By Ben Lybarger
If sleeping in shifts on the windswept polar ice cap, swaddled in perpetual daylight and swapping a high-powered rifle with your spouse every couple hours to fend off bears sounds remarkably unlike your idea of wedded bliss, then you probably have little in common with Florian Schulz and his wife, Emil. Having mounted an impressive list of awards and accolades, this world-renowned German native has carved out a niche for himself by mixing his passion for photography with his love for nature and wildlife, a love that takes him anywhere from the cloud forest of Chiapas to the frozen tundra of the arctic. His first book, Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam, mixed his stunning images with essays by biologists and conservationists, seeking not only to inspire wonder and evoke an emotional connection to the natural world, but also to educate and hopefully improve our relationship to the dwindling habitats and threatened species that our lifestyles impact. For his latest project, Schulz teamed up with MacGillivray Freeman Films to produce a beautiful companion book for their IMAX film, TO THE ARCTIC. Much more than a mere cinematic memento, however, this book captures a formidable array of breathtaking photos that offer an intimate glimpse into the harsh environments of the far north. I was able to sit down with Florian before his talk at the Great Lakes Science Center prior to a screening of TO THE ARCTIC on April 19th.
CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: The first thing I am curious about is your book that accompanies the film. What was your relationship was with the film crew? You were with them shooting in the arctic for 18 months, right?
FLORIAN SCHULZ: No, not in one stretch; I did it in the course of the last ten years. The longest stretch I was up there was a little over five months. The only time I would get back was when flying from Canada over to Svalbard (Norway). I would have a layover in Toronto then later in London for 24 hours or something, just in airports. But yeah, I spent a lot of time up there. I was with the film crew on multiple expeditions.
We actually met up in the arctic over 4 years ago; they had heard about me and I had heard about them and we got talking in Alaska. One thing led to another and they said, "we're doing this film, why don't we work together on this?" So eventually we came to this collaboration where I joined them on multiple expeditions, and I also organized one where they joined me. So that's how we worked together and I was able to capture some of the key themes photographically that are at the heart of the film, which are the mother polar bear and her two cubs.
CMB: What was the experience like when you all were filming the mother and her cubs?
FS: As we were out there at the very end of filming on one of the last expeditions, what we encountered was this area of drifting pack ice. The ice had disappeared everywhere else within like 200 miles or something like that. So what happened was all these polar bears came together there in these pieces of drifting ice, and we counted over 120 bears. We don't know if they were all individual bears because sometimes you don't know if you are seeing the same one, but it was definitely a lot of bears. Bears, in general, when they see a boat like this, they don't say, "cool, we're gonna go there" or necessarily want to hang around, but this mother with two cubs didn't care. She came over and would lay down right next to the boat, and I saw it as if she looked at that boat like a drifting iceberg. It was so interesting to have her there for five days. We could film her and photograph some of the most intimate moments of her nursing and everything. What you have to imagine too is that because of the 24-hour sunlight, it was more than five days, really, because we could follow and observe her day and night. That led to some of the very dramatic footage that you see in the film, including where a male polar bear starts to hunt them and go after them.
CMB: When I was looking at your photos of the mother bear and her two cubs on the posters and in ad copy promoting the film, it struck me how strange it must be having such an intimate and momentous experience in one of the most remote locations on earth, then seeing it re-contextualized as one of the thousands of images that people casually consume every day. Has that created an odd sort of dissonance for you?
FS: You know, honestly for me, they designed it so beautifully and so intimately that I thought they reflected quite a bit of the atmosphere, and also the caring of the mother with her two cubs, that I actually love poster very much. I think it's not done in an exaggerated kind of way but in a very sensitive way, so that was not my problem at all. I think it actually creates a lot more interest in the bears and people start to see them as something more than just a wild animal. I think they realize that these are very smart animals that also have emotions; that not just humans do. That is what I take from that photograph.
CMB: Right, I was just thinking of how it must have been a very personal, solitary experience that now is suddenly is everywhere for people to relate to in a very different way.
FS: You are quite right. That is a lot of what I am about. You see here [points to a slide on the screen], this is for example my wife and I on an expedition to go out specifically looking for polar bears. In that moment it was literally just the two of us. I like that solitude and I like that opportunity to be out there in nature and experience it in this special way that you mentioned. It seems like something different if you are there and seeing the natural behavior of animal and watching it, and they are not changing their behavior. They are just going about their lives like they always do. That is something extremely unique and something we cherish, so we look for these kinds of expeditions. It is the same thing we did with the caribou, where we spent many weeks out there living with the animals. What's important for us is bringing these stories back so other people cane relate with the landscape and the animals.
CMB: During the course of your time in the arctic, were there many peak moments that you experienced in this way with you wife, Emil?
FS: On this last trip, oh wow, yeah... we had [an experience with] a male and a female polar bear. This was the mating season in late winter, and we were out on the ice with just them. They first ignored us for a long time and you could just watch them, how the male was following the female across the ice, but then they got really interested and they were starting to circle us. At that time you get warm and quite a rush, and I am just shouting at the bear: "Hey bear, don't come any closer! That is close enough!"
