And then I met Flip Nicklin from National Geographic, and he took me under his wing.
In a National Geographic interview , you say that it’s not just about the animals or the pictures, that you’re committed to getting a story out. What’s the story you’re committed to?
When I started off in photography, I was trying to shoot pretty pictures of animals. It often left me feeling very empty, because of all the issues out there that weren’t being covered. What I’m trying to do now is show the readers of National Geographic and the world how fragile and endangered all these ecosystems are.
If we lose the sea ice—sea ice is like soil in a garden. Without it things can’t grow. Now, saying the Arctic could be devoid of sea ice in the next five to seven years doesn’t mean anything to someone living in Manhattan. But I use animals like polar bears to show the effects of what’s happening, trying to get people in other places, who otherwise might not think about it, to care.
How does being committed to that story change the pictures you take?
It gives everything I take a lot more weight and more meaning. Every picture collectively shows what’s happening. I don’t have to take pictures of scientists looking at sea ice. I just have to talk with them and then go out and take pictures that reflect what’s at risk and what’s changing.
A story I did in 1997 was called “Life at the Edge,” about 500 words with 21 pages of images. I used to be a scientist, but this piece was just an emotional ploy. I thought that people would respond really negatively, but the response was incredible—the highest the magazine had gotten in the last 17 years. I realized that I had finally found a way to really connect with readers.
When a print reporter writes a narrative piece, she or he is almost always thinking about scenes, characters, conflict. How do you think about the elements of the story you want to tell?
Every story is so different, whether I’m in the Antarctic or the Arctic—a different cast of characters. So it’s just letting people know what’s there, and showing how a bad ice year affects krill, for instance, which affects everything. If I can show people what that does to penguins and leopards and polar bears, they can see how it all links together.
Do you think of individual pictures as stories? Or does the story come out of their arrangement as a group or accompanying text?
I definitely think that a single picture can tell a story. You can take a picture of two starving polar bear cubs with their mother on a little tiny ice floe. A polar bear dead on the ice. Sometimes it’s hard to bring everything together in one image—it’s easier with a collection. But the editors are always looking for one shot that says it all. Sometimes with a picture you’re doing the best you can to say as much as you can in one shot.
Do you worry that the move to video and multimedia will crowd out still images?
I think it may for a bit. The momentum is definitely heading toward that. We’ve become such an ADHD society. We want everything we touch to happen instantaneously. For now, the thrill of the iPad and gadgets feeds our synapses. I think, though, that many people—once they get that initial rush—they’ll go back to the soothing, therapeutic image. I think it will become more and more powerful over time.
I’m actually excited about all the gadgets, though. All my sales in photography used to be in magazines. Now I look in my statements, and I’m selling pictures through cell phone downloads for nominal fees. As a journalist, you’re worried less about selling pictures for money, and you can reach a world of millions more readers through these gadgets.
I didn’t deal with it. I’m still messed up over that. The hunters were my friends. I’ve grown up with them since I was 4 years old. But I watched this hunt going down year after year. They saw no problem with it. I was tortured over this, but I finally decided eventually it had to be shown for what it was—killing five whales that sink for every one they get.
I’m very conflicted. I don’t want to hurt the Inuit, but at the same time I don’t want these whales to disappear. It was an awful thing to do, but if I had it to do over, I’d do it again.
Again, I’m not against hunting, just against the wasteful hunting of animals. My dream, maybe my delusional dream, is that maybe someday they’ll thank me, but I’ve had death threats over it. I can’t go there now.
As a journalist, you put yourself out of the equation and tell the story in as unbiased a way as you can, but that personal conflict did affect my pictures. My pictures could have been a lot more graphic, more telling. There were things I didn’t report, but I was trying to hurt the Inuit as minimally as I could. In the end, I think I failed.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about storytelling and photojournalism? Do you have any concerns that wildlife photography values pretty pictures over reporting?
I’ve just won my fifth World Press Photo award—I’m going to Amsterdam soon to pick it up. And I’m going to be really vocal to the entire audience about this: it’s a tragedy that all these people are out there doing reaction stories. If there’s an earthquake, if 200,000 people die, if there’s a tragedy, they’re there—yet no one is out there covering preventive stories.
I’m very proud to be a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, headed by Cristina Mittermeier. There are so few people out there trying to cover these stories. For instance, you go to the BBC awards ceremony and see that a whole bunch of photographers have taken beautiful pictures, have gone out and seen a picture Flip Nicklin took and then taken something just like it, rather than trying to find a new picture. They’d be so much more fulfilled and gratified if they would pick up a camera and find a new story.
[For more, read our commentary on Nicklen’s work, where you can watch startling video of his five-day friendship with a deadly leopard seal.]