Danie Ferreira was barely a teenager when he first set his eyes on Antarctica. But that one visit was enough to ignite the spark of a love affair that would hold him spell bound for life, forcing him to quite literally go to any extreme to experience the spectacular delights the Polar ice caps had to offer.
‘I’ve experienced more meaningful moments at the polar extremes than anywhere else on the earth,’ says the South African photographer, cinematographer, and author, in an exclusive interview with Friday.
For instance, he remembers the time he was ‘one of an audience of three’ attending ‘The World’s Greatest Light Show’ – the Aurora Australis during an Antarctic winter. He waxes lyrical reminiscing the moment: ‘During the darkest hour of winter’s nights, vivid colours are at their most frenetic. The performance was without a sound. Pulsating curtains of colour set the heavens alight, so bright it casts shadows on the glowing ice. Seen only by the most committed. I was falling upwards in a momentary connection with the miraculous. Everyone, including the toughest among us, were moved,’ he says.
Danie perhaps had been moved by the splendours of the ice long before experiencing this momentous occasion.
Setting off with little more than some warm clothes and a basic SLR camera in his rucksack, Danie, at 19, embarked on a 14-month voyage to Antarctica, where he worked as a meteorological observer.
The ice broken, after his stint as a met observer he returned to his home country to study journalism and geography keen to become a photojournalist.
Television is where he ended up, and for nearly 30 years, he presided over what eventually became a prolific independent studio in South Africa, Urban Brew Studios.
However, for Danie, the call of the cold was too hard to ignore, and in 2014, he picked up his camera, and after bidding farewell to the corporate world, headed off to the earth’s extremes, yet again.
‘Antarctica invites you in, and too late, you realise she is a cruel mistress,’ says Danie. ‘She chews you up, spits you out, and you always return for more.’
And return he did. Over the past eight years, Danie has filmed in Antarctica, Svalbard, East Greenland and the Canadian High Arctic.
One of his keen interests is the human-canine relationship, and in 2016, he directed Ice Dogs, a documentary about Greenland’s native dogs, which have been used in polar explorations for thousands of years.
Shooting such documentaries is not without professional and personal hazards. He has spoken about how he once got his nose stuck to the camera (due to the freezing temperatures), having to contend with curious and life-threatening polar bears and constantly facing the enormous risk of losing digits to frost bite.
‘With temperatures plummetting to -20° and -40°C, the polar icecap can be a brutal and unforgiving place,’ he says. Avoiding frostbite, snow blindness, and hypothermia is hard work.
‘The most common among these threats is frostbite. Ice crystals form around the blood vessels and skin, causing blood flow to stop in the frostbitten area. The affected tissue then dies, often resulting in amputation. Despite his special musher gloves, South Pole contender in 2011-12, Mark Morgan had a few fingertips that got frostbitten: ‘…found one on the tent floor one night, so I put it in the pot so that it all goes back into the body somewhere,’ he quipped,’ recalls Danie.
Danie has just had his first book-length collection of photographs, Out in the Cold, published by Hurtwood. A collector’s item, the two volumes of Out in the Cold (North and South) are each 364 pages long, printed on one of the world’s finest papers, Mohawk Superfine, and fully hand-bound in a silver dupion silk.
The wild becomes familiar in Danie’s intimate photos: extraordinary close-up images of polar bears and seals, among other creatures, reveal the humanity in nature, while his trusty sidekicks, the snow dogs shepherding voyagers to safety, are honoured beautifully within the book.
Excerpts from an interview with Danie:
What got you interested in documenting the world’s most extreme climates?
The original impulse that triggered a lifelong love affair for the polar extremes happened in 1983. I was 19, and everything was an opportunity. At the time, I needed money to pay for university. Because of maths, geography and science in my final school year, I could apply to work as a meteorological observer in the South African National Antarctic program. When I got accepted, I did not quite understand the full extent of my commitment.
I’ve been land-logged my whole life, and leaving on an ice-classed vessel destined for Antarctica was a dramatic introduction to the high seas.
Getting to one of the most isolated places on earth was no simple feat. My first surprise was that you couldn’t die from seasickness. In the stormy South Atlantic, not known for her hospitality to strangers, we worked through intimidating latitudes referred to as the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and the Screaming Sixties. With every nautical mile, we got closer to the extreme southern end of our planet. I used a disproportionate amount of my film stock for a year-long expedition at the sight of our first icebergs.
After days of working our way through pack-ice on the ice MV SA Agulhas, we were met by the cold glacial shoulder of the seventh continent. It was love at first sight. Regardless of her pristine beauty, it is in Antarctica’s nature to be unsympathetic to her suitors.
