Antarctica. Terra Australis Incognita. The unknown land of the south. A land that has inspired philosophers and cartographers, adventurers and explorers throughout history. And now me. It has inspired me and captivated me, so someone please add me to that list.
I had no idea that as I drove out of the grocery store parking lot I was driving towards one of the most adventurous and incredible journeys I would ever undertake. Although I wouldn’t normally answer a call from an unknown number, for some reason I did on this particular day. It was Kevin with a sweet, sweet message to deliver to me, one that would send me into a months-long frenzy of excitement and ultimately change me as a person and as a photographer. Unbelievably, I had won a place on a LuLa photographic expedition to Antarctica. As a token of my extreme excitement and gratitude, I think I might have blown out his eardrum (for which I apologize, Kevin)!
It took a week or two to process that I would actually be going to Antarctica. I appreciated the significance of the opportunity that lay ahead for me, and I spent a LOT of time contemplating it all. If I’m completely honest, I was also quaking in my boots at the thought of being around so much photographic talent and shooting in such a special place. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to live up to the enormity of it all. Two more months passed. Two months of feverish dreaming on my part; dreams of the shapes and colors and textures of Antarctica. Aesthetically speaking, I am strongly drawn to simple, elegant shapes and soft colors, and Antarctica seemed to hold great promise on all those fronts. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, reading about it. And, yes, sadly for my friends and family, talking about it. I talked about it a LOT. Oh, the possibilities!!
Logistically, I knew I needed quite a bit of gear for the trip. I already owned all the necessary photographic equipment, but I had to find a way to fund a laptop and technical clothing. After exploring some sponsorship ideas that didn’t come together, I landed on a Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to the amazing support of friends, family, and many people I’ve never even met, I reached my goal within 36 hours of launching. Over the next month, my fund would reach more than double what I set out to achieve, and in the end hit almost $4500. This allowed me to purchase every single thing I would need to stay warm and dry, and also put a powerful Macbook Pro within my reach for editing and learning on the ship. And it ultimately put me on the hook to produce meaningful work, since I was now committed to providing signed prints and books to all my backers…
So what was it like?
Put simply, Antarctica was a 9.99 on a scale of 1 to Fxxking Amazing. I may never return there, but I will forever hope that I do.
I’ve been to many places. I’ve lived in and visited some of the most gorgeous and exotic places on our planet. I’ve viewed big game in South Africa and antiquities in Italy. I’ve been skin diving in Belize and explored iron age forts in Ireland. And much more. You get the idea, here. But Antarctica was like no other place I’d ever been. It was a raw place, wild and inhospitable place, intact place. Not human-impacted place. The cultural element that is so often a part of our travel experience wasn’t a factor here. It was all about the physicality of the ice and the land and the sea and the wind carrying the primal smell of penguins. Just. Wild. Nature. I was a meaningless, microscopic observer of the powerful forces at play in Antarctica. We all were. It was sobering. And as someone with a great love of nature, I was entirely captivated by this sense of timelessness and purity and wonder, and I tried hard to convey that in my images.
Antarctica is at once intensely dramatic and wonderfully subtle, with glaciers calving in sun-drenched bays and the moon setting over snow-rounded peaks in skies filled with the paint strokes of wispy, pink clouds. The scale is massive and deceptive and far outside the scope of my personal experience, with giant mountain ranges seemingly just a few miles away, when in reality they are 60 miles away. The rhythm of time is distorted in 20 hour days, and the beautiful soft light at the edges of the night lingers for hours at a time. It was nothing I had imagined, and everything I had hoped for.
The photographic opportunities were endless. I lost an evening and a sunrise to seasickness, but it didn’t matter as so many more opportunities to make incredible images presented themselves over the course of the 6 days. I tried very hard to be open and not focused on getting specific shots. I waited for the shots to come to me; not my normal modus operandi, but right for this environment. The weather is highly changeable, locations and destinations are often determined on the fly and at the last minute, and zodiac cruises and landings are not flexible in terms of timing. You take what you are given. But what you are given is incredible and generous in quantity. The quality of the light was unique; crystalline, even. Soft colors were everywhere, calling my name. The shapes of the land and the ice ranged from snow-dusted devilish black peaks set against jewel-toned skies to softly undulating curves dressed in the palest aqua. The penguins were a bit muckier than Hollywood led us all to believe, but if you caught them as they emerged from the water, they were beyond cute and endlessly entertaining!
The day Kevin told me I had won the trip, he also very emphatically told me that this place would change me. And so I wondered in the months leading up to the trip if it really would… Well, Kevin? You were on the money. It changed me, alright, as a human, and as a photographer. I was always a wilderness advocate, because I have repeatedly experienced the therapeutic, soul-sustaining impact that spending time in the wild has on my sense of well-being and my sense of peace. But now I know it with a far greater intensity and on a deeper level. Photographically, I came back with a matured appreciation for pared down, simplified compositions, and an intensified pre-occupation with quiet color. I also learned a great deal in terms of technique and vision from the large group of incredibly talented, successful, and generous instructors on the trip, and from my fellow adventurers, too.
And so here I sit in front of my new Macbook Pro with a stuffy nose and a tight chest, theremnants of a welcome-back-to-reality cold gifted to me by my 14 year old daughter. Between tissues and sneezes, I am looking at a photograph of myself at the bottom of the world taken just days ago (thanks Greg!), contemplating the events of the last year, and what it was like to have a dream come true. I am immensely grateful to Kevin and Michael for the opportunity to make this profound experience a part of who I am.
If you have ever entertained the idea of visiting this place, I would highly recommend that you go. Go and see and assimilate one of the last great wildernesses into your personal experience and your perspective. And then share it. Share what you saw with everyone you can. Speak of the intensity of the place, the importance of it, and the value of protecting our planet and preserving the last wild places for our children. I certainly want my daughter to have the opportunity to see what I have seen, to feel as awed as I have, to feel as privileged as I have. You’ll want something similar when you return.
To see more of Michele’e work visit her website