Martin Lipman is an Ottawa photographer who joined palaeo research teams led by the museum’s Natalia Rybczynski, Ph.D., on several field trips to Canada’s High Arctic. The teams found fossilized mammal bones that changed what we know about North American camels and the evolution of seals. The research on the camel bones was published today in Nature Communications.
Round bag or square? That was the joke in camp because I made a lot of tea on the Ellesmere Island trip in 2008. I also washed a lot of dishes.
People often have a misconception about how photographers work in the field, particularly when they’re part of a four-or-five-person research team. In this context, as in most, the camera doesn’t lend you any special status.
Being invited to an Arctic field camp is no small thing, or at least it isn’t to me. It means the research team goes without an additional researcher. It means an additional seat on the aircraft and an additional mouth to feed. It means you have to contribute.
While I am there to document the expedition, I am always a team member first and a photographer second. Some days it is just as important to make a cup of tea or scrub the burned oatmeal pot as it is to make another photograph.
Field seasons are expensive endeavours. Often, due to wind and weather, the research window is impossibly short and the conditions harsh. There is a lot of pressure on team leaders to have the research go well and safely.
The photographer can’t be a distraction, or worse, reckless. You can’t run off and disappear over a ridge without a radio to get that great shot, or “borrow” the ATV for a midnight photo run. It keeps people up at night.
Twice a day there is a pan-Arctic radio call when researchers report in and update the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) staff in Resolute, Nunavut, on their status. The right message for that call is “all is well”, so wandering off alone in polar-bear country is generally frowned upon.
By virtue of working in the Arctic, there is enough to deal without creating undue concern in the camp. During Dr. Rybczynski’s first field season on Ellesmere Island, the museum’s camp was utterly levelled by encroaching sea ice that crushed the food and kitchen tent. In other years, one research camp was routed by polar bears, and another camp was threatened by late-day meltwater. So, plenty can happen without upping the odds unnecessarily.
PCSP plays an essential but relatively unsung role in keeping the researchers safe and supported. They coordinate all the field logistics for science research in the North and the communications. They quarterback all the air travel, supply and deliver fuel and field equipment, and when needed, dispatch medical evacuation. In the scenarios above, without daily radio calls, the research teams could have been in real difficulty.
Giving priority to the research and the team doesn’t mean there are no opportunities in camp for getting good photographs. Once you’ve earned some respect—finding fossils helps in that department—opportunities open up. In July (which is when field seasons are scheduled), the best light for landscapes happens around 2 a.m. when the sun is lowest in the sky. Once the research is moving forward, a team member accompanies me to photograph at that hour, often prompting a later start to the following field day. It is a rare but valuable accommodation.
The light and landscape in the High Arctic are unparalleled: easily worth the cost of a night’s sleep. There are often very few chances in an expedition to get great landscapes as often the weather is poor and can remain so for days in a row. While you can certainly shoot without sun, the painterly light of the Arctic sun through broken cloud is unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. It doesn’t fall where or even how you’d expect it to at lower latitudes.
When photographing during the day, I tend to stay close to the group because you never know when a discovery may occur. It’s important that I document the researchers at work because they are often too busy doing the research to stop and take their own pictures or video. That is particularly true when poor weather limits working hours. Along with their use in media, outreach and scientific publications, the photographs are valued as visual references for their documentation of the science and working conditions.
As was the case with the High Arctic camel, sometimes you don’t know you have a moment of discovery until you get back into the lab, so you photograph the work and the suspected fossils as they were found and hope something comes out of it. That summer on Ellesmere Island, no one thought they were picking up pieces of fossil camel bone, and now here we are today seeing the publication of the research results in Nature Communications. (Read about it on the museum’s web site).
In 2007 Dr. Rybczynski took a significant risk inviting me to her small Devon Island camp. I now have travelled North with her three times, including in 2008 when some of the High Arctic camel fossil was collected. In these few short years, she and her co-authors have made two significant discoveries, discoveries that I’ve had the privilege to help document. Consequently, in the resulting media coverage, we’ve had the visuals to really tell both stories well. In that sense, I think the risk has paid off.