The polar route
“there is no better feeling than being close to those magnificent mammals, sharing a space with them.”
Award-winning wildlife photographer Florian Ledoux uses his extraordinary drone shots to witness, document and protect the Arctic. Responsible for the Oceanographic Issue 01 cover image, he is on a mission to give meaning and context to these far-flung tundras in the hope that those who may never see them with their own eyes might feel a pull to protect them. This mission can be clearly seen in his recent film project, I AM FRAGILE, which is being included in this year’s Ocean Film Festival UK & Ireland tour. In an ode to icy, rugged and wild environments, his short film showcases the remote Arctic landscape and wildlife, using powerful visuals that can inspire action.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): What does being immersed in the wilderness mean to you?
Florian Ledoux (FL): To me, Mother Nature is the ultimate balance on Earth. It is the biggest miracle that we simply cannot explain rationally. When I find myself out there, immersed in those gigantic, pristine and completely wild polar landscapes, it stirs something deep and powerful within me. I feel a strong connection with the Arctic that is created by the simple power of nature. It reminds me that this is where it all began. We do not just come from nature, we are a part of this mysterious equation.
I have a real affinity for extreme and cold environments – it is where my heart belongs. Probably because I have always been drawn to untouched, pure and wild places. The Arctic and the Antarctic have all of this. When I find myself in the remote Arctic, co-existing in harmony with the wildlife that calls it home, I feel that this is where everything makes total sense. It is a deep awareness that consumes my body and soul entirely. The drive to create an image that I would remember for the rest of my life, that also has a strong message of protection and conservation, comes extremely naturally to me.
OM: Why did you start experimenting with drones?
FL: I always wanted to bring a different angle to my photography and I was looking at how I could show the beauty of nature’s lines the most effectively. I got a lot of inspiration when I was younger and I was flying over the Arctic landscape – I’ve always been in awe of the patterns on Earth. Of course, earlier in my career, it was completely unaffordable to take a flight for a photography shoot, and it is still. But the amazing thing about drones is that they allow me to be where a helicopter is not, in places where helicopters might not be able to venture.
OM: How do you feel photography can contribute to conservation?
FL: I believe in, and aspire to, bring a new perspective to capturing wildlife, something more than what we’re already familiar with from traditional photography. I believe these drone photographs allow us to observe and document the behaviour of wild animals from a new and non-intrusive angle, capturing them in a wider variety of habitats and landscapes. Before drones, it was almost impossible to photograph the wild in this way, so it offers a new opportunity to learn about the snow- and ice-covered parts of our planet. Photography can contribute to conservation by shedding light on important topics with relevant and impactful images. I also hope that the beauty of the Arctic landscape can encourage people to reconnect to nature.
OM: What was your most significant experience while filming ‘I AM FRAGILE’?
FL: The pinnacle of my reportage expedition was undoubtedly my close encounters with these majestic yet gentle animals. For me there is no better feeling than being close to those magnificent mammals, sharing a space with them. I will always remember that moment I saw my first polar bear, I cried for the whole three hours we stayed close to it. I discovered it swimming and by the time I left my binoculars to inform our captain, I was crying. This experience will be clear in my mind forever – it is one of these many moments that provides real inspiration and contribute to my love of the natural world.
OM: Where did you go on your expedition north?
FL: We started from Western Greenland and sailed 6,000km over the course of eight weeks to Nunavut to explore the Arctic wildlife on Devon Island, Bylot Island, Baffin Island, Somerset Island, and the large Lancaster Sound, with a purpose to witness, document and protect. We encountered many different species, such as walruses, belugas, narwhal, polar bears, humpback whales, Arctic foxes, seals and a huge array of seabirds.
I had the opportunity to travel onboard a sailing boat to help the crew, which I knew would give me the possibility to create amazing images. I would like to say that, while I was part of this long expedition, none of those images would have been possible without the two incredibly skilled and passionate captains I had, Hayat Mokhenache and Peter Madej.
OM: What challenges did you face while filming?
FL: Flying in the Arctic landscape wasn’t easy with the earlier versions of the drone. Technology is getting much better now but it can still be very tricky. I’ve crashed it a few times and I’ve lost machines before so it can be an expensive tool. Working and flying in the Arctic can be extremely complicated because of the lack of satellite signal, the interference with magnetism, the northern lights. But you learn with practice and go beyond the limits of the drone.
I would probably say the polar bear leaping the ice was the most difficult scene to get. Firstly, I never thought I would get to capture something so beautiful and aesthetically vibrant. Secondly, to get this natural behaviour where we can see that the polar bear is not disturbed or feeling threatened by the drone, it took a lot of work and study of how they behave. I spent a lot of time close to them without flying before shooting. The first day we saw seven polar bears and I didn’t put the machine in the air once.
OM: What’s the most important story you’re sharing through ‘I AM FRAGILE?’
FL: I think I wanted to make a beautiful and short but impactful film that would leave people speechless and that may help them to feel reconnected to the natural world. But while it is beautiful, I also wanted to communicate the fact that the wildlife living in the Arctic landscape is facing a huge range of threats that are impacting their future population status. They are among the first refugees of climate change.
OM: What threats to the Arctic wildlife did you experience during your expedition?
FL: Most of our time in Nunavut was spent navigating a landscape of pack ice that was too thin to hold the weight of a resting or hunting polar bear. Larger pieces of ice where a number of bears could be spotted, nestled together, were rapidly shrinking due to melt. We observed a best-case scenario for the animals as refugees on these rapidly disappearing ice sanctuaries and a worst-case scenario of open, ice-free fjords with the last ice havens all but gone.
OM: Why is it important not just to witness, but to share stories of the wild?
FL: If I only witness then I’m just doing it for myself, right? So it is important to give visibility to my work, in the name of protecting and conserving the natural world.
OM: Do you think people are becoming disconnected from nature?
FL: Of course, they are! This is part of a new video I am working on at the moment entitled “Origins”. I believe it is the biggest issue we are facing, because if we were all still truly connected and respectful of the natural world we are part of, we would solve most of the current problems by just behaving differently. I hope this is something we learn and act upon sooner rather than later. I hope that the ice will remain in the Arctic and that it’s wildlife will not face further threats. We should not forget that if we threaten nature, in the longer term we are just threatening ourselves.
OM: What project are you working on next?
FL: I came back from Antarctica last winter so I have a lot of material for a new short film. There is also the short film that I mentioned earlier, “Origins”. Looking ahead, I’d like to start working on a long-term project to do a short film documenting the large number of polar bears we still kill every single year. In the Autumn I will be showing my work during different events such as Xposure Photo Festival of Sharjah (Dubai), then at the Nature Film Festival of Namur, Sienna International Photography Awards, and the Louvre in Paris.
Florian’s work features in Issue 01 of Oceanographic Magazine. ‘Saving the Arctic Ocean’ is a story written by Pen Hadow, one of the world’s most accomplished Arctic explorers, about the experiences and motivations behind his mission to have the international waters of the Arctic Ocean designated a protected marine serve. Discover more about Pen Hadow by reading his exclusive interview with Oceanographic here.
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