Schulz followed a polar bear and her 2 cubs for weeks, documenting their behavior and capturing powerful images like this one as they flee from a male bear in pursuit.
This morning I learned that although his biography describes him as a wildlife photographer, Florian Schulz is much more. Schulz is, as John Sterling of the Conservation Alliance told us, “a truly gifted story teller who transports us to places we may never otherwise get to visit.” Today, at the Conservation Alliance Breakfast here at Outdoor Retailer, Schulz brought all of us to the Arctic. He gave us each a front row seat from which to witness breathtaking scenery, incredible wildlife interactions and the intense threats facing this region.
The Arctic drew Schulz because so many people do not understand the depth of its richness. “So many people look at it as a remote faraway place, but we are all connected to it in some way, “ explained Schulz. “Without it, we wouldn’t have all that we have. For example, we wouldn’t see the birds that come to our coastlines….But politicians only see potential for money and for drilling. The public doesn’t really know what is up there and I want to show them.”
Inspired by statements like, “The arctic is a flat white nothingness….” (Interior Secretary Gale Norton) and descriptions that call it a “….barren wasteland” (Sen. Frank Murkowski), Schulz wanted to document this area and reveal its true character. He spent a total of 18 months immersed in the Arctic wilderness gathering photos, video and knowledge that he has now turned into a beautiful book called “To the Arctic” and an IMAX 3D movie that will hit theatres this summer.
Through a series of powerful images set to music combined with his penchant for storytelling, Schulz brought the entire room of people to the icy North as he described the trials and tribulations of fieldwork and exploration in a spectacular yet unforgiving landscape. His presentation was particularly effective because of his humility, sense of humor, endearing personality and his genuine passion for nature and conservation.
But, he didn’t just “wow” us with images or stories of braving harsh conditions (though he did tell some amazing ones about that). His message was simple, clear, and inspiring: “My connection to the environment is something very emotional; it comes from the heart for me especially now that I have become a dad,” said Schulz getting noticeably choked up when talking about the arrival of his son in December. “I hope we can keep this planet the way it is for a while longer…. Fighting for this is essential.”
I caught up with Schulz after his stellar presentation to gain some further insight into what drives his explorations.
Q & A
How did you get into adventuring and photography?
In high school, I thought about what kind of job I could have that would allow me to see most of the world and I figured out that if I could be a photographer, I could get insights into people’s lives, other cultures and the environment. I was already very much into observing nature and bird watching and very quickly, photography came to it, too. I had this old camera with a screw on lens – which was ridiculous, but it worked.
Originally, I was just really into observing and watching and realized that it didn’t resonate with people like it did if you could show them a picture. So, I decided to combine my fascination with observing and exploring places with taking photos because I realized that with images you could tell a story so much faster.
Why did you choose to use your penchant for exploring for conservation?
I was connected to conservation from early in my life. I was already doing active conservation even as teenager and for me, it was a really emotional thing. I started to feel like we look at the world in a completely disconnected way….we think we can build an artificial society that is disjointed from the natural world, but we can’t.
So, I decided I needed to create environmental change and it was only natural to connect my photography with conservation. I mean, we are all not doing enough for conservation so I wanted to do more….And, photography has the power to grab someone’s attention in a split second and engage them in something they might not otherwise care about so it is a really powerful tool for conservation. You can engage someone who might not already be engaged and help them to care about an issue a little more.
What has been your biggest adventure so far?
Well, the mix of camping out in the Arctic in polar bear habitat and having close encounters with polar bears was definitely an adventure. But, another big one was when I realized we needed to expand the Freedom to Roam project to include the Ocean. I knew I had to get out in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska so we bought an old run down sailboat and went out exploring those coastlines. That was a big adventure.
Our idea behind all of this is to figure out how we can spend the most amount of time out so that we can truly get in touch with nature and animals. There is an ease that comes when you immerse yourself and you get in tune with your environment. I don’t like to be rushed because I spend a lot of time watching first and creating ideas for photographs well before I even get them. I love that part and the more slowly you can go, the more closely you can match those ideas with the actual photos you get.
What do you hope to accomplish with this work?
I hope to see the Freedom to Roam project – creating wildlife corridors – implemented on a whole different level. If we could create a national corridor system like the National Parks system, then maybe other countries would pick it up. Habitat needs to be connected so our natural system continues to flourish.
And, for my work in the Arctic, I am working on a partnership to provide a true visual account of the Arctic so people can decide for themselves if there is something of beauty to it and can decide if they are concerned about the issue and want to protect it. I want to prevent natural resource exploitation and teach people about the overlap with climate change so they can see how it will affect them and these wild places.
Your work requires a lot of patience and a lot of waiting. How do you do it?
I’m so passionate about photography that it’s my life and not a job….I mean, I live photography. The reason I am out there is the wildlife and incredible scenes so I spend time visualizing the images I want before I even go out and get them. I am intrigued by images and for a while they only exist in my imagination so the potential for a good shot occupies me and then, I am not impatient. And, during the process I am so in tune with my surroundings that I listen to different sounds, see nature do its thing and discover new things simply because I am out there….so I fall into a meditative state b/c I have slowed down. Even though I may wait days and days or years for a shot, I don’t get impatient because I am in that peaceful, blissful state.
In the immediate future, I am trying to find opportunities where I can use the book on the Arctic as part of a campaign to educate people – especially in relation to tying it to Alaska where people in America can have influence. I’d like to turn the images into traveling exhibits – maybe a series of outdoor exhibits to reach more people.
I am also working on my next book covering Baja to the Beaufort Sea. This is a continuation of the Freedom to Roam campaign, but takes it to a new location and expands to include the Ocean. We are highlighting threatened areas and looking at the most incredible hotspots of the western seaboard between Baja and Beaufort to bring forward the idea of needing to connect marine habitats in order to preserve these areas and the animals who depend on them.
For more info on Florian and his work , go to: www.welcometothearctic.org
Elevation Outdoors’ Cameron Martindell asked Florian a few questions about his experience in the arctic in the video below: