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Chris Linder

Chris Linder has made a career for himself documenting scientists working largely in the Arctic and Antarctic. Check out his earlier posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) for great tips about writing grants and working with institutions to make your grants more appealing. And don’t miss his next post about the logistics of packing for and working in extreme weather conditions.
My favorite shots are the result of careful planning, like knowing exactly where to stand to capture this dye release into a glacial river.

Chris's favorite shots are the result of careful planning, like knowing exactly where to stand to capture this dye release into a glacial river. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

My first Arctic expedition was also my first foray into digital photography. This was 2002. The D1, with a whopping 2.74 megapixels, was Nikon’s flagship camera and lower priced bodies like the D100 had not yet hit the market. But the premise of our project was that we would be updating a website daily with images and text, so Woods Hole sent me out with a 5-megapixel Nikon point-and-shoot as a supplement to my film SLR gear. I had never used a digital camera before and had only rudimentary experience with Photoshop. The learning curve was steep. I practiced with the camera before the trip but there were huge limitations compared to using an SLR system: the zoom lens had a small range of focal lengths, creative control of aperture and shutter speeds was limited, and, perhaps worst of all, the camera responded very slowly (both in terms of shutter lag and frame rate).

Yet, shooting with that first digital camera opened my eyes to the power of digital. I could see my results immediately — I knew when I had the shot or didn’t. Using a small point-and-shoot with a tilting LCD also allowed me to get some really candid shots that would not have been possible with a huge DSLR. The following year, I upgraded to a D100 and said goodbye to film.

Knowing the science allows me to anticipate where to stand not only to get the shot, but also not be crushed by equipment or swept overboard!

Doing his research allows Chris to anticipate where to stand not only to get the shot, but also not be crushed by equipment or swept overboard. ©Chris Linder/WHOI

A more important lesson I learned (and continue to learn) was how to photograph scientists. This may be patently obvious, but scientists do not have training as models. A surefire way to destroy a really intense moment, like a group of researchers discussing a recent result, is to wave a huge SLR in front of their faces. More than anything, I learned how to get the shots I needed while at the same time preserving the scientists’ respect and trust. Remaining unobtrusive is key. I always keep in mind that the fieldwork I am photographing is the result of years of hard work to get funding and prepare for an expedition. Time is a precious resource when you’re in the field, so I make it a point to never interrupt their work to stage a scene.

Everything I shoot is completely natural and unscripted and sometimes quite raw. Which isn’t to say that I wander about aimlessly hoping for lucky shots. I apply the same patience I learned from the grant writing process to carefully researching my subjects. This means I know what is going to happen (like when and where an instrument will be brought on deck) and will wait for the players and light to come together, sometimes for hours. I usually spend this observation phase with the camera ready but down, out of sight. As the hours and days go by, I eventually fade into the background, and voila, I’m invisible. Of course, it’s also essential to do your share carrying boxes, washing bottles, making dinner, or otherwise showing that you’re part of the team and not afraid to get your hands dirty doing real work. When you’ve earned the respect of the team—when you become a member of team—it’s a lot easier to get the shot.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: How has research helped you get more access and make better photos?

Chris Linder received a National Science Foundation grant for his “Live from the Poles” project in part because of the strength of his proposal, excerpted below, which outlined a “media team” that would travel with research scientists to Antarctica and document their work. Check out Chris’s earlier posts (1, 2, 3, 4) for lots more great tips about getting grant money for photography from unusual places. And don’t miss post “6” explaining the importance of researching your subject so you can stay out of their way and get the best shots.
On the job at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. © Chris Linder/WHOI

On the job at Cape Crozier, Antarctica. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

When I wrote the “Live from the Poles” proposal with the WHOI Director of Communications, this was our justification and plan for the embedded media team:

“Insightful writing and compelling images are the heart of every successful publication. The core of this project is support for a professional science writer and field photographer to join each expedition. Scientists are frequently working around the clock when in the field, and have little time to describe their fieldwork with written dispatches and photography. They also cannot be expected to have the training required to produce professional photographs and video clips. To ensure that the groundbreaking research conducted during this historical period [International Polar Year] is properly documented, support for the writer/photographer team is critical to this proposal. The team will be responsible for filing daily dispatches including science updates, logistical challenges, team member profiles, and life at sea (or on the ice). The team will also coordinate real-time phone patches from PIs [Principal Investigators] in the field to museum audiences, National Public Radio stations, Scholastic magazine, and manage student Q&As with scientists. An experienced shore-based team at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) will manage Web updates from the field, and prepare publication of photo essays and articles in Oceanus magazine, which receives 30,000 visits online each month.”

To summarize, we were cognizant of the lack of quality photographs coming out of scientific expeditions and saw an opportunity to assemble a professional team to tell visual stories from the field. The trick was to do it daily from some of the most remote places in the world.

