What prompted you to become a photographer?
Unlike other photographers, I stumbled onto my true vocation completely by chance. In 1994 I developed chronic tendonitis in my hands from too much work at the computer, while doing my master’s thesis at the London School of Economics and writing for a book. Very reluctantly I took a year off from my budding career as a political journalist and embarked on a trip through South America’s wilderness. I wanted to get as far away as possible from the intrusions of what we call “civilization”, so I canoed through jungle rivers and rode along Andean trails from Venezuela to Chile…
That’s when you began taking pictures?
No, I was much too highly strung from the stresses of city life. I could not relax, nor really enjoy what I was seeing. It was strange, like a form of disease I never knew had befallen me. It took me months to learn how to “feel” again, how to just “be”. It was not until an expedition to the Altiplano (high altitude plains) in Bolivia, towards the end of the voyage, that the scenery suddenly overwhelmed me and I felt the need to portray what had caused these feelings in me.
Can you explain how you felt?
It was as if suddenly time stood still and all that mattered was the here and now, like a form of trance. The result was a cornucopia of abstract shapes and forms among salt flats and colored deserts, that prompted me to take these images to curators and galleries in London and seek their advice on a change of career.
And what was their opinion?
Luckily they all thought that I had a good eye and talent. Andy Cowan the co-founder of Hamilton’s gallery was particularly encouraging.
Did you go on to study photography?
Actually, I am completely self-taught as I could not find a course that ventured beyond theory and the darkroom to the techniques of outdoor photography. From Ansel Adams, to Eliot Porter, to Brett Weston, to Joel Meyerowitz and other contemporary photographers, I bought monographs and studied every image and assimilated all that I saw. I now have a substantial library of photo books and have since been lucky to meet and even work side by side some of my idols, world renown icons such as Art Wolfe and Sebastiao Salgado to name but two .
How do you capture the incredible sceneries in inaccessible places like Antarctica. And have you ever been in danger?
I spend most of the year venturing into the most remote areas of the southern latitudes, because they are as virgin as you can get nowadays. I have sailed the world’s most dangerous seas around Cape Horn, and almost died in the attempt. I suffered from hypothermia after diving in a kelp forest with seals and penguins near Le Maire Straight. I have been swept away and lost on an iceberg in Magellan Straight, and once I got lost and found that I was being stalked by a puma. In Antarctica, I lived with eight men in a hut without heating, we made water by melting pieces of ice, and did not know when weather conditions would permit a pick up by the military. These are the hazards and hardships that I have to face to get the images I am after. I can understand mountaineers and the sailors of the Vendee Globe, it is elating to venture beyond ones’ apparent limits.
How would you compare your work to Lynn Davis, Axel Huette or Thomas Struth?
I believe their creative process is different from mine. There is a strong emotional component in my images. For me, the journey becomes an integral part of creation, it is the ritual that opens my eyes and prepares my mind to experience the environment I will be working in. It teaches me to feel my subject as I gradually tune out of my urban consciousness and immerse myself into my surroundings… Struth and Huette’s images appear to have been taken from a more distant perspective, that of a detached onlooker; the alienation of man from nature, which is so typical of the Becher school. Lynn’s images are beautiful and she appears to be more subjective, maybe she feels the same awe I do in the face of natures’ grandiosity.
Do you feel fear?
I am aware that the boat could sink, or that I could die if I fell of the slippery cliff I am crouching on. Although I am careful, I also realize that I have been lucky. I suffer on the way to a location, like crossing the stormy Drake Passage to Antarctica, but once I begin photographing I don’t feel the cold, neither am I hungry or afraid. All that is important is to capture the second the magic light strikes my subject. I have been left on a beach in South Georgia (Antarctica) at 3 am to wait for sunrise in freezing temperatures. Were it not to capture a picture, I would surely hate it. But I fall into a meditative state, a rapture that overwhelms my entire being, and it is in those moments that I have taken my best images.
What was the longest period you spent out in the wilderness?
The first two years I lived in a cabin at the Valdes Peninsula in Patagonia atop a giant cliff overlooking the South Atlantic ocean. This experience culminated in my first book, The Wild Shores of Patagonia, which is a reverence to the perfection of the animal world and the rhythms of the natural environment. I worked in the company of world-renown scientists and National Geographic film-makers. They taught me how to photograph in the most unfavorable conditions, like working in a gale force wind, to photograph killer whiles exploding out of the water to snatch sea-lions right off the beach!! At the time my photography was more documentary…
When did your pictures become more abstract, when did you move towards Art?
I have really come full circle. When I took my first images back in the Bolivian desert plateau my photos were completely abstract. Just forms and shapes and colors. All these years I have done landscape work, it just never occurred to me to publish or exhibit it until I was urged to do so by a friend who happened to see some of those images in 2003. I had three shows that year, and sold almost all the pieces. Now I want to go back to the Bolivian deserts and return to my roots. It is a strange coincidence that desertification is my next subject, since deserts are what we will be left with after all the ice has melted…
Your work focuses strongly on environmental issues, what is your objective?
I could not stick my head into the sand and pretend that everything was perfect.
I found garbage in some of the most remote areas of this planet. The climate change was affecting the livelihood of the animals I was observing: there was a shortage of food due to over-fishing, oiled penguins washed ashore suffering from hypothermia. Seals lay dying entangled in fishing nets. I saw the effects of severe droughts and overgrazing on the Patagonian plains. And it rained in Antarctica!! Can you imagine the poles without ice and snow? The glaciers are receding so fast I have seen the difference from one year to the next. Unlike the people who only read about it - I have witnessed the effects of global warming myself. And I have even lost a friend to it!
Global warming has taken on a human dimension for you?
Augusto Thibaud – a scientist at Argentina’s Jubany base, accompanied me during my stay there last year. During a mid-winter expedition, he travelled over a glacier on a well marked route that had been used for years. But this time the glacier was not frozen over and he and another man crashed into the depths of a crevasse. A week later seven Chileans fell into a crevasse further south, for the same reason. Three died. In a cruel twist of fate, mine were the last images taken of Augusto, his widow came to my studio and I gave her some copies. She is a beautiful woman, young and so stoic. They met in Antarctica and she travelled there to bring home his body. They have two little children.
What would you say to the critics that say your images resemble pretty calendar work?
It is said that Richard Misrach’s “metaphysical reverence for the land is evident in his pictures”. I will borrow a sentence from him that epitomizes how I feel about my work: “If I were to make ugly photographs of bomb testing sites, no one would consider the land worth preserving”. Likewise, if I were to make drab images of some of the world's last truly wild places, who would be moved by that? We all know that the environment is being destroyed, we all have seen the images of garbage heaps and oil spills. The media is full of it. I want to move the public with the colors of an Antarctic dawn or a pod of orca whales swimming in perfect formation. I want to lead by inspiring the viewer who already knows, that what he is looking at may not be there tomorrow, unless we treat the earth as our home - not just as an exploitable resource.