A Picture is Worth a Thousand Acres
A widely celebrated photographer, Florian Schulz uses his art to raise awareness about serious conservation and wildlife issues through astonishing portrayals of rapidly-changing landscapes around the world. From wild birds of Mexico to migratory patterns of caribou in the Alaskan Arctic, his relentless commitment towards the wild is complemented thoroughly by his superlative understanding of imagery and photographic form.
You are considered to be one of the youngest founding members of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Please talk about your connect with wild nature, and how and when it all began?
My fascination with the natural world started from early childhood. I would explore the forests and swamps near my home in southern Germany. Armed with binoculars and a spotting scope, I would spend countless hours searching for rare birds or watching young foxes at their den. One evening, when I was returning home on my bike, I saw a dead fox by the side of the road, killed by a car. I was deeply upset. I quickly went home to get my camera to document it at night with the brake lights of other passing cars in the background. This is where my “conservation photography” began. My heart was always in it, trying to get people interested in the natural world and involved with conservation. Later, I won my first photography award in the German environmental agency’s youth competition.
In regards to International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP),you can indeed say I was the youngest founding member. Way before the ILCP was officially launched at the World Wilderness Congress in Alaska, Christina Mittermeier and I brainstormed in meetings in D.C. about how a conservation photography organization should be developed. The hope was to educate people on the power of conservation photography and what it can do for the wild.
Your project titled ‘Freedom to Roam’ was greatly appreciated and had very high viewership as well. Can you explain the concept to our readers?
As humans, we tend to want to split-up the natural world in segments. Just like our countries are divided into state and city units, we have come to believe that even nature can be segregated: by simply drawing a line around a place and calling it a National Park. But nature is an interconnected web of life. To animals and plants, such borders mean nothing. With the Freedom to Roam project, I try to explain how we need to look at nature conservation in a new way. Animals need room to roam and we need to create linkages between natural areas so that wildlife can migrate. I am advocate that we set aside important corridors right away, in areas where there habitat is still available, and also create wildlife crossings, like bridges and tunnels for animals, wherever possible.
There is no question that the National Park idea is wonderful and has been very successful, but I am now thinking of the next step: that we will create the first National Wildlife Corridor–an idea that will hopefully spread across the entire world, just like the National Park scheme has.
Any particular high points from the‘ Freedom to Roam’ project, in terms of important conservation outcomes?
Across the world, the importance of wildlife corridors is being recognized at an increasing rate. Across North America and parts of Europe, wildlife crossing structures are being incorporated into highway planning, while government agencies are recognizing the importance of wildlife corridors and building those ideas into environmental planning. All of this, of course, is the result of great effort put by many organizations and individuals across the world. I personally see myself as a supporter of the “National Wildlife Corridor” dream, through stories from the field and through my photography.
You are also a prolific inspirational speaker and communicator. Would you say it is important for the photographer to reach out to the public through mediums apart from pure photography?
Photography is my passion and it is constantly a part of my life. When I started out as a teenager observing nature, I would try to tell my family and friends about the amazing things I saw out there. Yet, I often believed that they could not fully understand that beauty from words alone. Once I was able to bring back images, people could relate in a whole new way.
Today, I mix media such as photography and video with the art of storytelling; in this way, I am able to inspire people on several levels. In my opinion, it is important to spend time out in the field and gather authentic images and film sequences before crafting a powerful multimedia presentation that tells the story from the heart. A lot of attention goes to the quality of the images, whether it is film or still photography. That, of course, also means that we have to deal with a lot more equipment.
Coming to your newly released book, ‘To the Arctic’; you spend nearly 15 months over a span of several years documenting one of the most hostile ecosystems on the planet. Please share the experience with our readers.
An American politician called the Arctic a “flat , white nothingness”. This provocative statement was the basis for my work: To explore the Arctic over years and see what images I would be able to bring back. This was a huge challenge because the Arctic is so remote, the weather conditions can be severe and access meant organizing multiple expeditions to get into the remote locations. While this was very hard, I loved this assignment because of my passion for wilderness and unspoiled landscapes. In the Arctic, you still find vast tracts of it. I learned a lot over the years, and was able to create images that boast a great abundance of life. The more I learnt about the Arctic wildlife, I became aware that his “hostile ecosystem” is mainly harsh for human beings. For the wildlife, it is the place they call their home and where they thrive. Indeed, they need the cold as part of the annual cycle to sustain life in the Arctic.
