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Nomad of the Arctic: An Interview with Photographer Florian Schulz

Eugénie Frerichs  /  Dec 15, 2016  /  11 Min Read  /  Community, Activism

With temperatures on the rise, Arctic sea ice is rapidly disappearing and polar bear populations are decreasing. The U.S. Geological Survey projects that two-thirds of polar bears will disappear by 2050. This polar bear mother and her two cubs find refuge on the shores of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Florian Schulz

This fall, we dedicated our late-November catalog to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. For the photo direction, we wanted to highlight life in the Refuge from the perspectives of both the Gwich’in people, for whom the Arctic’s coastal plain is sacred land, as well as the wildlife. Selecting a photographer to work with on the wildlife side of things was a quick decision, as I knew that Florian Schulz, the German conservation photographer, had been spending much of the last two years camping, filming and photographing in the Refuge.

I have always loved Florian’s work and deeply admire his tireless commitment to conservation. Collaborating on our Arctic campaign was no exception. It takes many months, and dozens of emails and phone calls, before we land on image-final for our catalogs and campaigns. Florian was generous with both his time and knowledge of the Arctic through all of it. A couple weeks ago, we caught up on the phone—I was in Ventura, Florian in southern Germany—to talk a bit more about his work.

Nomad of the Arctic: An Interview with Photographer Florian Schulz

Florian Schulz is the youngest founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers. His work has appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times, and has been exhibited by the Smithsonian Museum of National History and the American Museum of Natural History. In 2012, he won the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography. Photo: Salomon Schulz

Eugénie: Hi Florian. How’s it going over there?

Florian: It’s good, I’m fine. I’ve been catching up online on all that you’ve been up to at Patagonia. A lot has happened in the last couple of weeks.

Eugénie: To say the least. As a conservation photographer, does this recent shift in the political landscape make you think about your own work any differently?

Florian: I don’t think that what I do will shift much, because I’ve been using photography to support conservation since I was in high school. But now I realize I need to do this work even more, and become more creative about it, with how to reach people. I need to talk more about global warming, I need to talk more about the fact that places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are among the last few places that are still wild. I stepped into the world of filmmaking a few years back because I felt that in addition to my still photography, I wanted to create an awe-inspiring account of the natural world, so that people who are removed, and may not go into the wild, can still feel it, and sense it, and maybe grasp a bit of what it feels like out there.

Nomad of the Arctic: An Interview with Photographer Florian Schulz

Three muskox bulls push through a blizzard towards the setting sun. While I just about froze to death, it was just another day in the Arctic for these animals. Their fur is seven times warmer than the warmest known sheep wool. Photo: Florian Schulz

Eugénie: When you visited our office in Ventura last month, you showed us some of your film footage. When I saw the caribou spilling over the landscape, I was moved in an entirely different way from when I look at your still photographs. My own response made me wonder whether you feel that photography can still have the same impact that motion has. Since you are now working in both mediums, when is it appropriate to use a still image in your conservation work, and when is it better to use motion?

Florian: For me it is not a question of whether one is better than the other, or that, you know, photography is dead and it’s all about motion. That’s not the case at all for me. We can have a photograph on a wall, or a photograph in a book, and we can look at this image, and it may make an instant connection with us, but at the same time it is not rushing away, we can actually look at it for a while, it can almost be a meditative moment. When used in conservation, a photograph that is in a campaign can be engraved into people’s minds. Unfortunately, we’re now more bombarded with noise, and the camera movements need to be quick, everything needs to be exploding, flying. But that’s not the way I do film. When I choose to work with film, I want to create a scene, I want to create an entire feeling about a place. I give it time. For me film is not about fast cuts. I want to transport people to a moment, so they can immerse themselves into a place.

Photo: Florian Schulz

Close to 200,000 animals strong, the Porcupine caribou herd returns to the Arctic Refuge every year. In midsummer the caribou gather by the tens of thousands and move across the land like a river. Photo: Florian Schulz

Eugénie: You also showed us footage of your son Nanuk in Alaska, looking through binoculars and sighting a brown bear for the first time. His response was pure wonderment. How has having two young boys influenced your approach to your work?

Florian: Sharing nature with Nanuk and Silvan is really eye opening, because they find beauty and interest in all of the tiny little things. They find so much joy, and we bounce it off of each other. At the beginning, when I would point out a raven flying over there, or an eagle over here, they would listen, they would watch. And now, even with Silvan, who is one and a half, he will suddenly see a bird in the far distance and point there, making a motion that I should pay attention. It’s been really beautiful, they are telling me to slow down a bit, to look at the world through their eyes. Of course, also, since they are in the world, for me the importance of fighting for the last wild places is even greater. The world is changing so fast, they are already going to live in a completely different place, I want to do whatever I can to enable them to still enjoy and see these wild places, hopefully unchanged. Having children gave me even more motivation to be engaged in conservation.

Eugénie: I was struck by a story you recently told of a stakeout you did with your brother in Alaska, waiting in a blind for 10 days to get one shot of an eagle feeding her chicks. It reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about, this idea of “slow photography.” We have the slow food movement, which emerged in reaction to fast food. Why not also slow photography, to truly slow down and take real time to soak in, or to construct, a single picture?