Another beautiful memory was when we rescued a caribou calf. We tried for several years to photograph and film the caribou migration, which is is actually when we met the MacGillivray-Freeman film team. We were in communication with them about where the caribou were and so on. But anyway, when these migrations happen, the caribou calves are just born and immediately need to follow the herd, within a day - or even within hours - of being born. So one of these little calves swam across the river, but then fell into this hole in the ground and could not get it out. Eventually we helped it out and Emil carried it in her arms to a mother caribou. They actually reunited because calf heard the mother call and then ran. These kinds are experiences are just amazing.
With regards to filming, I was so fortunate to be right there when very important scenes were happening there in Svalbard. We did two expeditions to Svalbard together: the first one in a sailboat, and the second one in an ice-going vessel, which means it was a former sailing vessel but built strong enough so it could run into larger pieces of ice and bump them away like a bumper car and make its way through the pack ice.
CMB: So when you followed the caribou migration, how did you travel?
FS: Over ground. I did not personally travel with them hundreds of miles. What we would do, for example, is follow rivers by rafting, kayaking, or canoeing down the rivers, but in one particular spot we basically set up a base camp where the caribou would funnel through. So right in front of our eyes 60,000 caribou would pass by in the course of five days. That's basically a continuous flow of animals day and night, and you still see at night because it is 24 hours of sunlight in the arctic.
CMB: Was that the Porcupine [Caribou] Herd?
FS: The one that we filmed and photographed there was the Western Arctic Herd, but we also filmed and photographed the Porcupine Herd, which enters from Canada into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A famous area there - also where part of the Imax [film] was shot - is called Caribou Pass.
CMB: Did you get to experience the botflies?
FS: I got to experience the mosquitoes and that was hell enough. I mean, like literally millions of mosquitoes buzzing around you.
CMB: So, as a photographer often seeking shots of elusive wildlife, have you developed any tracking skills? And what do you do to help endure the long, quiet stretches of time between sitings, often spent in these adverse conditions?
FS: First thing: already from early childhood on, I read a lot about Native Americans and hunters. It fascinated me, so I was already tracking through the forest and trying to be as quiet as I could, not stepping on dried branches that could crack or any of this. So I definitely have a certain understanding of tracking, of being quiet and sneaking through the forest, on one hand. On the other hand, the patience game of waiting for me is not as terrible because photography is my passion. I spend a lot of time just envisioning these images, and if you believe you can get a amazing shot of something very special, that occupies your mind. You're basically so thrilled about the possibility of photographing that suddenly you are willing to wait forever. And I don't really feel bored because there are so many things going on. Suddenly you hear the call of a bird and discover a bird nest that you didn't see before, or maybe an arctic fox wanders across the tundra in the distance. So I just like to be alert and listen to the changes and maybe just do nothing. I definitely don't get crazy.
CMB: I know what you mean. Sometimes when you stop moving for a while and sit in one place, you see so many things you would have walked right by. It's almost meditative.
FS: Exactly, very true.
CMB: I understand you were able to dive along with the filmmakers below the arctic ice pack. Did you have to get a special certification, and had you dived much before this?
FS: Yes, that's called dry suit certification, and normally you'd also get ice diving certification, but I didn't have all that much time. I basically did my certification for dry suit then headed up there. What was really impressive was to see what the IMAX filmers, like Bob Cranston and Howard Hall, had to go through in order to film with the IMAX camera underwater.
What you have to imagine is that with the IMAX camera you only have three minutes to film, then you have to change your roll of film. Three minutes cost three thousand dollars, so it is a thousand dollars per minute, and so every time you press that button you have to know that you are really going to get something. Then you have this huge 400 pound thing you have to get into the water with a crane, and then in the water it is balanced out. They took this underwater even to film polar bears, and that is some of the best footage, in my opinion, in the film.
CMB: Being under the ice with just one hole through which you can escape, is that a disconcerting feeling?
FS: Yeah, yeah it is. Especially when the water is 29 degrees Fahrenheit: below the freezing point and only liquid because there is so much salt in it. That's really scary because what happens is you have a regulator that you are breathing through, and if you breathe too much the condensation will freeze the regulator and suddenly you have a free flow. So you are in there and suddenly the air just shoots out, and if you don't have much air left and are somewhere back there underneath the ice, you need to have strong nerves not to freak out.
CMB: How far down did you go?
FS: I went down probably 40, 50 feet. I don't know exactly how deep it was, but you keep drifting down and down along a major iceberg, and it has this cool shape like an enormous spaceship.
CMB: Had you dived much before this?
FS: Not in the arctic, and not a lot in comparison to the [IMAX] cameramen. Some of them are the best in the world, for sure, and probably have dived thousands of hours.
CMB: I am also interested in your involvement with the Yellowstone to Yukon Project. What is meant by wildlife corridors, and why they are important?
