Can a photograph convince us that an iceberg is alive?
Stranded Iceberg I, Cape Bird, Antarctica 2006 © Camille Seaman
Camille Seaman has spent a decade photographing icebergs in the Arctic and Antarctic. The photographs she makes are beautiful and otherworldly, and were impelled by a need to show beauty in the world after the 9/11 attacks in New York.
Many of the photographs are composed solely of three elements: ice, ocean, and sky. It is a simplicity which helps to make them so visually striking, but at the same time it also withholds any sense of physical scale.
Just how humongous are these icebergs?
The not knowing imbues the photograph with some resistance to reality. Stretching otherworldliness to the bounds of unreality, or worse, to an elaborate studio ruse. But, of course, the photographs are not a ruse and are as real as you and me. Alive even.
Seaman regards the iceberg photographs as portraits. Portraits of unique individuals, each alive with water, particles, and micro-organisms which connect them to their wider ecosystem.
I approached them as my relatives, literally, and not in some poetic way…I saw them as part of my lineage, as part of my existence. And I think that kind of approach allowed for emotion to be present in the photos. I saw them as more than chunks of ice.
Her approach to her subject is informed by the childhood teachings of her grandfather, who taught Seaman to approach living things as individual entities and of her inter-connection to the Earth’s processes. It is also informed by an awakening in her late twenties when she was lost on the ice in Alaska, when she says, she “met” the Earth and became more fully aware of her connection to it.
Seaman has avoided preaching environmental messages and has instead relied on her photographs to help people feel the way she does about these living entities. Though, as the Arctic and Antarctic melt due to the pressure of climate change, this must be a harder and harder position to maintain.
Seaman has stopped visiting the polar regions, stopped showing us new photographs of what is there and what will be lost. Saying, “I stopped going because it felt so futile…I felt like no picture I could take would make enough of a difference.”
It is a grief to feel that the power of a photograph is limited to less than you want it to be. And I think continued interest in Seaman’s photographs will prove this feeling wrong. It is also a tricky measure of photographic success.
Seaman had lived 29 years before having a Gaia moment (“I understood that I was on my planet, that I was made of its material…”). A moment that was facilitated by the knowledge she received from her family as a child. Seaman’s photographs can function in this same way. Her practice of documenting her ancestors with love, humility, and respect is an example of an ecologically engaged photography, working outside the destructive nature-culture binary and so it helps to build ecological knowledge which can be held in reserve for when we ourselves are lost on the ice.
Looking at the Icebergs Near Franklin Island, Antarctica 2006 © Camille Seaman