Paul Nicklen

[Interview by Julia Kidder]

If you have ever seen any photos of animals in the high arctic in the last fifteen years, you are most likely already familiar with Paul Nicklen’s work. The Canadian-born conservation photographer is most well known for his work in Arctic and Antarctic regions, for documenting fragile coastlines underwater and from his trips through the Great Bear Rainforest on Canada’s West Coast. Paul’s focus on marine and coastal species and ecosystems has found a permanent home in National Geographic but his photos there are just the beginning of a more interdisciplinary carreer that bridges the worlds of ecological conservancy, photo journalism, dialogue building and activism.

Paul’s background has given him a photographic toolkit that very few could ever hope to manœuvre, and he can do this so genuinely because he is truly at home in what few untamed and remote parts of the world still exist. Now, his photo expeditions with Sea Legacy, the organization which he founded, puts visual storytelling at the heart of a new mobilization by communicators and conservationists who are coming together in defense of the wild. This team is playing an instrumental role in putting pressure on those of us who need to be stirred by beauty in order to be confronted into custodianship for these beloved environments. As soon as his images are absorbed, a feeling of responsibility stirs in all of us. Paul Nicklen invites us into the intimate home of wild and endangered species and the ecosystems they rely on, awakening part of us that is dying to reconnect, protect and heal our planet’s most vulnerable species.

Julia Kidder — Hi Paul, what a treat to finally get in touch! We’ve been in quite the phone-tag marathon so let’s not waste any time. I’m really curious as to how you’ve become so at ease around the wildest animals on earth and I think we could all use a little background story to paint a picture of how you grew up. What was it like being a kid in Baffin Island?

Paul Nicklen — Hi Julia, hi Hobo. Well, I was born in Southern Saskatchewan and lived there for the first four years of my life which I don’t quite remember, but then my family and I moved from there to this big city on Baffin Island, or I remember it as a city because it seemed huge back then, but really it was a small town of around two thousand people called Iqaluit, or Forbisher Bay. Anyhow, back then it was called Iqaluit, which means ‘The Place of Fish’. We moved on from there when I was six or seven to a town called Kimmirut, which was called Lake Harbor then, and that’s where we were one of three non-Inuit families. It was very remote, we didn’t have television or radio and we had no reason to stay inside of the house so as kids we were outside constantly and any energy we had was spent having fun outside on the sea ice.

— This has obviously had a great impact on your work as a photographer in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, but these places are pretty much out-of-sight, out-of-mind for most people. Did your perspective on wanting to explore and play in these environments as a child direct the conservancy work you do as an adult and what kind of a relationship did you have with the Inuit community there?

— Absolutely. If I look back in time now on the most influential time in my life, I would say it was when I was living in this tiny Inuit community in the Arctic. Because there are two things you’re learning there. First, you’re learning left brain survival skills, you’re out in -40 ºC, you’re learning about the land, you’re learning about blizzards, about how to stay warm and how to build snow shelters and igloos—even from a very young age. Then on the other side, which I think might be even more important, is that as kids we could just disappear. We were as young as eight and could grab an ice pick and a rifle and go for a hike over the hill to chip a hole in the 6-foot thick ice. We would catch cod and Arctic char to bring home to our family, and would be out hunting and travelling around on the ice with Inuit elders. So you’re learning all these survival skills without really thinking about it, and spending all that time out there sort of makes you an ice expert at the age of seven. I got to know all of the variables of ice.

And then even more importantly from there is that I really fell in love with the artistry of the Inuit culture. I loved the folklore and the stories and as a very visual person it was incredible. We would sit together every night telling ghost stories about skeletons above the sea ice who ate someone’s father and when gasoline was poured on him he’d multiply into ten skeletons and stuff like that… And then you’d wake up and be in art class all-day learning about how to create art and lithographs and paintings. By the time I was nine I had my first piece of art hanging in the museum there and thought “wow!” Having my first glimpse that art could be recognized. I would hang out with the elders in their carving sheds and we would carve soapstone polar bears and we would talk about Qalupalik, the Inuit sea monster that would steal children walking on the sea ice and take them underwater and eat them. So there was a very visual overload and accompaniment to being outdoors and learning these intense survival skills as a young kid that made me fall in love with nature and storytelling. I was a bit of a weird kid, and my biggest thrill was hiking a thousand feet above Lake Harbor to just sit there all day watching the light play on the ice. Then we would play at night as the Northern Lights danced above us. We’d whistle to make them come closer and would be terrified as they’d intensify and get nearer to us because you believe it’s really your whistling making them do that. We’d do stuff like this even though we were so scared at the same time, because as the story had it, the lights would come closer and closer and closer until the lights would cut your heads off and play catch with them.

