James Balog on Extreme Photo Projects

Open Show co-founder Tim Wagner recently interviewed photographer James Balog about his Extreme Ice Survey project documenting the world’s glacial terrain through cameras left in remote locales for long spans of time.

Tim: How was the idea for this project born?

James: In the course of shooting assignments on retreating glaciers for The New Yorker and National Geographic in 2005–06, I was stunned to see that extraordinary amounts of ice were vanishing with shocking speed. Ice that had taken centuries to form was disappearing in just a few years, months or even weeks. This was geologic-scale change happening not just in the dim past or distant future, but right here, right now, in our own time. These observations were the catalyst for the Extreme Ice Survey.

What were the biggest technical challenges in making this project?
James: It took six months of experimenting to come up with a camera system sturdy and reliable enough for our purpose.Our custom-designed time-lapse cameras have to function in and withstand temperatures down to minus 40 F., deep snow, winds to 160 miles per hour, torrential rain and rock fall. Some camera locations are so remote that EIS team members were probably the first people to ever visit the sites.

 Tim: Any advice for people interested in covering climate change?
James: No modern-day conservation crusade is complete without elegant photographs to advertise the natural world to a distracted public. The conservationist impulse has long been embedded in American photography.

Imagemakers are the eyes of civilization—discovering, framing, and interpreting reality—and we can play a major role in shaping how humanity perceives and responds to the world around us. Consumers respond to beauty, and certainly many photographers celebrate nature’s beauty. But people need to be provoked, stimulated, and challenged, so there is room for tremendous experimentation and creativity by photographers in the pursuit of meaning and impact.

However, it has to come from your core. It’s a deep biochemical, psychological, philosophical thing. You need good communication skills. You have to know how to tell stories in a meaningful way.

Tim: What is the next project you are working on?

James: We did some work down in the Gulf after the oil spill. I’d like to do more with energy supply, as my grandfather died in a coal mining accident before I was born. We are documenting changes in forests in the Rocky Mountains due to beetle kill, and, I am working energetically to get the ice project as stable as possible. It has become painfully evident that we are creating a major historical document. I feel a great obligation to preserve a pictorial memory of these vanishing landscapes for the people of the future.

Meet and talk with James at the San Francisco International Film Festival and Open Show screening of Chasing Ice on May 3rd (Thursday) 2012 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema for one night only. The film follows his epic Artic quest and takes viewers to breathtaking landscapes that may never again be seen by human eyes.

Buy seats to this film and post-screening Q&A >>

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