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A Frozen Lens At The Ends Of The World

In the Arctic at -40°C you can get frostbitten in seconds – so how do you work as a photographer out here? You have to be quick, says the man who documents this frozen world while dragging a 200kg sled...

Ever wondered who takes those jaw-dropping images of explorers battling the bitterest of the polar elements? There’s a good chance it was Martin Hartley, who’s 25-year career has seen him clock up 400 days in the Arctic and Antarctic, on more than 20 expeditions.

He’s photographed a who’s who of polar explorers from Ben Saunders to Ann Daniels while collecting snow depth measurements in the North Pole for the European Space Agency, documenting unclimbed summits in Central Asia and performing as an essential expedition team member.

Cold and technology don’t mix, and when you combine that with the need to carry all of your stuff, Hartley ends up man-hauling a massive 200kg polar sled stacked with his gear. So, what’s the draw? There must be easier things to photograph than polar bears?

Everything you touch is the same temperature as the air – twice as cold as the average freezer

Mh 1

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Q: What is it you’re looking for through your lens, when you set out onto the ice?
A:
‘There’s something about taking a photograph that captures the feeling of a place or a moment and it’s recorded. I’ve done a bit of filming but I never get the same feeling as taking a photograph. You just know when you’ve got a good shot. It’s like a drug, I suppose – a mini high. That moment may only happen in 3 or 4 of the 10,000 shots I might take in an expedition. It’s a special moment indeed!’

Q: Working as a photographer in the polar regions must be challenging?
A:
‘When you’re in Antarctica, it’s actually not so bad because of the time of year. It might be -25°C to -30°C in the day if you’re very lucky. And then when you’re in your tent, you get greenhouse effect. It might be -25 outside, but inside your tent it’s plus 20 degrees. It doesn’t matter how much you sweat in the day, once you get inside your tent at night, you can dry off and start the next day, dry as a bone.’

‘However, in the Arctic, if it’s -40°C outside the tent, it’s -40°C inside the tent. And that never changes until the very end of the expedition. Everything is wet and damp and you have to work hard to dry things. If you don’t dry your clothes out you have a miserable time the next following morning when you leave camp. And that has a knock on effect on the rest of the day.’

Q: What about the kit, doesn’t the cold kill the batteries, and your fingers?
A:
‘When we shot film it was much more complicated. But with digital cameras and massive 12v batteries and a couple of Nikon bodies, I don’t have too much work to keep the cameras warm. Batteries only use their power when they’re used when cold. I use the Inuit technique, which is a massive pair of mitts which I take off completely and have a thin pair of liner gloves to do the technical stuff. But you have to be quick!’

Q: When do you know when to take a photograph in a polar desert?
A:
‘Polar travel is quite a slow process, but you still have to have your feet in the right place. Ansel Adams famously said ‘A good photograph is knowing where to stand,’ and he’s so right! And especially true when you’re pulling a sledge. And you must remember that as a photographer on any expedition, whether it’s going off a rock face or a mountaineering route on K2, you have to be completely self contained. The very nature of photography is that you have to be away from the group or the person to photograph them.’

Mh 2

Q: What’s it like to travel in at these extreme temperatures?
A:
‘Well you wake up in your sleeping bag cold, so the first thing you do is light your stove, which is a mammoth task in itself – everything you touch is the same temperature as the air; it’s twice as cold as the average freezer. And then you start moving. The first hour of the day you spend trying to metabolise the food so your body can produce heat. It’s so cold you can’t even hold your ski poles properly. By the end of the day, you cannot get into your sleeping bag quick enough – it’s difficult to describe how cold it is.’

Q: What’s the appeal of these cold, inhospitable places?
A:
‘I’ve dabbled in jungles and deserts. I must say I don’t like deserts at all. But the reason why I first started going to these places was because of the sense of adventure. When the plane drops you off and leaves, you know you’ll not be seeing it for a while.’

‘On the Arctic Ocean for instance, when a plane flies off it’s got a long way to go. You need good ice and good weather for a plane to land, which means that it can be difficult to be rescued if you get in to trouble. And that’s quite an attractive proposition for your mind to get on top of psychologically, knowing you can’t be rescued. There are very few places in the world, like the Arctic, the have that sense of remoteness and total isolation.’

Q: Do you feel it’s part of your job to record the changes that are happening in the Arctic?
A:
‘I feel a responsibility whilst I’m in the Arctic Ocean, to document it before it goes. That’s another reason to stay there and take pictures. It is disappearing rapidly, it will be gone as a summer feature certainly within the next decade.’

To learn more about Martin Hartley and his work as a polar photographer, visit www.martinhartley.com

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