Behind the lens: Paul Nicklen
Behind the Lens places a spotlight on the world’s foremost ocean photographers. Each edition focusses on the work of an individual who continues to shape public opinion through powerful imagery and compelling storytelling.
Behind the lens
A CELEBRATION OF THE ART CREATED BY PIONEERING OCEAN PHOTOGRAPHERS. FEATURING EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS AND BEAUTIFUL PHOTOGRAPHY.
Internationally-acclaimed nature photographer, award-winning photojournalist, author and International Photography Hall of Fame inductee.
Paul Nicklen is a Canadian photographer and conservationist. He has received more than 30 of the highest awards given to photographers in his field, including the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the prestigious World Press Photo for photojournalism. In 2019, he received the Order of Canada, the centrepiece of Canada’s honours system that recognises a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.
OCEANOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE (OM): YOU WERE BORN A LONG WAY FROM THE OCEAN. WHEN YOU WERE JUST FOUR YEARS OLD, YOUR PARENTS MOVED TO BAFFIN ISLAND, A PLACE WHERE THE OCEAN AND LIFE ARE INTERTWINED. GIVEN THE COURSE YOUR LIFE HAS RUN SINCE, DO YOU ATTRIBUTE THAT MOVE TO FORTUNE OR FATE?
PAUL NICKLEN (PN): If anyone were to ask me to go back to a defining period of my life, a run of years that truly shaped who I am today, it would be my childhood living with the Inuit of Iqaluit and Lake Harbour. I was thrust into a society and culture that fostered within me a deep love and understanding of the Arctic environment, enabled the development of unique and ancient survival skills and, perhaps most critically for the journey that has unfolded in the years since, emboldened my creative mindset. It was a truly formative time – my left brain learning the requirements for surviving in -45 degrees Celsius and 100mph winds, my right brain enraptured by Inuit ghost stories such as the sea monster Qalupalik, who pulled children beneath the ice. I fell in love with the right brain creative process of storytelling, but was also learning to become tough – as kids we’d play games to see who could stay buried in a snowbank for the longest, or who was the last to stand the pain of wearing just a T-shirt outside during a storm. But it was the stories that mesmerised me – rich visuals of ghosts and great hunters on land. I was in awe of that storytelling process, as well as with the land and the seascape that formed the foundations of those stories, and that eventually manifested itself in art of my own. I think it would be fair to say that as soon as my family and I arrived to Baffin Island, my path was set.
OM: WHEN DID YOU FIRST CONNECT WITH THE OCEAN?
PN: It was something that developed over the years. Even though Iqaluit, where we lived until I was seven years old, has the second highest tides in the world at 42ft, it wasn’t until we moved to Lake Harbour that I realised how central to life the ocean was. When playing out on the tidal flats you’d have to run back to safety when the tide turned because the water came in so fast. At a place called Soper Falls, the waterfall switches direction as the 40ft tide swings! Eventually, I started joining my dad and the Inuit hunting and traveling on the ice. On our way back from expeditions we’d have to wait for the tide to rise up by 30ft in places so that we could drive our snowmobiles off the sea ice and back onto land. Then, at the age of nine I got my first snowmobile. I started taking off on the ice, exploring and fishing with my friends. To be cut loose at that age, to be out there with wild animals, to be personally connecting with the environment and understanding the interconnectedness of it all, was illuminating. I truly fell in love.
OM: YOUR MOTHER WAS A PHOTOGRAPHER. WHEN DID PHOTOGRAPHY TRANSITION FROM A FASCINATING THING ‘MUM DID’ TO SOMETHING THAT WAS CENTRAL TO YOUR OWN IDENTITY?
PN: Watching my mom convert her beautiful negatives into prints in the dark room in our humble little house was magical to me, but I didn’t ever think I could be a photographer. When you grow up in the North, there’s a feeling that you won’t ever be anybody. It’s a sentiment that permeates the entire community – or certainly did back then. For me and my peers, all we did was dream. We didn’t have a television. We didn’t have a telephone. In terms of material things, all I had were encyclopaedias and Jacques Cousteau books. I was always reading, dreaming or entertaining myself outdoors, scurrying about in the intertidal zone, turning over every rock with fascination, learning from the ocean, enthralled by the return of the huntsmen and the wildlife and nature they encountered.