FS: Yellowstone to Yukon was one of my projects as part of the Freedom to Roam work. What I envision [as the goal of this project] is keeping wild lands connected so wildlife can migrate. But it is beyond just the wildlife you may envision, say an elk moving from A to B. You have to think of how ecosystems are really dependent upon interconnected pieces of land, because not only animals move but plants also move. In order for an ecosystem to be healthy, larger pieces of it need to be fairly close together so, for example, plants or insects can slowly change in the face of climate change. The seeds that get blown over a couple hundred yards, they can slowly expand like that, but if there is an industrial agriculture belt that reaches for two to three hundred miles, they are not going to go across that. So it is not just the big animals that need to cross the highway, which is the most graphic and [the image] which the people connect with the most - and that is of course very important - but in the end it is about the health of the entire ecosystem. And so I am continuing that work. Right now I am doing a project along the entire West Coast, from Alaska to Baja. The reason you still have the big herds of caribou in the arctic is because there the land is still very connected.
CMB: How do you respond to people who see little value in preserving or reintroducing wolves and bears, seeing them as nuisance animals and threats to livestock and public safety?
FS: Whether people like it or not, animals like wolves belong in an ecosystem and they keep it healthy. That becomes very clear in a place like Yellowstone, for example. When the wolves were absent, the elk population went through the roof and they actually changed the ecosystem because they ate away all the upcoming sprouting trees and willow bushes, so suddenly animals like beavers and or warblers were absent from Yellowstone National Park. So, with the reintroduction of the wolf suddenly these animals were coming back because willows were growing along the rivers again and aspen trees were coming back. That shows that these animals were a part [of the ecosystem] and always have been necessary.
I also think there is a certain quality to a wild place if it has these big predators like wolves and grizzly bears, and once you lose them, you lose a part of the soul and the heart of a place. Here in North America, you have pushed them out of most of the places. They are only hanging on to a few areas in the Rocky Mountains, and sometimes people become careless about it because they say, "In America we still have plenty of bears" or "we have plenty of wolves," but if you think about it, this is a huge continent. If you only have them now in two or three states, that's not really that much.
CMB: In creating the corridors, you can use conservation easements in linkage zones, but also under- and over-passes along highways, which I understand are most effective when they are every 3/4 of a mile. But how does one go about funding these sorts of projects, and how likely are these to be created in times of recession?
FS: Well, one of those major overpasses or underpasses does not really cost more than one mile of highway. I think that really puts it in [perspective] if you think about that, and you don't need them everywhere, just in those key crossing areas. But then you also have to think about the safety issue of a passenger car racing into a moose or elk. People get killed or injured. Also, since you talked about funding, maybe one could even collaborate with certain insurance companies and others because they have to pay a lot of insurance claims because of these types of collisions. I think as societies evolve we should realize that if we want to keep wildlife around, we should evolve with our transportation system too, and make wildlife pathways a part of a functioning landscape.
CMB: On the other hand, economic recession can have a positive environmental impact because it slows development and people burn less fossil fuels to save money. Do you feel that one of the biggest challenges for conservationists in the coming decades will be tying together notions of economic and ecological sustainability so that they no longer appear as independent realms?
FS: I think that's what it comes down to, and unfortunately right now we when are talking about TO THE ARCTIC and it's all about global warming, but also we are trying to protect the Alaskan Arctic where oil development is one of the biggest threats. I don't know if you have seen that right now, for the very first time, drilling ships are going to drill offshore in the Arctic Ocean, and that's a huge danger because you saw what happened in the Gulf of Mexico. But your question was about economics, and for example, right now some people say global warming doesn't exist and other things like this, and I think it is in part industry interests that are pushing these false statements. The reason is they do not want to have to pay more for CO2 emissions or more for fossil fuels; they want to keep on doing coal. But the truth is, economic-wise, we will pay for that big time in the coming years.
If you look into it, I believe that the CIA said that global warming will most likely be a much bigger security problem, and a much bigger threat to America's way of life, than terrorism or anything else. So, theoretically, if we addressed this now, it would actually be much cheaper if we were serious about it. Maybe there would be certain investments now and some things would temporarily be more expensive, but in the long run, we will pay so much more through major storms like Katrina, tornadoes, droughts, famine and harvest losses, and not enough freshwater. There will be unrest in different parts of the world because of a lack of drinking water. It is only true about the economic side if you are thinking here-and-now and don't look ahead at all, just immediate profit and immediate gain.
CMB: Do you see any hopeful signs for the future?
FS: Well, I think awareness definitely has grown; at least there is something in the [public] consciousness. People say they want to have cars that use less gasoline. I think we just have to go a lot further, and hopefully leaders and politicians will pick up on it and don't just play it always from the political side. It is hard to say how much hope I have because I think we would need to address it as similar to a war. For example, with the situation of global warming, if we would recognize it as the problem and say we have to collaboratively fight this, that means we will have to make some sacrifices that will help all of us in the long run. But I am not sure if people are committed enough, or if they need to see a lot more disaster or terrible things to happen until they say, "let's do something."