Photographing Research from the Inside

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.

Martin Lipman looks through the viewfinder of his camera.

Martin Lipman at work in the Haughton Crater on Devon Island, Nunavut. Image: Natalia Rybczynski © Martin Lipman

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.

A small bone fragment on the ground among rocks and pebbles.

A fragment of the camel fossil found on Ellesmere Island. The fossil looks very similar to wood. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

Four people climb a steep slope.

One of Rybczynski’s field teams surveys the upper reaches of a fossil site near Strathcona Fiord, Nunavut, amidst gusts of wind-blown sand. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

Natalia Rybczynski sits inside a tent with a satellite radio beside her.

Natalia Rybczynski awaits a morning radio call with Natural Resource Canada’s Polar Continental Shelf Program in the field team’s kitchen tent. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

A small helicopter with a net of cargo suspended beneath.

A small helicopter carries the team’s gear on Ellesmere Island. The helicopter was supplied by the Polar Continental Shelf Project. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

Three people approach a flattened tent in a rocky landscape.

Team members rush to right a collapsed tent to prevent the tent poles from breaking during a prolonged windstorm. The wind reached speeds of 70–80 km/h. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

A vast, eroded, hilly landscape.

The evolution of the landscape is evident in this view of Ellesmere Island. About 300 million years ago, streams deposited sand and silt, which compacted into rock. Within the last 100 million years, the layers were tilted by tectonic plate movements, and erosion exposed the deep layers. Three to eight million years ago, streams deposited more gravel, and streams have cut and eroded the landscape since then. Eventually, these hills will be carried away as grains of sand into the Arctic Ocean. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

Two women work in a cavity dug out of a barren slope.

Natalia Rybczynski (left) and Marisa Gilbert at work to prepare an environmental sample near Strathcona Fiord as the weather deteriorates. The sample was shipped to the museum’s collections and research facility in Gatineau, Quebec, for further study. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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).

A rocky landscape looking down at the fiord from the level of the plain, with a large snow-covered hill in the distance.

View of an unnamed mount on near Strathcona Fiord on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, shortly after a July snowstorm. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

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.

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