Sebastian Copeland (*1964) began his career shooting for »Madison Avenue« before applying his commercial photography skills to document at risk environments. Noted as a photographer »who has produced works that are of outstanding artistic merit and communicates messages of urgent global significance,« Copeland has led numerous expeditions to document the endangered Polar regions, covering more than 8.000 kilometers on skis over the ice. In 2017, Copeland was named one of the world’s top 25 adventurers of the last 25 years. Copeland uses fine art as a medium for activism. »Helping people fall in love with their world,« he says, »is a catalyst to wanting to protect it.« For more than 20 years, he has warned of systemic transformations taking place in the polar regions and their geo-economic consequences. Copeland has addressed audiences at the United Nations, the COP21 in Paris and museums, institutions, and governments globally, as well as many Fortune 500 companies, warning of the urgent need for a market transformation towards a sustainable economy. His photographs have been published in numerous books and his work has appeared in hundreds of international magazines. Copeland spent 15 years on the Board of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s environmental organization Global Green USA (the US arm of Green Cross International). He is a fellow of The Explorers Club, and member of the American Polar Society, the International Glaciology Society, and a founding member of Artists for Amazonia. His books won global awards and have sold in over 70 countries. Copeland received the 2018 Bambi in Germany in the »Our Earth« category. In 2019, French President Macron knighted Copeland in the National Order of Merit. Copeland’s works are exhibited worldwide and are part of numerous renowned collections.
Sebastian Copeland was awarded with the International Photography Award and Tokyo International Foto Award (2020/2021). After his exhibition at CAMERA WORK Gallery in 2018, he received a Bambi award in the category »Our Earth.«
His comprehensive book »Antarctica: The Waking Giant« was published in 2020 (Rizzoli).
2018 · CAMERA WORK (Berlin)
2018 · Gates of the Luxembourg (Paris)
How are you doing, and most important, how does your everyday life look like right now?
The main difference in my life these days is that I have traded my suitcase for an educator’s hat, for our 3 and 5-year-old girls. Not surprisingly, this has given me heightened respect for educators! It is wonderful, but even part time, it’s really full on. Luckily, everyone is healthy around us. And we are sharing privileged family times, so we have been spared the worst of the despair so far, even while paid work has all but collapsed.
For many years you lived in Los Angeles and you know both the German and American culture and politics. In your opinion, what are the main differences in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic between both countries?
This crisis could not have better exposed the cultural and political gaps that separate the US from Germany. In spite of kindred economic philosophies, the two countries diverge broadly on social governance. This can easily be traced to their respective histories and national identities. Germany, rooted in Christian morality, traditionally upholds a high mark for civic duty and social responsibility. The austerity of the post-war era further fostered individual humility—not unlike in Japanese culture—while contrasting it with economic ambition; but freed from the financial burden of the industrial military complex. Greater taxes and social services at the service of the community better prepares the country for potential downturns like this pandemic. In contrast, US society is more aspirational: every dollar is gambled for the highest possible net return. Quality of life is the product marketed by Keynesian economics and Friedman consumption based on potential rather than actual value, and on lowering taxes. This approach fast tracks investments and rewards credit borrowing, but all bets are on black. When the wheel settles on red, the bets can be off. Way off. With a national debt approaching $25 trillion, it is always tempting to cut budget, and pandemic response is a low hanging fruit, until tragedy strikes. Preparedness is not an exact science, and it is not sexy. But when you need it, that greater discipline makes for efficient response, as with Germany. The US will suffer more than many first world nations given its culture.
We wanted to present your iconic »Iceberg XVIII« at the art fair Photo London in May. It has been postponed. What’s your personal connection to this particular work?
