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Into the Wild: Capturing the Planet's Imperiled Ecosystems

By Conor Risch


polar bears by Florian Schulz
© Florian Schulz/visionsofthewild.com
A mother polar bear and her cubs jump between ice floes to escape a male polar bear, Barents Sea, Norway. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

For wildlife photographer and conservationist Florian Schulz, who has worked in some of the most remote wilderness in the world, telling engaging environmental stories requires nearly all-consuming devotion to his work. Schulz, a German photographer, built his career by spending extended periods of time making images that describe how an entire ecosystem functions.

“I like to work on things in-depth,” Schulz says. “I don’t go somewhere for a week or two and think I have covered it. I love to return to a place and get a lot more insight and a lot more depth.”

For his new book, To The Arctic, which is a companion to a 3D documentary film of the same name, Schulz spent more than 18 months working in the Arctic over the course of several years, and during one stretch spent five months in the field.

Wildlife photographers might be inclined to specialize in a particular subject, like birds, for instance, but Schulz says part of his success is his ability to create a diverse range of images. “I dive, I do good aerial work, I do good wildlife work because I have the patience for the wildlife work, and I do good landscape work. I’m able to cover entire ecosystems because of my passion for the different aspects of photography, and I’m willing to invest the time, energy and additional money” to make all of these different types of photographs.

While his photographs are spectacular, Schulz’s commitment to his work is what puts him in position to make images that very few other photographers can make. His work starts with calculated decisions about where to be in order to see the wildlife he wants to photograph. “Basically I had a wish list of where I wanted to be at what time of year, and wanted to orchestrate that in a very spontaneous yet precise way,” Schulz says of his work on To The Arctic. Once he’s in the field, situations are fluid and opportunities present themselves, often through coincidence or, if you’re prone to believing in it, fate.

In Greenland, for instance, Schulz met native Inuit hunters who agreed to take him on a musk ox hunt in which they used traditional sleds, each pulled by 15 dogs, to cover hundreds of miles.

In Svalbard, Norway, Schulz, his wife, Emil, who often accompanies him into the field, and the documentary film crew found a whale carcass that washed ashore, which was providing a large group of polar bears with food. “I could spend days there getting to know the situation better, working out images in my imagination that I wanted to realize,” Schulz says.

While Schulz was in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, waiting for weather to clear so he could fly into an area where he might be able to photograph caribou, he met airplane pilot and mechanic Ken McDonald, who was working in a hangar there. The two became friends and soon set out in a World War II-era Super Cub airplane on an aerial expedition of the Arctic, which allowed Schulz to create unique and original images for the book.

And it was while Schulz was working in Alaska on another project, a book that will cover wilderness from Baja California, Mexico, to the Beaufort Sea in Alaska, that he met the people at MacGillivray Freeman Films, which led to their partnership and Schulz’s work on the To The Arctic companion book.

To simply be in position for these coincidences, introductions and incredible photographs to happen, Schulz assumes significant financial and personal risk, and covering the costs of these expeditions means building coalitions of clients that include magazines like National Geographic or German GEO, conservation organizations, book and calendar publishers, non-profit foundations and others. When he’s not in the field, Schulz works tirelessly with the help of his family to line up speaking engagements, find funding, license or sell images, and plan the next trips.

At times, potential clients for Schulz’s work will show interest when he’s attempting to organize a project or a particular trip, but they stop short of committing money up front. “Sometimes it had to be a very fine line of judging: Do I really believe that I am going to get back what I am investing, even just the costs, not even talking about getting paid for my time?” Schulz explains.

Often Schulz’s work requires a leap of faith, as it did with his book on the Arctic. “I always wanted the opportunity to show what one can deliver if you just give all that you’ve got,” Schulz says. “In a way it was really encouraging, because so many things worked out. I got to places and some of the most dramatic things unfolded.”

Perhaps the most important leap of faith Schulz made was the one that launched his career. Schulz was deeply engaged with wildlife as a child, and would often venture out into the woods to observe birds, or, he remembers, a fox den near his house. “After a while I realized I saw these amazing things and I would come home and tell friends about it, and they weren’t quite able to recognize what it was like or able to imagine the images that I saw,” Schulz recalls. “That’s when I realized I needed to bring home images for them to really understand what it was like to be out there in that moment, to watch the little fox pups playing with each other, or [see] an incredible, beautiful bird.”

Though he began photographing nature as a teen, he enrolled in Heidelberg University “because everybody told me it’s not possible to make a living in nature photography,” he recalls. “Everybody warned me and said: This is one of the hardest fields to make a living at. And they’re right, it’s very true.”

In 2000, however, Schulz decided to leave school. “I said, ‘I’m not going to live a life based on fear that I’m not going to be successful at something,’” he recalls.
Schulz borrowed as much money as he could and went to work. Rather than thinking of wildlife photography as a career, Schulz told himself, “This is my life.”