Looking back now when I left Lake Harbor to go to the University of Victoria, to go into a normal life, I would dream of this place, of the Arctic and the ice and the people and that culture. That connection was so strong that it called me back and I would return to work there almost every year.

— Being raised with verbal storytelling and an appreciation for artistic folklore that ties culture and the environment together is sort of the precursor to kids that grow up and want to take care of their environments. It’s so different than kids today who don’t get the chance to see those details in nature. Is it difficult to see how separated we have become from that intuitive appreciation for nature? 

— The truth is, I look at kids growing up today and I really believe that they’ve entered into some sort of electronic prison. There’s no time for kids to slow down in life to really get that meditative sense that comes from being out on the land, in the wind and the snow, slowing down to breathe the smells of the outdoors and letting all of your senses be filled. That deep feeling of love and passion and excitement and closeness is so opposed to the instant cerebral gratification that children today have. They’ve got their synapses being fired at all the time with the Internet or e-mail or Instagram and for me it was so completely the opposite. I was out on the land and on the sea constantly and I’m so fortunate to have an upbringing that was so tied to being outside where I could get exposure to all of that wildlife.

When we weren’t there­—my family and I would leave the Arctic and go to Saskatchewan once a year since it’s where my parents grew up—we would be on farms there and all day long I’d be spending time with bulls, cattle, sheep and pigs or out on the expansive corn and wheat fields of the Prairies. So no matter where I was, my world was with animals, and then more animals. Growing up on Baffin Island I even had baby pet seals and little pet seagulls.

— Sounds almost too picturesque to be true. You’re a marine biologist as well right? Did you become a photographer based on your experience as a biologist or did both happen sort of simultaneously?

— [laughs] Well, I am now. I was trained as a biologist at the University of Victoria with a marine focus, but now the university has given me an honorary Ph.D for the work I’ve done on climate change. When you grow up in the North, and you’re coming out of the Arctic you become a very major realist especially coming from the Canadian Arctic even the thought of becoming a photographer was this outlandish crazy idea, because it wasn’t the same as what seemed practical.

My dad wondered why I was pursuing photography at all, and he thought it seemed like a waste of time, and money. I mean it’s sort of typical parent stuff, that idea that you should become an engineer or something, but when you’re coming from that environment it might be even more so.

Anyways, for me it was a natural evolution professionally. I love animals, I love nature and I liked the idea of becoming a biologist, but I wasn’t “smart” enough or my grades weren’t good enough to become a vet, so I pursued a degree in Biology. But I felt that the science part of things was really challenging and I’m not an academic, I’m not very cerebral in that sense—I don’t suffer from ADHD or something like that but the thing that has always calmed me down and given me a sense of belonging is being out in nature. In Victoria the grade scale was out of 9 and if you got under 2 they would kick you out, so I was getting 2.2/9 for four years, but diving my face off, I was underwater the whole time and didn’t give a shit about the grades. I think—like a lot of people really—I’m a kinetic learner who needs to explore to understand and while I was studying I would return up North to work as a pipe layer to save money to buy this camera gear because I was so in love with the path of photography.

When I got a job as a biologist I became depressed. I sold my camera gear, I sold my diving gear and the dream of pursuing photography and visual storytelling sort of fizzled away. So, for four years I worked as a biologist and I was out in nature doing these amazing things but super frustrated with the stress that comes from that process of gathering data and turning the beauty of nature into numbers on fact sheets. We were abusing all these bears too, I remember drugging dozens of grizzlies and getting all of this information that ended up having no bearing on the hunting quota and so I became very sad about the whole thing. I kept dabbling and taking photos thinking that my true dream was photography and at one point my boss asked me straight out: “Are you a photographer or are you a scientist?” I knew right away, and answered: “I’m a photographer.”

