Capturing moments frozen in time

Interview with Sebastian Copeland, award-winning photographer, adventurer and environmental advocate.

The award-winning photography of polar explorer Sebastian Copeland transports us into a world few people get to experience. He spoke to us about the beauty, danger and fragility of life on the ice.

For over 175 years, the people at ZEISS have asked the question: How can we challenge the limits of imagination? In celebration of that vision, ZEISS has partnered with thought leaders and great minds from around the globe for ZEISS Beyond Talks, giving them centerstage to speak about their own work, visions, passion and issues that are affecting our world moving forward.

ZEISS Beyond Talks

Interview with Sebastian Copeland, award-winning photographer

Your profession is an extraordinary one – how did you become an explorer?

My first venture into exploration came through my family, especially from my grandfather. He spent a lot of time in India and was originally a big-game hunter. By the time he reached mid-life, he had traded in his gun for cameras and never killed an animal again.

My grandfather had done expeditions in Botswana and Tanzania in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, later settling in the country that is now Eswatini. All this experience appeared to me at an early age, and I became his companion on trips to South Africa in the 1970s. I went there at 12 years old and took my first images with a little disposable Kodak camera.

Please tell us more about how your relationship with photography developed.

In a sense, photography chose me when I was a kid. It became a medium of transmission that was just a natural extension of my imagination, and of what I got to see and experience. It was not something that I necessarily pursued as a career path either, I just somehow had a skill at it.

I studied earth sciences at college – specifically glaciology and astronomy – while taking photos of rock bands in my spare time. I did have an aspiration to pursue a PhD, but photography quickly became a viable, financially rewarding and creatively inspiring career path. The skill transmitted really well into the world of advertising, so the lure of professional work took me away from academia. As soon as I came out of college I was hired and started working before I was able to choose another path.

Photography is about freezing one little capsule of time.

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ZEISS Beyond Talks –
The Podcast

"ZEISS Beyond Talks – The Podcast” takes you on a journey by capturing important milestones and by talking to leading scientists, renowned artists and ZEISS experts from around the world. All of them address the question: How can we challenge the limits of imagination?

How complicated is it to take photos in extreme cold?

Shooting in the polar regions involves a lot of sacrifice – you will suffer for it. Not much about the experience is equivalent to that of a photographer in more friendly shooting environments.

It can be 40, 50 or even 60 degrees below zero Celsius, but you’re dressed to have a balanced body temperature at full exertion. So as soon as you stop, this great cold comes at you with a vengeance.

Your camera is typically behind you in the sledge, you’re wearing huge mittens, and frost has built up on your facial system. As soon as you take the mittens off, your fingers are going to suffer. Then your body temperature starts to drop when you take off the jacket. But you need do this to access the memory card and batteries, which are typically kept in a pocket under your armpit where they stay warm.

Now you’ve got to use your frozen fingers to open the camera compartments. When you’re finally ready to take the picture, you can’t look through the eyepiece because it will fog up from your body heat. Everything needs to be done with a certain sense of approximation, so knowing your equipment is critical to the end result.

Above and beyond anything else, photography is about freezing one little capsule of time. To get back home and rediscover that experience as a photograph on a screen – or even as a print itself – is an extraordinary privilege.

© copyright Sebastian Copeland
© copyright Sebastian Copeland
© copyright Sebastian Copeland

In a few words, how would you describe the beauty of Antarctica?

I was fortunate to do a coast-to-coast passage across Antarctica – a 4,100-kilometre journey. If you want to feel like you’re on another planet, then go and visit the middle of that continent. Antarctica is the closest you will get to the experience of how earth was before any multicellular animal started developing here about 650 million years ago.

Antarctica is the closest you will get to how earth was 650 million years ago.

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Just how dangerous are the polar expeditions you do?

Danger is always lurking, but it’s not something that drives your process. You learn to recognize with a nature of humility that you’re always a guest in a particular environment, and that at any point it could take your life away.

When you’re in a dangerous situation, you’re typically acting on instinct and experience. The combination of these two is what hopefully gets you through. That’s not to say it’s a fool-proof plan though. We just lost one of my good friends to a crevasse in Greenland. He was extremely experienced and was retracing the route of an expedition I did almost 10 years ago. His death brought a certain type of reckoning to me.

But there is also a place of surrendering to circumstance, as there are events that you have zero control over. For example, I’ve been charged by a polar bear when I was alone. Dealing with this was not something that brought any fear to me in that moment – I remember very clearly. But I’ve had many a moment since then when I’ve thought about what might have happened, and it has brought a sense of trauma that has repeated year after year.

If you’re traversing a crevasse field, for example, then you need to be very cautious of your next step. But the trauma is not in that moment, because you’re so hyper-focused on the terrain and getting through the experience. The cold sweats come after the fact.

© copyright Sebastian Copeland
You have seen first-hand the effects of climate change on the polar ice – what are your thoughts and hopes in this battle?

The sea ice is now deteriorating at such a rapid pace that the last time someone was able to walk to the North Pole was in 2014. We’re not just seeing thinning in the index extent of the ice – its surface area, as we see on satellite images – its volume is going very quickly too.

To tackle this massive challenge requires action from three agents of change: elected officials, the public, and business stakeholders. The caveat is that the three are shackled at the ankle and can only move as fast as the slowest one. But that’s the paradigm of change we are dealing with; transformation does not happen through a single event – it happens by all three actors changing their behaviours.

What we as individuals can do to be active within this paradigm is to vote for people who want to bring change, and to buy intelligently. This means making sure your life and its footprint are reduced as much as possible by supporting companies that promote regeneration and sustainability.

© copyright Sebastian Copeland
What gives you hope that we will rise to the challenge?

I’m really inspired by people’s imagination and the practical everyday applications they come up with in agriculture, tech, e-mobility and more.

For example, due to climate change we’ve lost 1% of inhabitable land compared to 30 years ago. By 2070, that number will be 19%. In that transition, how do we adjust the soil, or how do we make more resilient crops that are not loaded with chemicals? It’s very exciting to see people developing solutions aimed at stabilizing soil, for example, and enabling it to absorb more moisture.

This is the landscape of the imagination and it’s where humans shine. It’s where we display the best we have of creativity, the ability to intellectually process and synthesize data, and our capacity for empathy. If we can combine all these things together towards the common goal of sustainability – or what I like to call regeneration – then that gives me hope and inspiration.

You’re always a guest in a particular environment. At any point it could take your life away.

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