“Once I did that I kept on fighting for it, won awards from the BBC, realized the level of photography [I created] was accepted and the quality was there,” Schulz explains. Schulz has repeatedly invested in new equipment and new projects, challenging himself, he says, to produce images “in the highest quality form that was possible.”

One of the founders of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Schulz has been committed to promoting the creation and maintenance of “wildlife corridors,” migratory passages that allow animals to move between interconnected ecosystems. Through research and relationships he developed with conservationists and scientists early in his career, Schulz came to understand the corridor concept and has devoted his work to it. “If you spend a lot of time out in nature and confront yourself with the topics, it’s really not too farfetched to understand that our natural systems only work in an interconnected way,” Schulz says.

His first book, Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, which, through Schulz’s photographs and essays by leading scientists and conservationists, espoused the necessity of a wildlife corridor between Yellowstone National Park in the American West and Canada’s Yukon territory, received an “Outstanding Book of the Year” award in 2006 from the Independent Publishers Book Awards.

Not only are wildlife corridors an important conservation concept, Schulz has differentiated himself and his work through his dedication to promoting them through the “Freedom to Roam” brand he has established. “I can only survive if people understand that the work that they see from me is being done with a different relationship to the environment,” Schulz says. “I’m not just going ten days to Africa and one week to Asia. When I do something it’s more project oriented and it will be telling a more complete story about a place.”

Schulz’s next major project is a book about the coastal corridor that runs from Baja California, Mexico to the Beaufort Sea in Alaska, and he also plans to take the “Freedom to Roam” projects beyond North America to Africa and other locations.

These long-form projects also translate into meaningful speaking appearances for Schulz in Germany, the United States and elsewhere. “It’s very beautiful to have a chance to give these live presentations,” Schulz says. “To connect with people and tell the story and let them feel [my experiences] is very rewarding. People are so moved and you get that feedback, its something really beautiful.”

A major challenge for wildlife photographers, Schulz says (echoing a sentiment felt in nearly every genre of photography), is that the work is undervalued. “So many people love the idea of being a pro wildlife photographer, and make the mistake of giving their images away because they feel they are going to do better later if they give away their images long enough,” Schulz laments.

And despite the growing public interest in the environment in recent years, Schulz says, funding for work like his has not increased substantially. The green movement “has not translated into more support for many more people to do what I do,” Schulz explains. “Even for me, I am fighting for it all the time.”

Schulz recently purchased a RED Epic camera and is beginning to do video work in addition to capturing stills in the field. “Some stories I can tell better if it’s a mix of stills and film,” he explains.

“There needs to be much more storytelling,” he adds, “because there’s such an onslaught on the planet, on the resources. We are by far not doing enough and people do not understand the connections, what’s all going wrong.”

Photographing (and Surviving) in the Arctic
To make photographs in the far reaches of the Arctic you have to get there, which means traveling on small planes to remote native villages, over water on sailboats or in inflatable canoes, or overland via snowmobile or dogsled. And of course, once you get into the Arctic wilderness, you have to stay alive and, eventually, get back out. Working in February in the Arctic is like “living in an ice chest,” says Florian Schulz. “You need to protect yourself. You go from wanting to shoot the most beautiful images to the next moment keeping yourself from freezing to death.” Life revolves around boiling water so you can drink it or use it to reconstitute dried food.

If you take a frozen camera into a warm tent it will be covered with condensation, and if it freezes again it will be ruined, so Schulz has to put cameras in a dry bag before taking them into a tent or anywhere else they are going to warm up. He also keeps batteries close to his body so they stay warm and will function. Schulz often sleeps sporadically, “because [for example] you know there’s a full moon coming and you want to capture that over the icebergs in northern Greenland.” Or you are out in the field with just one other person, and you have to take turns keeping watch over the tent with a rifle to scare off polar bears.
Below is a partial list of the gear Schulz used to create his most recent book, To The Arctic.

Cameras:
Nikon D700; Nikon D3s; Nikon D3x
Lenses: Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8; 24-70mm f/2.8; 28-70mm f/2.8; 70-200mm f/2.8; 200-400mm f/4; 600mm f/4; 16mm f/2.8 fisheye; 24mm tilt-shift; 1.4x teleconverter
Other equipment: Remote camera boxes; Manfrotto and Gitzo tripods; a PocketWizard for remote setups; Subal underwater camera housing; rollable solar panels; 16 lithium-ion batteries; a Nikon GPS; a Macbook Pro; 200+ gb of CompactFlash cards; three WD 500 gb pocket drives
Additional gear:
An emergency position-indicating radio beacon; a satellite phone; a handheld aviation radio transceiver that can contact jetliners if the sat phone fails; a dry suit for ice diving with masks and fins; an inflatable canoe; and, of course, polar bear fur pants and boots supplied by an Inuit guide

Below, watch a video produced by Schulz and his wife about photographing the Arctic:


Related Article:

Florian Schulz Photo Gallery

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© Charlie Engman
PDN April 2014

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