I left the government after four years, I was twenty-six years old and they flew me five hundred miles onto the barren land onto the tundra and dropped me off there with six or seven hundred pounds of supplies and I just said to the pilot: “Three months from now I should be at the Arctic Ocean so look for me there…” I worked down through these Arctic river systems with this little inflatable canoe, and photographed and hiked two thousands kilometers without seeing another person and just lived on the land for three months. I came out of that trip with very few pictures but very enthused about the future of being a photographer that could connect people back to issues of the land.

— You seem to be in this unique position where you can use your photos to significantly support data that’s usually really opaque and goes over people’s heads by complimenting scientific evidence and making it more relatable to everyone. When it comes to the potential for storytelling about climate change, the work you do is proving invaluable. How do you feel you can inspire action rather than the ‘backseat activism’ that often follows the response to an onslaught of images on social media and in the press?

— Well what we do know for sure is that the science is essential and without scientific data there’s no way to get the credibility needed to illustrate the severity of certain environmental issues. But we’ve proven over and over that science isn’t going to get people feeling that immediate connection to these issues. That’s what all of these scientific organizations, and grassroots organizations and non-governmental organizations are failing to do, they put 95% of their budgets into science and 5% into communications, leaving a huge gap where we need strong communications conduits to really illustrate the changes that we know are happening right now. We realize that not everybody is going to see the Arctic ocean or Antarctica and it then puts photographers, journalists and storytellers in a position where they are communicators here to reach the world, and it’s actually a very exciting time if you think about how many communicative channels we have available to us now that have been created over the last five to ten years.

— Do you have the opportunity to put pressure directly on elected government officials and policy makers? How do you create that sense of urgency when there are so many institutional barriers to making better decisions about the environment? 

— Well, National Geographic has been a great place for us for the last fifteen years but having stories in the magazine once a month that are gone the next can be frustrating because we are cranking out content in media at such a crazy rate. So, that’s why we’re forming this organization, Sea Legacy1, so that we can have that cross section. Once you take that picture, the job is not done it’s really just beginning. It’s about asking: How do you use imagery to drive change? How do you use that imagery to reach out to elected officials? The thing is, we will keep pushing them with our work. We do major work in the Arctic and by using visuals brought together by our team of communicators and explorers, we can act like a more versatile Cousteau Society with the intention of empowering smaller, local grassroots groups. Our work as conduits pumps energy into the bases of activity that are already having these conversations. That’s where we’re growing rapidly too. We have a hundred and fifty million people we can reach out to on social media, it’s not just the photos. We now realize that people are on the radar and open our audiences up to the stories behind the photos.

— You live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and I was wondering what your opinion is about the wolf cull set by the B.C government. Opposition to these projects are often demonized by media, in that it often still insists on characterizing environmental conservancy as some sort of fringe groups that will eventually just go away. This must hit close to home for you.

— It’s so funny, I live on Vancouver island and we have house-to-house development on the coasts here, so there isn’t really anywhere for these animals to go. We’ve got an ongoing campaign on the wolf-cull and are really involved in the discussion on coastal B.C. wolves. What we have done while developing our coasts here is we’ve effectively destroyed the habitat of the caribou, we hunt the caribou, and then we look for a culprit, and villainise these wolves. The fact that these are coastal marine wolves with an 80% marine diet is overlooked, and when residents get scared, when they come in contact with these animals, those concerns get more weight than the facts about the wolf populations themselves. We are really a terrible species at looking inwards. This is not a wolf-caribou conflict, this is a wolf-human, or a human-ecosystem conflict and to address the problem we must address ourselves.

We must work even harder now than ever to protect these wolves. We hammered caribou populations so badly that even if we do kill all the wolves, it won’t have any effect at all on the overall decline in caribou. If I look back at the Bathurst caribou herd that I used to work with: There were over 450,000 caribou there, and that population has irreversibly declined because of climate change, a decrease in hard pack snow, increases in mosquitoes all combining to make migration routes harder on an already heavily hunted population. When I was a biologist, the government weren’t at all concerned with caribou populations, they were about managing hunters’ rights and pushing hunting quotas. Now that caribou populations are down to 25,000 caribou in the area, a 97% decline, they’re still fighting over how many should be hunted. So, after the caribou have been annihilated, they come up with the absurd idea that wolves are to blame. Four billion years of evolution towards ecological perfection, you would think that we are smarter than trying to control everything we touch, which we then ruin. The wolf cull is an example of how man interacts with the natural world, and that’s what drove me nuts about being a biologist.