»Iceberg XVIII« means a lot to me. I took this, and the series that accompanies it, in northern Greenland in 2010, at the end of a 2300 km crossing of the continent. The series represents a moment that could easily have never happened. But it yielded what I consider some of my best work. After sleeping 42 days in a tent, my partner and I reached the northern coast of Greenland. We were picked up by military helicopter and dropped to a very small nearby Inuit village while awaiting a plane five days later. In that small village we nonetheless had access to a bed and shower, which is welcome relief after the white monotony of an ice sheet. But upon dropping my bags, I had a look at the frozen bay dominating the village. It featured giant icebergs, which had been trapped by the winter freeze, and were about to be released to the sea with the onset of the summer melt. Sea ice was still dominant, but surface melt and the occasional opening created what I knew would be beautiful reflections. I was tempted to follow my partner and burry myself in the moderate comfort of our new accommodations, but it was overcast, and clouds are key to getting the blues out of old ice. I grabbed my cameras and headed out. I had not slept in 36 hours and after 8 hours of wandering the immensity of the frozen bay, I returned to the village for much needed rest. That experience was made all the more special when I woke up the next day. The clouds had cleared, and we had blue bell skies above and a thick layer of fog over the bay—terrible shooting conditions. Those conditions remained every day until the plane picked us up, which I found out is the norm for that time of the year. It was my carpe diemmoment: seize it while it’s there!
You once said, »I am a man of the ice.« From where does your deep understanding come from for the coldest regions on earth?
Tales of the ice made a dreamer of the young me. As a child, I read Jack London and mountaineers and polar explorers’ accounts and biographies. This was the early 70’s and polar exploration would be revived after a long dormant period—the North Pole was officially reached for the first time in 1968. From this early conditioning, I dreamt of being an explorer. Adventure was fueled by curiosity, and since my grandparents lived in Swaziland, I spent time in South Africa going on my first safaris at age 12. I had a small kodak camera and found it spoke better than I could. I had studied political science, and in college I split my time between natural history and fine art. My favorite courses were astrology and glaciology, but I had a natural penchant for photography. I was lucky to get lucrative commercial shooting opportunities whilst still in college. Instead of pursuing higher studies, I went that route for some years, but always nurtured adventure pursuits when I could, which I funded between gigs. It was always nature. I was influenced by transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. “It is the marriage of the soul with nature that makes the intellect fruitful and gives birth to imagination,” Thoreau said. Climate science gained ground in the late 90’s. My camera became both a compass and a weapon. As I went further in the extremes, I found the right pitch on the ice. I liked studying it, both visually and scientifically.
In your photographic work, you can find an almost infinite range of warm blue, magical tones. How does it happen?
The dominance of blue seen in some icebergs comes from the suppression of the red value from its color prism. Unlike air, which comprises red, green and blue, water holds only blues and greens (this explains why human skin looks so pale under water). Ice is formed from the accumulation of snow (air and H2O) that compresses and hardens. Old ice undergoes so much sustained pressure as it travels over millennia that it squeezes much of the air out. By the time icebergs break to the ocean, they are mostly water in frozen form, which explains their blue color. The older the ice, the bluer it is. But the sun can override the delicate color hue. Color temperature is measured in kelvins. The hotter the light, the higher the kelvins. Overcast light, on the other hand, has a low temperature that bolsters the blues—think early evening after the sun has set. For my register, ice is mostly only worth shooting when the conditions are optimized by the low kelvins, and the onset of the spring melt for the reflections. Spring entails 24 hours of daylight in those latitudes, thus the dependence on cloud cover. It makes for a small window, and it can easily be missed. But the pay-off is worth the price of admission.
In »Iceberg IX (The Cube)«, you see an enormous iceberg that seems to be so powerful to defy all environmental influences. Will it still be there when you’re going to Greenland again?
No, certainly not. Nothing is static in the polar regions, and by the time an iceberg is created, it is a countdown to its final melting phase. Unlike rock, ice is not inanimate. Like us, it has a life cycle: it is born, it travels, it interacts and then eventually dies. The last phase is initiated by spring, and depending on the size of the iceberg, it may take one or multiple seasons to come to term. It will erode through each melt season, and its shape will change accordingly. In the winter, it is likely to get trapped in the coastal sea ice where it will winters-over. The spring melt will release it to the sea where it will continue its journey as it loses mass and fragments. Shooting iceberg is like shooting a memory of time. I like to think of them as individuals. As such, shooting them to me is more like portraiture, which I have done a lot professionally, rather than nature photography.
In the last few years several movements helped to bring environmental consciousness closer into public perception. What’s the role of your efforts and artworks in this process?
