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March 23rd, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 8

Posted by Chris Linder

Check out the rest of this series from Chris Linder, who went from writing grants as an oceanographer to getting NSF grants to visually document scientists. His insights range from grant writing to packing for the extreme conditions of Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. Here he explains how he uses his images to redefine stereotypes about the scientists he documents. To learn more about Chris’s latest expedition to the Bering Sea, register now for his webinar live on location and see daily photo essays from the expedition.
A researcher pushes ice floes away from a delicate instrument. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

A researcher pushes ice floes away from a delicate instrument. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

Ultimately, my goals as a photographer are to communicate three things: the process of doing science, the excitement of science as a career, and the beauty of the earth’s most remote places.

The “Live from the Poles” project has given the public a glimpse into a world that very few people will ever experience — the inner workings of major polar research expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. I believe that the “behind the scenes” moments of overcoming logistical hurdles, deploying instruments, and just plain surviving in the polar regions are all important stories that are seldom covered by traditional media. Let’s face it, working at the edge of the map is adventurous, and I shoot the expeditions like any other adrenalin-soaked activity like mountain biking or climbing. Which relates to my second goal…

I believe that scientists have suffered from a branding problem. What do you think of when you hear the word “scientist”? At least when I was growing up, it conjured images of white-bearded men scribbling obtuse formulas on blackboards or huddling over bubbling test tubes. While this stereotype may have some basis in fact, it doesn’t accurately describe the scientists I know. My colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and other earth science research institutions often brave punishing weather conditions to collect their field data, on glaciers, mountains, oceans, and volcanoes. I have photographed oceanographers working in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras in winter, when waves up to 30 feet high threw our 177-foot research ship around like a child’s toy. I have trudged alongside glaciologists as they explored miles of rugged terrain on the Greenland Ice Sheet. These people are as tough as nails and determined to the core. With my photographs, I am hoping to create a new image of active, adventurous scientists. By extension, I hope that our audience, particularly kids, will develop a stronger interest in science as a career.

My final goal, to document the pristine and otherworldly environment of the polar regions is, in some ways, the easiest task and in other ways the hardest. Obviously, these places are incredible locations for landscape photography. There are no tripod holes from previous shooters here — in many cases I am seeing landscapes that no other human eyes have looked upon. But to get the very best shots, you need to give up certain comforts, like sleep. Often, the best light for landscape photography in the Arctic and Antarctic occurs in the middle of the “night.” During our final week on the Greenland Ice Sheet last summer, the entire sky flushed pink for an hour every night at about 2 a.m. Sleep becomes a luxury in conditions like that; I pushed myself hard every day to document the science, napped for a few hours, shot until 5am, then repeat. I just tell myself, you can catch up on sleep when you get back.

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