Chasing Ice


Written by Barney Cox
03 Monday 03rd December 2012

Explorer, scientist, photographer, mountaineer, author: James Balog is a man of many talents. One of Balog's first photograhic projects was Wildlife Requiem, a striking portrait of America's hunting culture. With titles like 'Boy with Elk Parts', the series was hard-hitting and unsettling. Since then, he has travelled the globe examining humanity's relationship with the natural world, and has snapped photos in places like the Himalayas, African Savannahs and America's ancient forests.

Most recently, he flew out to the Arctic circle and took a film crew with him. Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, is the result, and it's one of the most important films you’ll see this year. Having taken Sundance by storm last January, the documentary follows Balog as he sets up the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), which stop-captures melting glaciers over a period of years. The sequences, which depict the rapidly disappearing glaciers in their final death throes, are equally as terrifying as they are profoundly beautiful. Ahead of the film’s UK premiere, we talk to Balog about the planet’s future, witnessing history, and his journey Chasing Ice.

James scaling a rockface to mount one of EIS' motion-capture cameras.

How did you come to found the EIS?

I never understood until relatively recently just how much the glacial landscapes are changing as a result of climate change. When I realised that, I knew it was something I had to take up. So the idea for EIS gradually crystallised, and I started to put out a network of time-lapse cameras across the globe. I didn’t appreciate at the time just how challenging it would be! It’s very expensive, and requires a lot of time, people and brain cells. But it’s also the most gratifying work I have done, as we’re documenting history. I am possessed by the idea that we have to tell the truth as we see it. This is what’s happening, it’s not imaginary.

That sense of watching history happen is something I took away from the film. Obviously the glaciers are beautiful, but how do you cope with the realisation that the landscape around you is dying?

There is a dichotomy between the beauty of these landscapes, and the horrific aspect of what we are seeing. I get overwhelmed sometimes when I am out there, and it can be really crushing to look at that and realise what it all means. It’s a lot to put on your shoulders, but it’s also exhilarating because you’re witnessing history. It’s like if you were to parachute into Normandy on D-Day, you'd be very conscious of the fact that you were watching history happen. We are equally conscious.

The reception to the film has been really positive. How do you feel when people come up to you and say what a difference the film has made to them?

I feel extremely gratified because it’s really satisfying to hear people say that. I went to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and a tall guy looking like the Marlboro man, came up to me. He’d laid thousands of miles of oil-pipes in his life, but he said: “My friend, I had no idea. I get it now.”

How did you cope with the cameras following you around?

I found that having a camera slowed things down a lot. You’d be in the middle of something and somebody starts tinkering around with the transmission, and you’re like “Stop screwing around!” [laughs] Seeing the incredible success of the film, I wish I’d been more patient and spent more time shooting those incredible scenes. Going forward I’ll certainly pay more attention to what the camera can do for story-telling.

What do you imagine the world to be like in 50 years?

We could be congratulating ourselves on rising to the occasion and recognising what needs to be done. But we could also shirk our responsibilities and say “Ah, it’s too much about changing business as usual, why not just continue burning things as we are?” If we fast-forward 50 years, it’ll be like how we look back on slavery now. The idea that people would enslave others as machines for their economic prosperity is completely mad to us now! We say “How could they have done that?” It’ll be the same in 50 years: “How could they have debased our society with such mad ideas?”

Do you think there’s any getting back from this? Or is this it?

I don’t subscribe to the idea of there being a tipping-point. If you’re smoking cigarettes your whole life, knowing that cigarettes will give you lung cancer, you can’t identify a singular cigarette that'll be the one to give you cancer. It’s never too late to do something.

Chasing Ice premieres in the UK today, and will be released nationwide on the 14th. Visit James' website for more details on the EIS, and his photography.

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