World renowned photographer James Balog was among the 16th Annual Heinz Award recipients recently awarded by Teresa Heinz in a stunning ceremony in Washington, DC in November. He was honored for his contributions to the understanding of global change through his unique Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) project, a voluminous collection of photographs that capture the expedited glacial melting throughout the world.
Mr. Balog was in Pittsburgh recently attending a conference at Carnegie Mellon University on GigaPan panoramic technology, an advanced photographic system developed at the school that has scientific applications. He was named a fellow in the university's Fine Outreach for Science Fellows Program and was there to present his photographic evidence of climate change to the enthusiastic conference participants.
During a break from the conference, Mr. Balog sat down with Awards Program Officer Carole Smith to discuss his work, his inspiration and the future of EIS.
Q: What does winning the Heinz Award mean to you?
A: The award is coming at a pivotal moment. It is providing an incredible financial boost at a time of great necessity. I was really excited when it happened. We drank a bottle of champagne in the office when we got the call. I was grinding away on the computer thinking, 'Oh, no, do I have to do another budget?' and I get this phone call. It was very exciting. And then I thought, after the first day or two, the glow would go away and it would be anticlimactic when it was publicly announced six weeks later. Instead, it was a joyful surprise to me to realize what a wonderful glow it has put on the entire fall. Right from the day we found out to the day it was publicly announced, right on through [to the awards ceremony.] This has been unique for me psychologically because it's given me a boost of confidence that I have not had maybe ever in my entire career that has been sustained - it certainly has lasted multiple months instead of multiple minutes.
Q: Your career up to this point has largely revolved around capturing images of endangered wildlife, ancient trees and coral reefs. You concluded your introduction to Extreme Ice Now (National Geographic, 2009) by stating that your glacier project is "the only thing I should be doing at this time and place." That's quite a dramatic departure.
A: In fact, I don't consider the ice project to be a radical redirection. Ever since I did my very first personal project, which started in 1981 and was on recreational hunting for Wildlife magazine, I've realized that the work that gives my creative life the most meaning has involved the intersection of humans to nature - the boundary line between humans and nature. This conflict between the actual and perceptual that is embedded in that boundary line, that is the leitmotif that goes through everything. Climate and its impact on changing our environment is on a continuum with trees, hunting, animals, oceans.
Q: But to give up the other projects that had been the focus of your career for the past 30 years?
A: The one thing I have found over and over again throughout my entire career is that I can't plan either for the creative juice to connect with something and what that connection is going to produce nor can I plan for how it's going to get done, which makes for an impossible business model! I'm just going to keep working in a creative fashion and hope that somehow it's all going to work out from a business/financial standpoint.
Q: You must have developed an inner confidence that concentrating on EIS and illustrating the effects of climate change was the right direction to take.
A: I feel very much that I'm the vehicle for these things to be expressed. I don't want it to sound too new-agey, but you feel that when the pictures are coming, they are coming from someplace else and you are standing as an intermediary between that force that is trying to express something in the world, whether it is a redwood tree or a glacier. There is something that is trying to be said and we, as the five-sensory-organ species, have the capacity to embrace that need of other things and landscapes to express themselves. I believe that when you are lucky and you work hard and you try to keep yourself on that path, that you become a conduit for telling these stories and conveying this energy and what needs to be said through that crazy thing called a camera.
Q: It sounds thrilling to have found such purpose in your work.
A: One of my very closest friends in photography is James Nachtwey (12th Arts and Humanities Heinz Award) and we have great simpatico because we both believe in bearing witness and for providing a voice for those who would otherwise have no voice. That means extending yourself at times, and part of the joy, part of the terror, is what makes it exciting, for sure.
Q: Who or what inspired your love of the natural world?
A: I was inspired as a little boy by going on camping trips with my parents and the Boy Scouts, and taking river trips, and by watching the animals walking around our backyard and by the boundary between suburbia and the western farmlands of New Jersey. I just couldn't believe how cool it was that there were deer and squirrels and rabbits and pheasants who had this entire universe to themselves. That sense of amazement with that other world has never left me. I spent a lot of time as a boy climbing in trees and I would sit in tops of trees for hours. I couldn't believe how cool that was to be at the top of the canopy. That sense of being up there, in the tree life, I can still see myself at the top of this one red maple, looking out at the treetops.
Then, the father of my friend, as well as my uncle Ted, they were both hunters and I found it amazing to go hunting with these men. Back then, there was no template that if you cared about nature, you did it with a camera. People who were engaged with nature were hunters, period. Beginning, middle and end of story. At least I never knew anyone who was a birdwatcher, or a naturalist. I learned how to hunt and chase them. Until I was late in my teens, and after killing something, I decided it didn't make any sense. All of those things had an influence. And then, when I was 18, I got fixated on mountaineering and joined an Outward Bound group in Colorado. And that's what led to this.
Q: Your early background certainly prepared you to take on such a momentous project.
A: My undergraduate work was in communications, with a very strong minor in geology. My graduate work was in geomorphology [study of the surface of the Earth.] It's amazing how it has all come together. It combines photography, mountaineering, earth science and communications. It's all integrated. You go through so much of your adult life thinking: 'Why did I do this for 10 years? Why did I do that for 10 years?' and none of this madness makes sense. Then, it all comes together and I am exactly where I'm supposed to be.