Florian: Yes, I love that. My brother and I had found one of the northernmost nests of one of the golden eagles. They’re very hard birds to photograph, and we had to take great care with setting up a blind. The beauty about it was that this nest had been grown for decades, probably more like centuries. It was 12 feet tall. In the Arctic there aren’t a lot of bushes or twigs for the birds to gather, so it must have grown over many decades, half an inch or so a year. In order for us to get this perfect slow motion sequence, we had to be there every day for an average of 14-16 hours. We didn’t know when exactly the eagle would be returning. It was often feeding its chicks two or three times in the day, but we never really knew when, so we had to become in tune with when the chicks were calling. They had different calls for when they would spot the eagle in the distance, and they would get more excited when they were about to get food, which was how we learned when to be ready. We knew the moment would only last for a split second. There would be maybe one second of reaction from the chicks when the eagle returned with food, and then we would have to wait for hours until the next feed. Of course, it’s the dream of that perfect moment that keeps you waiting for such a long time.
Photo: Florian Schulz

With a ground squirrel in its talons, a golden eagle returns to its two chicks. After many days of waiting, the Schulz borthers were finally able to capture this sequence. This is one of the most northern nests in North America. Photo: Florian and Salomon Schulz

Eugénie: Tell me about the making of Nomads of the Arctic, the print that we are offering as a fine art print in our U.S. stores.

Florian: In late February and early March, the caribou are returning to the Refuge, migrating in the direction of Arctic Village. They come from the surrounding hills, and I really wanted to show how the Refuge is one of those places to which the animals have to return. I was working with a pilot friend of mine, Jake, who flew me around in a Super Cub, and in early March we found a pretty large herd. There had been a lot of snow, and then the temperature warmed, forming a crust on the surface. The leader of the group moves ahead, and the other ones follow in his tracks—that’s typically how you see caribou migrating across the snow. I had to ask Jake to slow down the plane dramatically, to pull in the flaps and try to be as slow as possible, and to do a bank turn over the caribou. I used a telephoto lens, so we were not too close, and could still show the scale of the group migrating across the snowfield.

Eugénie: I’ve noticed here in the office that it will take a while for someone who is seeing this picture for the first time, and without any context, to figure out what is going on, which I love.

Florian: Often when people see an image that they don’t completely understand, they give it an extra look, an extra moment, and that pulls them into the picture. I like working with aerial photography because it provides both a sense of scope and a sense of place, which is really important for the conservation of a specific landscape. But then an aerial image also creates an abstraction that makes the viewing experience more interesting.

Nomad of the Arctic: An Interview with Photographer Florian Schulz

Nomads of the Arctic. In a Gwich’in creation story, the original people of the Arctic used to be caribou. When they separated, the caribou kept a bit of the human heart and the human kept a bit of the caribou heart. They made an oath that the caribou would always take care of the Gwich’in as long as the Gwich’in would always take care of the caribou. An archival print of this photo, signed by Florian, is available in Patagonia retail stores with a donation to the Alaska Wilderness League. Photo: Florian Schulz

Eugénie: This year you moved your family to Baja California, where you have started a new project about the Pacific Ocean. Is your work in the Arctic done?

Florian: I have returned to the Arctic for so many years, I’ve gotten kind of hooked on it. I never want to miss the wildlife spectacle. The caribou have so much meaning. We used to have bison roaming by the millions across the Great Plains, they’re pretty much gone. In Alaska’s Arctic we still have 150,000 to 200,000 caribou, and further west another 300,000 or 400,000 caribou, so we still have these enormous herds and the big open landscape. In the Arctic, I can time travel back into another world that hasn’t been completely altered or dominated by humans. That there is still a place like the Arctic Refuge, where you can see nature unfold like it always has, it is so fascinating to me. I think I will always go back. I cannot say that it’s done.

Photo: Florian Schulz

The Arctic Refuge offers unparalleled wilderness opportunities, including backpacking, camping, climbing and fishing. It has no phone service, cell phone coverage, campgrounds or ranger stations within its boundaries. Because of its remote nature and potentially extreme conditions, self-reliance is essential and the experience of true adventure is guaranteed. Photo: Florian Schulz

Eugénie: Our work together this year has been so inspiring. Thank you for all of your generosity and dedication to both your craft and to these wild places. I’m glad to hear that you’re not done.

Florian: Thank you so much as well. This has been a very meaningful project for me.  Unfortunately, the fight for the Arctic is not over, and is probably going to really get going in January. We have a lot of work ahead.

Nomad of the Arctic: An Interview with Photographer Florian Schulz

Climate change is a pressing issue for mammals in the Arctic Refuge, including the arctic fox. They are well-adapted to cold, ice and snow; warming temperatures are allowing the boreal forest to move northward, bringing the larger red fox—a competitor for food and territory. Photo: Florian Schulz

Take Action!

Please urge your senators to pledge that they will protect the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling and industrial development. Together, we can help ensure the survival of the people and wildlife that call the Refuge home.

Sign the Care2 petition

Nomad of the Arctic: An Interview with Photographer Florian Schulz

Nomads of the Arctic. Photo: Florian Schulz

Nomads of the Arctic Limited Edition Print

Preserving wild lands for the future is one of the best gifts we can give. As an exclusive in-store offer, when you give $250 to the Alaska Wilderness League (AWL), Patagonia will match your donation—we’re matching up to $50,000 in donations to the AWL—and you’ll receive a signed, limited edition Nomads of the Arctic print by award-winning conservation photographer Florian Schulz. Available now, these unframed, 17″ x 22″ archival pigment prints were produced in a one-time-only run of 250. Learn more and find a store.

To see more of Florian’s work, check out the 2016 Patagonia Arctic catalog and his website,

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