Meet the Photographers standing up for the Arctic
From spending their 20s in regular jobs to spending months on end in the Arctic capturing the movements of polar bears, conservation photographers Chase Teron and Florian Ledoux explain what led them to their newfound mission to move and inspire others with powerful imagery – and why it’s so important.
“Photography helps people see,” said 20th Century American photographer Berenice Abbott, who dedicated herself to documenting life in New York. While the bright white photographs of the Arctic are a literal world away from the smoke-filled streets of NYC, the sentiment remains true to this day and is particularly relevant when it comes to conservation photography.
A polar bear crossing sea ice in Greenland by Florian Ledoux
“Conservation photography is essentially the form of introducing people to the idea of what is most pressing, in terms of preserving protected habitats,” explains Chase Teron, whose powerful images of the Arctic feature in National Geographic and other international publications. “It’s a fantastic way to grab people’s attention, particularly people who don’t necessarily know anything about conservation.
“It’s a way to connect people together who have different interests or motivations. We can argue about whether or not logging is good because it allows you to feed your family, we can argue whether or not oil and gas is great because it allows people to use petrochemicals to produce the iPhone that you’re using every single day; but everybody can agree that Mother Nature is special and Mother Nature needs our help.”
“Like anything, if you want to create action, you first need to get people’s attention. And what is the most powerful way to do that? It’s with the still image. Video is obviously super popular too; it’s about stories, and what a story needs to start with is an image to pique people’s curiosity: either them saying ‘Where is that?’ ‘How do they capture that?’ ‘Oh, my God, that’s beautiful’. That is the first step in conservation photography, to grab their attention and do so in a way that evokes emotion. And for me, that’s why I continually stick to the photos because I think it’s a true challenge to tell a story with one single still image.”
Iceberg in Greenland by Chase Teron
It’s a challenge Chase rises to with every visit to the Arctic. We speak to Chase as he spends time in his Vancouver Island home ahead of more planned trips to Svalbard. He tells us how he took a somewhat unexpected route from growing up in the ‘Texas of Canada’ to the University of Victoria to working in the oil industry, to inspirational conservation photographer.
He says: “I was this bright-eyed University kid who worked for Royal Dutch Shell and thought I could do something from the inside to inspire change. That just didn’t happen. So, I became a financial analyst and used all my vacation time to go to remote regions in the Arctic. I fell in love with it and realised the impact of our day-to-day habits. I really wanted to find a way to connect my day-to-day to environmental protection.
So, Chase started running photo tours to Arctic regions, mostly Greenland to begin with, then in Svalbard. Since first visiting Svalbard in 2018, it has fast become Chase’s favourite place to shoot. He says: “In the last couple of years, I think about Svalbard every day. It is my favourite location to experience the natural world – to have an apex predator there is a bonus. To have all that incredible wildlife there and seeing them thrive, that’s amazing. But the landscape itself is just as important. It’s a bucket list item that you need to do multiple times.”
Chase has been fortunate enough to experience the remote archipelago at different times of year – from Spring and Summer to Fall/Autumn. As he prepares for a return trip, he outlines the many faces of conservation photography that change with the seasons.
“I love going during the time of Spring,” says Chase, “It’s my favourite time, simply because it’s the more positive side of conservation. You get to see the polar bears – as hunters – using the sea ice to their advantage. They are sea creatures, and so this is about photographing polar bears in their element, not trying to preserve energy, not starving. I flock to that positive side of conservation photography because I like to create fine art and beauty.
“But then there’s the other side of conservation photography, where you’re watching a glacier collapse; and it’s, it’s calving. It’s a cool sight, big massive explosions in the water. But you get the shot and then you’re like, ‘OK, well this is telling the story of that iceberg, of that glacier retreating’, and you can see images that have been taken in Svalbard before. That tells an important story.”
Prints for Wildlife
Chase, founder of the Canadian Conservation Photographers Collective, knows only too well the power of photography, not only to move people into changing their actions or having necessary conversations, but to raise money for good. The entrepreneurial photographer helps run the Prints for Wildlife project which has, since it was established in 2020, raised almost two million dollars to help conserve nature and wildlife against poaching and protect against habitat loss.
Conservation photographers from across the world have donated images to be sold as prints, with 100 percent of the profits – after costs of printing and posting – going to the African Parks’ network. Chase believes that one of the biggest obstacles to change is getting our reactive world proactively thinking about how they can actually make a difference.
“It’s about helping people who don’t typically hear about conservation understand how important tourism is to protect these areas, and to empower people… and it’s a similar story in the Arctic.”
A polar bear on iceberg by Florian Ledoux
‘Witness, document, protect the fragile poles.’
