Photographer retraces 1906 expedition to document Uganda's disappearing glaciers
Photographer Neil Losin and a film crew trekked through Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains to show how a century of climate change has affected these glaciers.
Thu, Feb 06, 2014 at 07:30 AM
All photos: Neil Losin
To understand where we're headed with climate change, it helps to go trekking back in time, following the footsteps of explorers who documented what our world looked like then, and contrasting that with what it looks like now. Juxtaposing images of glaciers taken more than 100 years ago with those same glaciers today provides a jolt of understanding about just how warm this planet is getting.
Conservation photographer Neil Losin along with a film crew took that trek back in time, following the retreating glaciers of Uganda's Rwenzori Mountains along the same steps taken by the Duke of Abruzzi in his 1906 ascent. The glaciers have shrunk by more than 80 percent in the last century and may disappear entirely over the next 20 years — perhaps taking with them a significant piece of the biodiversity and the livelihood of the Bakonjo people that call the glaciers home. The crew documented what they discovered in a film titled "Snows of the Nile."
I talked with Losin about how he got started in conservation photography, how he tackles telling a scientific story through images and video, and about "Snows of the Nile" and what the film means for viewers around the world.
MNN: When did you first pick up a camera and train your lens on wildlife?
Neil Losin: I got my first SLR camera when I was 16, and my goal was always to focus on wildlife. I had been an avid birdwatcher since I was 8 years old, and a nature lover even longer than that. As soon as I saved up enough money, I bought a camera so I could start capturing and sharing the experiences I had in nature.
Photography is not your main focus. Tell us a little about your biology background.
My academic training is in ecology, evolution and animal behavior. I got a B.S. in biology at the University of Virginia in 2004, and after taking a couple years off to work on different field research projects, went to UCLA to work on a Ph.D. in evolutionary ecology. I finished my Ph.D. in 2012.
My dissertation research was on the behavioral and evolutionary consequences of competition between closely related species, and I focused on a couple species of anoles (small lizards) that have recently invaded Florida from the Caribbean. But over the years, I’ve done research on lots of different organisms, from plants and insects to reptiles and birds.
How does your area of study affect your photography?
One thing that being a field scientist does well is to train you to be a better observer. I think, after years of conducting field-based research, that I’ve gotten quite good at noticing things in nature and picking up on the behavior patterns of animals. As a wildlife photographer, knowing your subjects’ behavior makes a huge difference if you want to capture interesting moments in those animals’ lives.
Now, with my buddy Nate Dappen (also a Ph.D. evolutionary biologist), I produce science and conservation media (photography and film) full-time. Having a science background helps us quickly wrap our heads around the scientific issues in each of our projects we undertake. And after spending several years in academia, we’ve also built a network of scientific collaborators that opens up a lot of cool opportunities.
You've noted that you think photography and video is a great tool for communicating science to non-scientists. Why do you think visual media has such a significant effect on viewers?
Images (still or moving) have the potential to engage viewers in a story – whether it’s a science story or not – in a way that words alone simply can’t do. Scientists are really good at presenting an argument with data, but I think visual media can complement scientific data by making facts and figures more visceral. Last year Nate and I climbed the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda. We had read peer-reviewed papers documenting that the Rwenzoris’ glaciers were 80 percent smaller than they were a century ago. But until we got up there and saw what that looked like, it didn’t have the same impact. And by capturing our experience in photos and video, we can share that impact, even with people who weren’t there to experience it firsthand.
What do you think is the most important part of telling a story through imagery to successfully show people the scientific world?
For a long time, scientists and many science communicators thought that if we could just provide people with the best, most current scientific information possible, then people’s beliefs and behavior would change for the better. Now, psychologists have shown that that’s simply not true — in fact, people’s beliefs and behavior have much more to do with their preconceptions, their values, and the views of others in their social networks. So what does that mean for science outreach?
I think it means that the big job for anyone who’s advocating for science-based change — whether it’s in conservation, health, social justice, whatever — is gaining the trust of your audience. Surveys show that most Americans don’t have any scientists in their lives, so they probably don’t feel that scientists’ share their values.
So, meandering back to your question, what does that mean for visual media about science? Well, I think it means that media producers can’t just show an audience the outcomes of science. That’s not enough. We need to show the process and let people experience what life as a scientist is like. We need to make the daily challenges that scientists face more relatable to non-scientists, and show that scientists are people, too. That’s the overarching goal of what Nate and I do at Day’s Edge Productions. And we’ve begun training other scientists to do the same.
What have been some of the photography projects you've taken on that have had the greatest effect on you and how you look at a species or the world?
