Paul Nicklen has earned his status in the photography world. With 14 awards from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, five awards from World Press Photo Awards, and being named one of the 40 most influential photographers in the world, he has gotten where he is through determination, devotion to his subjects, a thorough knowledge of the ecosystems and inhabitants of polar regions — and of course, an incredible skill with the camera. Nicklen talks with us about his career, the stories he has covered, and how he brings conservation issues to light through powerful photographs.

MNN: Do you remember when you took your first photograph? 

Paul Nicklen: Yes. I clearly remembered I borrowed my mother’s camera in Baffin Island when I was 8 or 9 and took a picture of a winter scene. Never thought much about it until she processed it in her homemade lab in our house. She made an 8x10 print. The picture was not very good, but I was mesmerized by the process.

polar landscape

A polar bear walks across Magdalena Fjord, Svalbard, Norway. (This and photos below by Paul Nicklen)

Did you have an "Aha" moment when you knew photography was the career path you would follow?

Yes. When I was in University in Victoria, Canada, I was able to show my invertebrate biology teacher the photographs of species and behaviors that he was a world authority on but had never seen in the wild, but I had been able to photograph during my diving outings.   

spirit bear

A spirit bear, also called Kermode bear, in the rain forests of British Columbia

Your main goal in your photography is to bring people's attention to the intimate connection between climate and ecosystems. How do you look for images that make this connection for viewers?

For me, the two most important kinds of images I can strive to make are those that capture a sense of place where an animal is part of its habitat and ecosystem and those that are close intimate portraits. A polar bear on the sea ice or a spirit bear in the rain forest for example. Or, I love to shoot close intimate portraits of animals. If I am using a telephoto lens, then I know that am too far away. If I am two feet away from a polar bear, photographing it on a 16mm wide angle, then I know the image will have a 3-D feeling and will transport the viewers through the pages of National Geographic. They will feel connected and will have a more exciting kind of experience rather that just looking at another image. To me, any successful image must be a marriage of art, science and conservation.  

It has to be beautiful enough to be hung on the wall, it must teach something important about our planet, and it must have an underlying conservation theme.

ice floes

What changes have you seen over the decades that you've been focusing on photographing polar regions?

I have seen nothing but change. In the early 2000s I went through the North West Passage on an ice-breaker. We spent much of time smashing ice to make headway. Nowadays, people are easily traveling on the same path in small plastic sailboats where any ice could easily crush them, but most of the ice is gone and they are able to make a journey that until a few years ago was impossible for all but the toughest ice breakers.

But, mostly, I listen to the true experts, the Inuit, and they are telling me that their world is changing rapidly. No longer can they predict where the ice will break up. Recently a group of over 100 Inuit hunters drifted out to sea on a pan of ice that broke off from the land fast ice. They were barely able to make it back alive.

narwhal pod

What do you feel is the most pressing story today, that you're trying to tell people through your images?

Not if, but when we lose all the ice, we will lose entire polar ecosystems. As the polar regions are warming twice as fast as anywhere else, this loss will just be an indicator of things to come for the rest of the planet.

polar bears fighting

Tell us about Sea Legacy, your new conservation project.  

The idea of Sea Legacy was born out of my own concern for marine ecosystems and the expertise that my partner, Cristina Mittermeier, a marine biologist and photographer herself has in conservation photography. We want to use our photographic skills to push for the creation of large marine protected areas around the world. We want our legacy to be measured in square miles of vast marine protected areas.

polar bear looking at camera

With so much dire news about the climate and environmental problems, and more coming in all the time, how do you maintain optimism for conservation efforts?  

I cannot afford to let myself get down. The only emotion that is stronger than fear is hope,  and that is what I hang onto. That is the emotion that I try and inspire  in other people.

narwhal slaughter

Of the many National Geographic stories you've produced over the years, which affected you the most while creating it?  

The story I did on the Narwhal slaughter was incredibly disturbing both on a guilt and urgency level. I felt awful for exposing the Inuit hunters, who are my friends and my teachers, but to watch Narwhals get slaughtered, sunk and lost all day long was deeply disturbing, and I felt I had to do something about it. If I had to, I would do it all over again.  

My story on the loss of ice that I wrote for National Geographic had the highest readership response in the previous 14 years, which was very exciting because I knew that I connected with the audience.

You've been chosen by BBC Magazine as one of the 40 most influential outdoor photographers in the world. What went through your head when you heard that?  

I was touched and I feel that many photographers have Mittermeier, as founder of the ILCP, to thank for that. She took all of us wildlife photographers and gave us conservation identities. We were always doing conservation work, but we never really knew and never announced it. A lot of people who were included in that list were able to do so thanks to Cristina, who gave us a great identity through iLCP. Now, we are all proud to call ourselves conservation photographers before wildlife photographers.

polar obsession cover

If there is one image of yours you would like every person in the world to see, which is it?

Hmmm ... good question. Perhaps the cover of my bear book, "Polar Obsession." The image really epitomizes the cross section of art, science and conservation.   

Stay updated with Nicklen's photography, past and present, by visiting his website, or following him on Facebook.

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