Paul Nicklen climbs into sub-zero waters and waits. Where a regular commercial photographer might work to the equation of 1000 shutter-clicks to one printed picture, Nicklen's ratio is more like one to 10,000. And so, frozen to the bone, always in mortal danger, he suffers for the right shot.
Sometimes that danger is a leopard seal chewing his underwater camera, or ignoring a spluttering plane engine as he circles over Arctic ice, or a 4000kg breeding sea elephant trying to crush him. No, he says, he's not fearless. "You've no idea how much fear I feel," he says. "I feel sick in my stomach."
"When you hear that phrase ‘I am fine as long as I listen to my gut', well, I do my best work when I ignore my gut and tell myself to go for it," he expands.
"That defined line of what's dangerous and what is acceptable risk: all of a sudden, it gets blurred, and there is a wide band of grey and I keep stepping over that . . . I get scared of myself sometimes. I have to slow down at times and realise I can't take pictures when I am dead and can't make a difference in changing the way people see the world."
Changing the world will be at the heart of Nicklen's one-night Auckland show next month. Until then, the multi-award-winning Canadian photographer, who produces stunning wildlife portfolios for National Geographic magazine, is in Hawaii, shooting underwater for a story on surf culture. "It's an incredible departure: I don't know what I am doing wearing flip-flops and shorts," he laughs down the phone from Waikiki Beach. A child of the snow, he can't surf, and caught his first-ever wave on a bodyboard a day earlier.
Nicklen isn't concerned about his lack of expertise for this shoot; he has the patience to study. He's paired on the job with former crime reporter John Lancaster and he says Lancaster, used to daily deadlines, is struggling to adapt to the slow, steady pace. National Geographic gives Nicklen three months to find his shots, and probably only 12 will be used.
"That's the difference between a pro and someone who is a weekend warrior," explains Nicklen, who suspects his success is down to his ability to endure discomfort longer than most. "We make pictures, versus just taking them. We set out with an image in our heads - I even sketch them on paper - and go and hammer away until the result meets or exceeds my expectations."
Given most jobs involve 100kg of gear, and extras such as kayaks, diving equipment or even his modified seaplane, there's plenty of planning involved. "You need to know what images you want to make, and work backwards from there . . . you can't just show up and hope something happens."
He admits all this translates into a remarkable pressure to perform, and in his downtime from these long, arduous assignments, Nicklen dumps the camera and disappears into nature near his home in British Columbia, Canada, to find "solitude and peace". The lifestyle has, he admits freely, cost him his marriage. But the pace will only increase for Nicklen; his new partner is a conservationist and together they plan to leverage his growing reputation to launch a global campaigning body for oceanic protection. "While the snowman is rolling down the mountain getting bigger, you've got to ride the wave," he says, churning his metaphors.
Nicklen's diversion from merely documenting nature to campaigning for its preservation was inspired by a piece he both shot and wrote for National Geographic in 2007 about the loss of sea ice, an emotional story he expected to be criticised for by NatGeo's conservative readers. Instead, he says, it was their best-received story in 14 years. "I realised my images do have the power to reach people emotionally and make them care. Visual storytelling works: we are a visual species, right back to the caveman drawing on the cave walls." A trained marine biologist, Nicklen says he's come to realise that his photography can translate the dry facts of science into something that can move people.
While he reckons on a regular audience of 100 million for his work, Nicklen wants to grab more people. "You walk down the beach here in Hawaii, and everyone is staring down at their iPhones," he says. "You've got to reach people through that screen, get them to pick their heads up, and look out and see how beautiful that blue line next to them really is."
Nicklen traces his love of the outdoors to his formative years in a remote Inuit community on Baffin Island, one of just three families of outsiders. Without a radio, TV, or telephone, he says the "snow and ice were his sandbox". When he left for university, he says he dreamed every night of the place. "It is in my heart and soul more than any other," he says.
Nicklen's retelling of that near-death encounter with the leopard seal has become a major YouTube hit, and his online TED talk confirms he's an accomplished, passionate speaker. "I want to make the audience cry and laugh and care and I want to entertain them . . . when you walked out of the Rocky movie, you punched your fists in the air, I want them to be just as excited when they leave [my talk]."
Into the Icy Realms: On Assignment with Paul Nicklen, July 29, ASB Theatre, Auckland; Grizzlies, Piranhas, and Man-Eating Pigs: On Assignment with Joel Sartore, August 23, Auckland Town Hall.
- Sunday Star Times