Taking the pictures for our 2013 book “The Symbol: Wall Lizards of Ibiza and Formentera” was a really fascinating experience. Nate did his Ph.D. research on wall lizards in the Spanish Mediterranean, but I had never been to the islands or seen the lizards myself. We ended up spending over a month photographing lizards for the book, and I was amazed by how tough these animals are – they were thriving on these tiny islands that were just piles of rocks jutting out of the Mediterranean. But at the same time, their existence is quite tenuous – if these little scraps of habitat disappeared, the lizards would be gone in a single generation.
And that’s a perfect example of what I see wherever I’m traveling – there’s always that juxtaposition of strength and fragility. Organisms have incredible adaptations to overcome the challenges they experience in their environments every day. But humans have an unfortunate talent for changing the rules of the game so quickly that organisms just can’t keep up.
Any favorite species that you've photographed? Which species are on your "I can't wait to photograph that!" list?
Any time I spend a meaningful amount of time with a wild animal, I think that that species becomes my favorite, at least until the next encounter! That’s a consequence of my biology background, I think. Think about it – you can’t really compare a fishing spider and an elephant, can you? They face utterly different challenges, but in both cases their bodies and their behaviors are beautifully adapted to their respective ways of life. To me, they’re equally amazing!
On a recent assignment for World Wildlife Fund, however, I had the opportunity to film and photograph greater prairie chickens. I worked on a greater sage-grouse research project several years ago, and that’s when I first fell in love with birds that “lek” – a bunch of males gather on a display ground and perform elaborate dances to win the affections of discerning females. Capturing this behavior from a blind right on the lek, with the birds strutting all around you and their voices booming across the prairie, is an experience I can only describe as magical. And this isn’t something you have to travel across the world to see; it happens right here in the grasslands and sagebrush of the American West!
You've just released "Snows of the Nile," an extraordinary documentary that traces the Duke of Abruzzi's 1906 ascent of Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, and learned how the glaciers have changed in the last century of climate change. Tell us what it was like exploring the area, and what you discovered.
I mentioned before that one thing visual media can do for science is to make data more visceral. That was our goal with this project.
Most people have heard about ice disappearing near the poles, but there are also glaciers in tropical mountains, and the effects of climate change there are just as dramatic. Nate and I learned that Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains had glaciers on their equatorial summits, and that these glaciers had been well photographed in 1906, when the Duke of Abruzzi climbed the mountains for the first time. So we figured that if we could retrace the duke’s steps and re-capture the same images from the same perspectives, those photos could make the impact of climate change more visceral.
Nate’s dad had climbed the Rwenzoris with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard back in the '80s, which gave the story an interesting twist – Nate would be following in his dad’s footsteps as well as the Duke’s. So we started pitching the idea around, ended up getting funded by Dos Equis (yes, the beer company!), and produced a short documentary about our expedition, "Snows of the Nile."
"Snows of the Nile" has already received great recognition from film festivals. What has been some of the feedback you've gotten from viewers?
We’re really happy that "Snows of the Nile" has landed in some great film festivals. We’ve had the pleasure of interacting with audiences at many of the festivals, and it’s gratifying to see people enjoying the film and learning something new about the world.
Not surprisingly, one of the most common reactions to the film has been “I didn’t even know those mountains existed!” Even though the Rwenzoris are taller than the Alps or the Rockies, they’re quite poorly known outside of East Africa.
“I had no idea there were glaciers on the equator!” is another frequent response. There are three places in Africa with glaciers near the equator: Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, and the Rwenzori Mountains. Sadly, all three will likely be ice-free in the next few decades. In South America, the Andes are much taller and have many tropical glaciers, but these are shrinking as well.
Many of our viewers have also discovered the Bakonjo people through our film. All the local guides and porters are Bakonjo – you’ll see them throughout the film. They are wonderful people who care a great deal about the health of their mountains, and we enjoyed learning about their history and culture. We never could have succeeded without their strength and endurance. They are unstoppable in the mountains!
The film has been in festivals for several months now, but we just released it online at the end of January.
"Snows of the Nile" trailer:
What is (or are!) the next project you're tackling?
Well, we’ve got a few projects in the works, but one that I’m particularly excited about is "Islands of Creation." It’s going to be an hour-long documentary about how new species are born. We shot most of the film on location in the Solomon Islands, following a University of Miami researcher named Al Uy. The Solomon Islands are some of the most remote, sparsely populated islands in the Pacific, and they’re a fascinating place to work.
There is also some remarkable, cutting-edge science in the film – stuff that hasn’t even been published in peer-reviewed journals yet! – but I’m not going to give away the punch line! We’re starting post-production and looking for the right broadcast partner to bring the film to a large audience. So with any luck, you’ll be able to see the film in 2014!
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