Mesmerised by her initial splendour, over time, you get to know her and then are forced to get to know yourself. Living a year in a glacier awakened a lifetime of awe for the frozen landscapes in the high latitudes.
Tell us about your documentary Ice Dogs.
I produced the documentary Ice Dogs during two self-funded expeditions in the Arctic. The first was an old-school sailing expedition to Svalbard, an archipelago North of Norway, with Greenland dogs onboard for use as land transport. We decided to be in the region just after winter when the elements are the purest. During this expedition, a few friends and I worked with a team of Norwegian specialists with Greenland dogs. This special breed of dogs is genetically distinguished as high-performance endurance athletes. We aimed to gather insights and develop a better understanding of efficient movement across challenging terrain with dogs, specifically for polar regions.
The relationship between humans and dogs has played a critical role in the history of human civilisation. The two species have developed a special bond over thousands of years. This collaboration is now regarded as one of the oldest and most durable partnerships to have served inter-species survival, a collaboration that has existed for millennia.
As a second leg to the documentary, I needed to find an authentic link to the past. For this, I turned to ‘tradition’ as the most direct link to history because it’s through traditions that knowledge is handed down from one generation to the next. I identified an isolated community on the East coast of Greenland as the next destination. The opportunity was to join a team of traditional hunters and their sledge dogs on their first hunt of the season.
With all its brutality, my journey with the hunters from the Ittoqqortoormiit settlement is the story of how Greenlandic people adapted to the dramatic Arctic conditions. These are proud and inspired people living in a land caught at the end of the Ice Age measured by uncertainty. They are a people scattered in isolated communities across a vast island of ice and depend on the cold. They are now witnessing the vanishing of their reality, melting away, accelerated by the conduct of an industrialised world to the south. Unable to move, they are trapped with their dogs which, in the words of [Norwegian sailor and Arctic explorer] Otto Sverdrup, are the embodiment of: “The wildest breath of nature and the warmest breath of civilisation.”
Any life-threatening moments while shooting Out in the Cold?
Being isolated in the Arctic or Antarctic can be life-threatening if you let your guard down. Polar bear encounters, ice surface conditions, crevasse fields, available light when navigating mountainous areas, weather and interesting sea conditions are all variables and must be managed. I always travel with a facilitator responsible for my health and safety. Over the years, I’ve lost friends who thought they could do both. Facilitators are people with local knowledge who have considerable survival skills and are responsible for the safety judgements that I must respect to ensure safe passage. I can then focus on my camera with someone looking out for me.
Could you share some of the most beautiful moments while shooting images for this book? Moments that made all the hardships you endured truly worthwhile?
A lasting memory I still hold dear is when a small party of sun-deprived South Africans stood on top of a glacier that had been our home for the past six months. We were waiting to witness the visual confirmation of a change in season. After spending a long dark winter in Antarctica on July 26, the sun peered briefly over the horizon for the first time. Spontaneously we broke into a celebratory sun dance. Although we were still locked in the jaws of winter conditions, the sun’s return ignited new energy in each of us. With every new day, the sun remained above the horizon for longer.
Nowhere in the world are you able to experience more of a connectedness with yourself and the universe, than at the polar icecaps, with no visual reference to the modern world, space and time dimensions bend. In the exact moment, you can experience the past, the present and the future.
Getting to the Geographic South Pole today is as it has been for the past 25 million years. During the last 800 kilometres, crossing the polar plateau, there had been hardly any visible change in the surface of this frozen white expanse. Reaching the South Pole means extreme human endeavour and endurance, culminating in great personal pride. Each athlete had a unique story – one I’ve been privileged to share through film.
What’s next on your list?
I’m currently working on an art project with the working title: Vanishing Ice. With these images, I hope to inspire an emotional connection with ice and pay homage to ice as vanishing art.
Any plans to shoot in the deserts of Arabia?
The deserts of Arabia have been a desired destination for as long as I’ve been conscious of the territory. Although I’ve been working in deserts in Peru, Namibia, Egypt and Libya, I remain excited about photographing landscapes and textures in Arabia. I’m attracted to all deserts, frozen or hot.
Out in the Cold by Danie Ferreira is published by Hurtwood, £2,500
DANIE’S FIVE TIPS FOR ASPIRING OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHERS
1 Take your widest lens and your longest.
2 Take two camera bodies and avoid changing lenses in interesting weather to avoid moisture /ice settling on sensors.
3 Avoid frost-nip or frostbite by keeping your gloves on. Slow down your pace, and don’t get frustrated with clumsy fingers in gloves.
4 Always have a pack of single-use lens- tissue paper at hand to wipe droplets and drift ice from your lens.
5 Don’t wait for the shot to happen; make it happen. Speak up and work on your hustle; most top photographers have refined “hustling” to an art.