Gerhard Richter once said that art is the highest form of hope. Its primary purpose is to generate emotions. And an effective climate discussion needs that register. The battle to win hearts and minds will not be won with just one strategy focused on doom. We need to establish a bond with the subject. As Carl Sagan used to say, it is an all hands on deck moment in the history of our planet; it requires every tool in the box. Climate science is academic and abstract. It is critical but can feel distant and lack urgency. Nature photography is art with a purpose: it bridges the gap between science and emotions. What starts in the heart should prime the mind to a program of action. We need to be invested in order to care. Cold polar environment can feel especially distant and foreign. I see my work as a doorway to help people fall in love with their world. To celebrate the beauty is a way to invite the viewers to be more invested to protect it.
In contrast to pure documentary approaches, your photographs of icebergs are extremely aesthetic and have a high degree of iconography. What’s the advantage of this approach in terms of making people think about climate change?
I try to personalize the ice, and work to stay away from just documenting the environment. Icebergs in particular have distinctive personal characteristics. Their age, origin, their melt phase; all this makes them unique and fascinating to study. But a primary challenge of the polar regions is the remoteness, and this often means a dependency on tour operators and regulated insurance protocols. Most people’s interactions with the polar ice comes through ships and tours. But nature photography by definition is studied and deliberate. It requires patience and time, like a meditation. And with photography, as with most things in life, 95% of success is access. I have been fortunate to benefit from unconventional access, whether spending two seasons aboard a scientific icebreaker in the Antarctica Peninsula, or from deeply immersive expeditions, sometimes lasting months at a time. This personalization has helped me benefit from a privileged relationship with the environment, both in terms of locations and conditions. It is that intimacy, for me and for the viewer, that holds the imagination just a bit longer.
During the exhibition at CAMERA WORK gallery in 2018, you won the prestigious Bambi Award. What has changed since then?
That period in Berlin was special for me, of course. I was able to deliver a seven-minute speech on German national television, calling attention to our failure as a people to shore up a safe future for our children (and the event organizers did not cut me off!) And I had my first solo show with Camera Work in Berlin which fulfilled a longstanding dream. We had success with the show, and the award brought newfound interest in my climate research and the issue in general. The timing could not have been more opportune as the following year was a vanguard for the youth climate movement across the globe. 2019 would be a marquis year for climate awareness; but then COVID happened, and derailed that momentum. In fact there is a lot in common between the two issues. Nature is out doorstep, so it is hardly surprising that she should come knocking. I have a new book on the topic that will be released by Rizzoli Publishing this fall, focused on Antarctica.
In your life, you have led expeditions that have taken you through Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica. You have set several polar world records. Your remarkable photographic work, which you have done under the most challenging conditions, has won numerous prizes. You are also an author, lecturer, and environmental activist. Now, what is your next artistic project?
I have tried to peel away from the poles and focus on other at-risk environments. I worked in deserts, and entertained the thought of deep diving into the Amazon, which remains dear to my heart. There is a lot to document with small island nations in the south Pacific, and of course, the oceans. But the ice always beckons me back. And honestly, it is what I am the most comfortable with. The openness, the clarity, and the message; all resonate still today for me as it did when I first discovered it. Besides, it does not look like I will fulfill my dream of visiting another planet, and the ice is as close to that as it gets on planet Earth! Additionally, I have studied glaciology for close to thirty years, and our world likes specialization. But I am not complaining: I could be reporting on meat processing plants…
And what do you teach your children for the future?
The COVID is strengthening bonds, including with my little girls. It is ironic that a lockdown generates more global connections, thanks to technology, which is one of the many silver linings of the pandemic. But we may have gone to sleep in one world and woke up in another, the topics remain mostly the same: empathy for one another, and for our world. I try to instill in them an awareness and respect for all living things. And I make a point to emphasize the causative relationship between action and consequence. Between the current pyramid shaped economic model, the maddening pursuit of perpetual growth and our blatant disregard for the impact we have on our ecosystems, I am afraid we are in for a growing reckoning in my children’s lifetime. My job is to prepare them, and train them to be the new generation of peaceful warrior—in defense of life.