— When it comes to larger industrial projects, the Canadian government claims it has a high commitment to fighting climate change, as seen in Paris at the climate conference last November. But they then seem to violate both indigenous rights and their carbon commitments by signing leases for the projects like the Northern Gateway Pipeline. The NGP would pump bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat into the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, so I imagine that is another area that affects you directly. Do you feel there was enough done in Paris to address these localized governance issues?

— Well, the truth is, it’s never enough. We have caused such an incredible amount of damage already. Polar bear populations will disappear in the next hundred years, the loss of ice pack, we’re seeing the lowest ice on record, increased volatility in weather patterns etc… So, the damage is already done. And it’s going to get way worse. With the Paris agreement we can sort of pat ourselves on the back but it really comes down to leadership. Obviously Trudeau is a million times better than Harper, but if someone like Donald Trump can become the president of the United States, we’re completely done.

Climate change is becoming more of an issue for civil society than for establishment politics. Al Gore came up with the title An Inconvenient Truth fifteen years ago and it’s exactly that. We make these little adjustments because it’s so inconvenient and uncomfortable to start adjusting our lives in more dramatic ways. People come up to me and say: “I really care about what you’re doing, I’m really sad about all the bears…” But then they own twenty six homes around the world. I don’t think that we’re all bad people, but are we ready to inconvenience ourselves to save this climate? I don’t think it will ever be enough when people fly in their Learjet to these meetings and then pat themselves on the back for just showing up.

There’s still a continuation of what was happening after Paris. When you spoke out against the oil industry under the Harper government, you could be labeled as a terrorist—and that’s in Canada! So, it’s very frustrating to see the persecution of conservationists and environmental activists and of scientists or indigenous leaders when they are just trying to get their cases heard and to share common resources. When the issues are as big as they are, photography isn’t about taking snapshots and patting ourselves on the back. We have a lot of work to do. Ian McAllister2 and I who could be perceived as competitors are both fighting on the same team. We were working with First Nations around the Spirit Bears in the Great Bear Rainforest and when I can be a part of getting groups of photographers together to address these issues, we may get discouraged but that sure as hell doesn’t mean you’re going to stop us, because we are caught in the wheel of trying to create change.

— What’s next on the agenda for you and for Sea Legacy?

— In November we’re leaving on a major expedition up the BC coast which will be a film project and the first major expedition for Sea Legacy. When I think back to the Spirit Bear story or the coastal wolf story, it’s not just that there’s one little white bear living in the forest or that wolves eat fish or something, this is a cross section of photo journalism and biology. I love ecosystems and illustrating those dynamics is where we want to focus. I love that the snowflake that falls on the top of a mountain is connected to life three hundred feet deep in the bottom of the sea and everything is connected in between. That means everything from the salmon to the creeks to the river. So instead of just focusing on logging we want to draw a big line around this area and ensure that it gets left the fuck alone. At this point, using these photos to illustrate that the department of fisheries and oceans have been a really criminal organisation in the world right now is vital. I mean on my deathbed I want to hold this organization accountable for their mismanagement of these ecosystems. They used to be to protect and preserve nature and now their mission has changed to protecting and promoting aquaculture and fish farms. The First Nations communities should be empowered in their efforts in these fights and we want to empower those efforts. The health of First Nations communities relies on taking on the herring fisheries and the rest.

At Sea Legacy we want to see more of those efforts amplified to give a voice to these people and the nature they protect. We present our images within this collective of the best visual storytellers in the world and work with our partners to get these stories out. The next major project is going to be focusing on orca habitats in Norway where we’ll be aligning with WWF Norway to try to keep oil exploration out of the Northern shores off of Lofoten. Whatever kickback happens from the oil industry should be scrutinized, and our organisation is not about to let up, we intend to do just the opposite.

1 You can look at the work Sea Legacy is doing at : www.sealegacy.org

2 Ian McAllister is a photographer, author and co-founder of Pacific Wild, an ecosystem conservation group from the Norther Pacific Coast of Canada, in the Great Bear Rainforest.