So why photograph science fieldwork? There has never been a more important time to understand how our planet works. Glaciers and Arctic pack ice are shrinking at an unprecedented rate. Rising temperatures are causing profound shifts in ecosystems. In the October issue of Scientific American, John Holdren, a Harvard physicist and President-elect Obama’s White House science adviser, wrote that “the ongoing disruption of the earth’s climate by man-made greenhouse gases is already well beyond dangerous and is careening toward completely unmanageable.” According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a consensus of the world’s scientific experts, we (human beings) are causing unprecedented changes to our climate.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a doom and gloom kind of guy. Despite the challenges that rising global temperatures will present in the coming years, I believe in human ingenuity and resilience. And scientists are out there in some of the harshest places on our planet, like the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctica, collecting data on past and present changes so we can better predict future conditions.

I’m an idealist; I see science as a noble, selfless profession. By photographing scientists in the field, I am hoping to communicate a deeper understanding and respect for the scientific process and profession, and to urge people to use scientific knowledge of the world to help sustain it.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Chris is one of the few photographers documenting the scientists studying climate change, but many photographers are publicizing it through their images directly. Who are your favorite photographers working on climate change right now?

February 23rd, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 4

Posted by Chris Linder

In “Tips from a science photographer 3,” Chris outlined how he partners with museums and educational institutions to make his work more appealing to grant committees. Don’t miss his next post on how he designed the “Live From the Poles” expeditions that garnered funding from the National Science Foundation and led him to a full-time photography career.
Chris's work for Woods Hole Oceanographic has led to other jobs, like this project photographing the construction of the new Yankee Stadium.

Chris's work for Woods Hole Oceanographic has led to other jobs, like this project photographing the construction of the new Yankee Stadium. © Chris Linder

While my projects with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) take up most of my time, I now spend roughly a quarter of my year running my own freelance photography business. The reputation I have established through my WHOI work has led to some tough but rewarding assignments, like documenting shellfish farmers on Cape Cod, construction workers at the new Yankee Stadium, and medical students at a summer internship. Although the people and the settings could not be more different, the general theme is the same: people working outdoors.

A second tangible extension of my photography for WHOI is my involvement with the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). My efforts in communicating conservation science topics like climate change led me to cross paths with ILCP Director Cristina Mittermeier several years ago. She encouraged me to apply, and I joined the ILCP as an Emerging Member in 2007. Working with world-class photographers who have been covering environmental topics for decades has been a life-altering event. I participated in a RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) in May 2008 to document the impact of oil and gas development in Wyoming and will be participating in another RAVE focused on the environmental consequences of the US-Mexico border wall in January-February 2009. Working alongside photographers that share my passion for the environment is inspiring. Many of the ILCP Fellows, like Frans Lanting, Gary Braasch, and James Balog have been role models to me as I have developed my own photographic vision. Working alongside them on RAVEs and other ILCP projects is an incredible opportunity.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Starting out by photographing something you know very well is often a good way to build a portfolio that can lead to a wide range of assignments. Please share your story if you’ve had a similar experience.

February 16th, 2009

Tips from a science photographer 3

Posted by Chris Linder

In “Tips from a science photographer 2,” Chris explains how to write a photography-based science grant. In this post, he demonstrates how strategic partnership with museums can make a grant proposal more attractive. Check back for “4“: How visually documenting science projects can lead to other photography assignments.
The Field Museum in Chicago is one of eight partner museums in Chris's "Live from the Poles" project. © Chris Linder/WHOI

The Field Museum in Chicago is one of eight museums Chris partners with for the "Live From the Poles" projects. Photo by Chris Linder, WHOI

One of the biggest hurdles you face as a photographer when writing an education and outreach grant is: How do you get your message out there? Who is the audience and how do you reach them? You may have the best idea in the world for communicating science, but if your audience is your 58 Facebook friends, chances are you’re going to end up with a “Proposal Declined.”

To increase the audience for our “Live from the Poles” proposal, we teamed up with eight science and natural history museums across the country: the Museum of Science, Boston; Liberty Science Center, Jersey City; Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh; the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC; the Houston Museum of Natural Science; The Field Museum, Chicago; Birch Aquarium at Scripps, La Jolla, Calif.; and the Pacific Science Center, Seattle.

This collaboration has been one of the highlights of the “Live from the Poles project. It’s very symbiotic—the museums deliver kids and adults that are eager to learn about science and we provide the content: cutting-edge polar science, explained in an easy-to-digest format (daily photo essays from the field and live question-and-answer talks via satellite phone). It’s very satisfying to me, as a native Midwesterner, to teach kids in Chicago about polar oceanography through a public program at the Field Museum.

In addition to the live talks while we are in the field, museums use my still images for exhibits and slideshow presentations. Working closely with the Field Museum, I created a photography exhibition titled “Exploring the Arctic Seafloor” that is currently touring natural history and science museums across the country (at The Field Museum in Chicago from Feb. 22 to July 6).

There’s no question that effective partnerships make you more attractive to proposal reviewers, especially if each partner brings a strong component to the proposed work. Analyze your proposal for weaknesses and then find a partner that specializes in those weak areas. It takes a lot of phone calls, e-mails, and meetings to keep the team organized, but the rewards are substantial.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Are there other photographers out here who have successful partnership with museums or other educational institutions? How did you initially connect with the institutions and what have the rewards been for both of you?


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