On a family excursion to Italy when I was 15 years old, my mom lent me her Pentax K1000. To be seeing the world through a camera was fascinating to me. I loved it, but never did I think I was going to be a photographer or explore underwater like Jacques Cousteau. Years later, at university, while walking back from class late one evening, I saw a notice advertising scuba diving. Up until that moment, underwater exploration had always felt out of reach for someone like me. Suddenly everything changed. I knew there was an avenue for me in life. I quickly became obsessed. I didn’t have a car, but I did have a motorbike, so I’d put my drysuit, weight belt and tank on, strap my things to the back and drive to dive sites at night. Diving was my first true obsession, rather than photography. That sense of exploring beneath the waves was like nothing I’d experienced before.
OM: YOUR LIFE CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY AFTER UNIVERSITY. FULL OF DOUBT ABOUT A PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER, YOU DISAPPEARED INTO THE WILDERNESS, ALONE, FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, WHERE YOU EXPERIENCED A VISCERAL RESET. DOES THAT MOMENT – AND THE ASSOCIATED EMOTIONS AND FOCUS – STILL FUEL YOUR WORK TODAY?
PN: Yes, definitely. When I left university, I was all about diving. I made up projects at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre that allowed me to get my camera underwater – I had a new Nikonos V that I had worked so hard to get. I was out there primarily for scientific study, but I was really down there taking pictures most of the time. I was exploring, swimming with six-gill sharks – beautiful, life-enriching experiences. Then I got a job as a biologist, working on lynx and polar bears. In many ways it was a dream job. I sold all my dive equipment and resigned myself to becoming a surface photographer. I started to make pictures of grizzly bears, polar bears and wolves, which was amazing, but I felt unfulfilled – I was desperate to get back underwater.
Then I went on a three-month solo expedition. To have that time and space to think was a gift. It was like entering into a meditative state for three months. I realised that you are who you decide you are. It that moment, surrounded by wilderness, I knew – with confidence and clarity for the first time – that I was going to use my camera to start connecting people to the beauty of our planet and the issues it faces. I also knew that my heart was truly underwater.
I didn’t have the finances, resources or equipment at that stage, but I had conviction. When I returned I wrote an 80-page essay to the Canadian government seeking funding for a Nexus F4 underwater housing. It took me a month to write, and it worked – the housing came with an additional $8,000 grant, which went towards publishing my first book. The determination and passion that came from that expedition was monumental in shaping my journey since.
That mindset prepared me for challenges further down the road, like when my mentor Flip Nicklin told me I wasn’t an underwater photographer or when Kent Koberstein, the director of photography at National Geographic at the time, told me he didn’t think I was ready – he already had the best underwater photographers on the planet. So I asked myself a question: what sets me apart as an underwater photographer? The answer: the ability to be freezing and miserable, to endure frozen fingers and frozen toes, and to still get the shot. So that’s what I did – I suffered, and I came back with images my peers weren’t getting. Flip’s enthusiasm and approval for those early images was all the validation I needed. I’d found my niche.
OM: YOU’VE SPENT A LOT OF TIME ALONE ON ASSIGNMENTS. DOES THAT ISOLATION EVER WEIGH HEAVY OR ARE YOU ALWAYS FILLED WITH A SENSE OF COMFORT AND PURPOSE?
PN: The only time I’m ever lonely, scared or worried is when I’m in big cities. When I’m alone in nature, I’m home, surrounded by all the important things in life – weather, wind, light, ice, snow, animals, ecosystems. I always feel incredibly fulfilled in the wild.
OM: HOW BIG A CHALLENGE IS THE TASK OF RECONNECTING PEOPLE AND PLANET?
PN: It’s certainly a challenge, but we have the tools to connect with people on a scale that hasn’t been possible at any other time in human history. I love that out of my 6.6 million followers on Instagram, 550,000 of them live in New York City – a city I know is generally disconnected from nature and the ocean, despite it being a coastal city. I embrace the job of connecting those people to the ocean and this planet’s wild places. Whether they work on Wall Street, in an ad agency or on a hotdog stand, I know I offer something different to their busy lives, that I can reach in directly and grab their attention, their hearts. Powerful, evocative, beautiful photography and storytelling allows people to escape, to go on a journey, to care.
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