Q: I'm struck by how much of your time involves lecturing across the country and internationally about EIS, instead of just photography.
A: Right away I realized with the ice project that 50 percent of my job was photography and field work and 50 percent of my job was outreach. The story had to be told. This was not an incidental detail. Coming at this as a communications guy, communications had to be front and center of my objectives.
Q: And I suppose fundraising to keep the EIS project going is occupying some of your time, also.
A: A huge part of my time is now devoted to fundraising. And fundraising. And fundraising. Prior to 2007, I had zero fundraising experience. I always produced pictures by taking revenues from my paid work and pouring it into my creative work. At some point the creative work would start being sold into the publishing market place. And now, there is no financial return from the publishing market place. The entire industry has had its innards ripped out by the digital age. The budgets have shrunk at many of the publications that I have lived on for the last 20 years. I hope to keep the ice project funded and alive for years to come. But that is still very much an open question now.
Q: What does EIS actually require to stay funded?
A: If we're talking just the field project, with all the transportation, it's $400,000 a year. With outreach, it's another $250,000.
Q: I have to ask: Do you ever get cold?
A: I was frostbitten in Greenland one winter. Believe it or not, you really do get comfortable in 30-below [temperature]. You have the clothing, your thermostat resets. But when you land in Greenland in city clothing from Denmark and you get off that plane you feel the wind blowing through you on the runway, you just feel like you're going to die. If you get the right clothing, it isn't so bad. But we got up to this one place with these Inuit guys who ran the sleds to see how the cameras were doing over the winter. I was so excited about seeing what was inside the box, that I was not being my normal meticulous self about my technique. I was paying attention to the excitement of the camera and the electronics instead of checking the thing inside my head that wonders, 'How are my fingers? Am I getting too much wind down my neck? Am I going to lose that glove?' I wasn't paying attention and my fingers and nose got frostbitten.
Q: You write in Extreme Ice Now that you remain optimistic. Is that just your nature, or do you really see a way out of this global warming predicament?
A: I go up and down on an hourly basis on the future of our planet. There are times when I think it is really hopeless. There is too much status quo that's financial, conceptual, behavioral, political. And then there's other times where I think, 'You know, underneath all that, the human animal wants to survive.' And if the human animal truly can perceive what's in its best interests, it will do the best-interest-activity. It may not do it intelligently or quickly but it will do it eventually. Winston Churchill had this famous quote - either at the beginning or end of WWII: 'Americans will always do the right thing after they have exhausted all other possibilities.' The problem is it might take a long time before we exhaust all the possibilities.
Q: What's next for EIS?
A: I want to keep the cameras going, for at least another block of four years, through 2014. I'm also looking at other anthropogenic [changes caused by humans] projects to start. I have an idea about how to photograph air and your [region's] Marcellus shale gas project ties into it. Coal ties into it. As a competitive photographer, I get really excited about photographing the invisible. Now there's a challenge!
I want to work on water. The glacier aspect is just one end of the water story. I've already done something with coral reefs and there's a groundwater story to tell in Mexico. The groundwater story really comes alive in the Yucatan. North Face (clothing and sporting gear manufacturer) is funding the next trip. I have just become one of their sponsored athletes. They wanted to create a new brand within their portfolio. They want me to provide the intellectual heft to bring in science with recreation.
Vegetation in the Rocky Mountains is changing at a fantastic rate right now because of climate change. We should have cameras all over the Rockies right now photographing this and we don't because I haven't had the time or funding to build another 10 cameras to photograph from Canada all the way down to Mexico. Huge populations of vegetation are being wiped out by various actions that derive straight out of climate change. There should be a visual documentation of this process. It's happening literally in our front yard.
Also, I've been writing a new book. It's on my adventures and perceptual life as a photographer and how they have intersected with this era of global change. They are adventure stories built around this changing environment.
Q: So you also keep your eye on the broader picture, in addition to the glacier project.
A: I just established the Earth Vision Trust, and the Extreme Ice Survey is becoming a project within this new umbrella organization. It's an idea that's been in my head for 20 years. The mission is to explore anthropogenic change. I'm trying to preserve the memory of nature as we know it today for the people of the future and to inspire positive social actions. This tool should not just be seen as a curiosity research tool. There should be a big, multi-decade, coherent effort to document the world as we know it today in razor-sharp detail. I want to create platinum prints on archival paper and store it in super archival conditions. When people open up those pictures in 50 or 100 or 500 years and see how different the world is from now, they will be amazed. And we sort of owe that to them; a visual time capsule, done in a systematic, methodical fashion. Next is to figure out how to fund these grand experiments. I really need a business partner!
James Balog in Greenland
Extreme Ice Now, published by National Geographic
Icebergs at Bishop Glacier, British Columbia
EIS cameras installed at Columbia Glacier, Alaska
James Balog working with gear on mountainside, Columbia Glacier, Alaska
Grinnell Glacier, Glacier National Park, Montana
Panorama of Columbia Glacier, Alaska