This is Florian’s mantra – highlighted in big bold letters on his
website. And in those six words, we have a beautiful, simple summary
of conservation photography.
Florian Ledoux, who’s worked alongside Chase on previous expeditions, is speaking to us from his home in Tromso, Norway, but it’s little more than a pit stop for him. Not long back from spending six months shooting on the ice in Svalbard, the born explorer is keen to return. “I’m eager to discover new places. I focused a lot on Greenland until I visited Svalbard. The first time in Svalbard was amazing, and every trip leaves you feeling something for the Arctic. It started this flame burning inside me. That’s the reason why I’m based in Northern Norway now. It’s easier to get to Svalbard.”
Florian’s love of nature started when he was 10-years-old and his parents took him to Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland – also known as the Official Hometown of Santa Claus. A once-in-a-lifetime trip for many kids yet to learn the unspoken truth about old Saint Nick.
“It was left to sit in my mind,” Florian explains, “When I was young, I was always attracted by nature around where I was living in France, wild places, forests. They were the places where I felt good.”
The wide-eyed teenager turned this connection into what, unbeknown to him at the time, would become a successful career by teaching himself photography. Inspired by photographers such as Paul Nicklen, Sebastiao Salgado, Ami Vitale, and Vincent Munier, he honed his art.
On leaving school, Florian joined the French Navy and got a role as an aircraft and helicopter technician – something he would end up doing for a decade. A few years into his time with the Navy, Florian revisited his childhood photography hobby, combining this with travel to places further afield including Scotland.
Florian says: “I’d spend all my spare time exploring nature, taking a lot in the mountains and kind of learning how to be an outdoor person in one way, and practising photography and learning, making mistakes. And then after four years doing that, with the images that I captured in my free time, I decided to apply to become a photographer in the Navy.”
Like Chase, Florian’s first experience as an Arctic photographer was in Greenland – a trip he calls a ‘game-changer’. He says: “The trip when I was young was the seed of my passion, then Greenland kind of opened the door to pursuing this passion. And then the trip to Svalbard settled it for me.”
Carving a new path for himself, Florian returned to Greenland a lot in his spare time – staying in different places and visiting at different times of year. A chance meeting led to him joining an expedition north and within months, he’d quit the Navy to pursue this new dream.
The scenery of Svalbard by Florian Ledoux
“I sold everything I had,” says Florian, “bought some new cameras and equipment and off I went. I didn’t know what I would do after that, it was a bit scary. But that’s when I got the shot of the polar bear crossing from the air.”
Florian’s stunning image of a polar bear crossing sea ice in the Arctic circle in Nunavut, Canada (see pages 8-9), won him the title of Drone Photographer of the Year 2018 and remains one of his most treasured images to-date. It solidified his reputation as a brilliant wildlife photographer and skillful drone pilot and paved the way for some incredible work opportunities, including as part of the team behind Frozen Planet II – the follow up to 2011’s world-renowned Frozen Planet documentary series from the BBC and Disneynature’s Polar Bear film.
One of the first photographers to get decent drone footage in the Arctic, Florian’s reputation grew by word of mouth as the go-to photographer for shots of ice with wildlife on it. He’s received numerous more awards and accolades, complimented for the powerful storytelling present in his photographs. Talking of the power of drone photography in particular, Florian says: “These images provide us with a new approach to observe and document wildlife behaviour from a fresh angle, revealing animals in their entirety and in the context of a larger habitat and landscape in a way that has never been possible in the past.”
But while we’re enjoying the impactful images from the warmth of our homes, photographers like Florian are putting in the hours to bring us these remarkable shots. He said: “You spend nine hours a day waiting on the ice and it’s minus 20. That’s what people don’t see. When they do get to see is the finished report in a magazine or a documentary, they don’t see that you’ve been waiting every day for six months to get some shots.”
Just back from a long, dark winter on the ice, Florian’s doesn’t grumble about the cold or the waiting times but revels in the privilege of watching the polar bears daily, giving him a connection and insight many will never experience.
He said: “They just became like friends basically. We could recognise them, the different characters and identify them but also see physical differences. The more time you spend with any animals, the more you realise they have emotions and feelings, they are cute, they can be nasty and mean. You will see different things like hunting, feeding, courtship, mating, playing, learning, travelling, and a lot of sleeping. They are simply like us. And that’s what, I think, makes you realise that we should actually treat them better. If we care about humans, why don’t we care about the animals or ecosystem on the planet that supports us? Without nature and wildlife, we wouldn’t be able to live on the planet. Our planet’s stability, it all starts with the Arctic. The changes in this part of the world are impacting the rest of the ecosystem on the planet, which we depend on to live as humans.”
The original article features in our Explorers Club Magazine which you can download here.
You can join Florian and Chase on one of our photography expeditions.