Photography as Activism: Polar Obsession


Last week I wrote about the Climate Change exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art and about how the exhibit relied on text and information in an attempt to gain attention to global warming, which can be ineffective of informing and engaging visitors. There is another exhibit on display of photography at CMNH that is a good example of how imagery and art can spark interest in viewers about the issue of global warming.

The exhibit Polar Obsession features the work of photographer Paul Nicklen, who uses his camera to capture unique images of animals who live in the polar regions, whose livelihood is threatened due to the polar melting away caused by human-induced global warming.  The show features over 60 images that are unique images of polar animals in their natural settings.

Nicklen calls himself an interpreter or translator and says that through photography he can translate what he hears from scientists. “If we lose ice, we stand to lose an entire ecosystem,” Nicklen says.  “I hope we can realize through my photography how interconnected these species are to ice.”

Instead of using telephoto lenses, Nicklen  likes to get close to his subjects, which gives his images a unique presence.   Nicklen writes that, “Two colleagues at National Geographic have nicknamed me the Underwater Street Photographer, because it’s the street photographer who gets as close as possible to each subject, sometimes bringing the camera lens to within centimeters of the subjects.  Many wildlife photographers mainly use a long telephoto lens to shoot full frame images.  If I am using my 600mm lens, I don’t feel close enough.  If I am diving under the ice face to face with a walrus, filling the frame with my fisheye lens in a potentially dangerous situation, where no one has been before – then I know I am getting something good.”

Nicklen’s images have a unique quality than other nature photographs.  The photographs often depict animals from  different angles,  rare interactions of animals, and in a sharpness in the photo quality rarely seen in wildlife photography.

Recently there has been an increase in articles and posts about nature photographers who photograph endangered species as  activists.  Nicklen’s work aims to generate global awareness about wildlife and environmental issues, and is an example of how images can get others to become aware and appreciate polar species.

“I realize that if I really want people to care about polar species such as the polar bear, leopard seal, walrus and narwhal, my images have to be wild and raw.  I want people to feel what it’s like to be in the water, swimming a meter from a polar bear,” Nicklen says.  “I want them to experience what it’s like to be offered a penguin as food by a leopard seal.  Only then will they care about that habitat and that species.”

To do this work, he has gone on expeditions that include tracking Stellar sea lions in the Aleutian Islands, diving with narwhals off of Northern Baffin Island, swimming with leopard seals in Antarctica, photographing walruses on sea ice in Nunavut, and living on the open tundra with bears and wolves for a three-month solo trek. .

In one of his talks he mentions the power of the animals themselves to bring attention to a larger issue.  Nicklen says, “If you tell people ‘We are going to lose ice,’ no one is interested  because we hear it all the time.   If you tell people,  ‘We are going to lose polar bears,’  you get peoples’ attention.”

The exhibition supports his book, Polar Obsessions, which was published by National Geographic in November 2009.

Most visitors at the museum that I saw stopped to view the images, and many watched the TEDtalk of Nicklen that is playing as part of the exhibit.  Even if you have seen lots of imagery of bears and seals – this  show will capture your attention and provide a way to see polar animals and their habitat in a new way.

Polar Obsession is on display at CMNH until January 22, 2012.


Paul Nicklen



Paul Nicklen’s Website

Paul Nicklen’s TED talk video

Polar Obsession Exhibit :  at CMNH page

Extreme Exposure: Paul Nicklen Talk (Feb. 24, 20111)


About the Author

KbaumlierKristen Baumlier’s work spans the full spectrum of interdisciplinary media, including performance, interactive installation, video and audio works.View all posts by Kbaumlier →

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