Temperatures often sank to – 45 Celsius, and when wind came into play it became unbearable. Imagine camping out on the frozen Arctic Ocean in such conditions. It is like living in a freezer. But you can make it work if you put your mind to it. My goal was to give a very diverse portrait of the Arctic, which meant that I would take photographs in different seasons, climb into glaciers, follow polar bears on the ice and dive in the ocean. The photographic results surpassed my expectations.
The cover image of your Arctic book is really amazing! Can you retell the story behind that picture?
My photographic vision is a lot about the place where the animals live; therefore , I often try to show the animals as part of the landscape. Producing a book on the Arctic made me want to show a polar bear on the cover as it is such a symbolic Arctic species, at the same time, I wanted to give people an idea that the book was about a special place – the Arctic. On one of the expeditions, we came upon a fin-whale carcass, where polar bears had already consumed most of the meat. What was left behind was the whale spine, that had sculpture-like quality. In the background , one could see a beautiful glacier. I constantly push myself for new creative images and I decided I was going to set up a remote camera to try to tell the entire story of the whale, the polar bears and Arctic landscape in one shot. After quickly having set up the camera, it did not take long for the bears to return. From the distance, I triggered the camera with the remote when a big male came with great curiosity to my camera setup. It was a dream come true when I saw the results – just as I had hoped for, with some extra icing on the cake – the group of gulls peacefully floating on the water.
A bit about your personal life now, Florian. Along with your better half, Emil, you make a wonderful team, putting forth some really potent multimedia campaigns. Shed some light on this partnership and how fatherhood has affected your outlook about conservation?
I feel extremely blessed that my wife Emil and I are working together. Quite frankly, I was not sure if it would turn out so well, because this is a demanding job with many challenges and involving much time in the field; things that can bring a lot of stress into a relationship. It can only work if both believe in it and live for it. Of course, to have time together in the field is a highlight. Certain encounters with wild animals are unforgettable and we can share those memories. Be it a Hump back whale that breaches a few meters next to our little sailboat, a Caribou calf we rescued, or the powerful Polar bear we encountered on frozen seas. Emil has a fantastic positive spirit and loves to explore the natural world. Now we have Nanuk, our 2-year old boy as an addition to the family. He has been out with us in the field this summer, for the first time. I was working on my ‘Freedom To Roam’ project along the Alaska Peninsula. Emil arrived with Nanuk via a three-hour bush plane ride into the middle of the wilderness. Nanuk (which means Polar bear, in Inuit)got to meet his Brown bear cousins for the first time. He had a blast observing the bears. For us, as parents, it is wonderful to watch a child discover the world. They are excited about so many little details of life.
I want to do everything I can to preserve as much wilderness as possible for the future generations. We owe it to them.
You have witnessed the impacts of climate change driven global warming on the Arctic more closely. Can you elaborate on how alarming the situation really is?
The situation in the Arctic is intense. Temperatures have risen twice as fast in the area in comparison to other locations. We are seeing ever bigger sea-ice loss across the Arctic Ocean. Polar bears are suffering as they need the ice to live and hunt on. They cannot survive without it. Now bears need to swim ever larger distances off the ice to get to land. The longest recorded distance for a polar bear mother was 687km. Her cub did not make it and the female lost 20% of her body weight. We have to realize that the effects we see up north are an example for other locations regarding what lies ahead. We see stronger and fiercer storms across the world, floods and droughts, the loss of glaciers that provide drinking water to millions of people. While we see the effects earlier in the Arctic, they will be very visible everywhere in the near future. We should see the signs as a warning signal.
Florian Schulz, Born in Germany, Florian Schulz is a professional nature and wildlife photographer with a strong conservation vision. In constant search for breathtaking images, Florian hopes to inspire individuals to take action in the protection of endangered ecosystems and wilderness areas.
As part of his Freedom to Roam project, Schulz has dedicated years of his life to documenting the drama and beauty of North America’s most critical wildlife corridor: “Yellowstone to Yukon”. Sponsored by Braided River, his first book —Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam (2005)—received the Independent Book Publisher Award as “Outstanding Books of the Year”, and was singled out as “Most Likely to Save the Planet.”
For the past 15 years, documenting wild ecosystems in support of conservation campaigns has been his unrelenting commitment, and working closely with dedicated organizations, researchers, writers and advocates is how Florian has built a strong foundation for his conservation photography work.
To The Arctic
- New large-format book takes readers into the Arctic like never before with 150+color images by award-winning nature photographer Florian Schulz