The first thing most people say to me when I first tell them I have lived and worked in Antarctica is, “There is no way I could live down there; it’s way too lonely and isolated.” This is a popular misconception. And we don’t live in fear of polar bears. That’s the wrong pole. Quite to the contrary, Antarctica is a very social little world. Us residents are packed in by twos (sometimes even fours) into crowded dormitories, share a common cafeteria, and we all hit the same drinking hole on the weekends. The only times I truly felt the isolation was when I craved a Big Mac, longed for a Netflix binge with a cat on my lap, or missed yet another close friend’s wedding.
That same feeling of isolation from the “real world,” however, was the exact reason I came to love Antarctica so much. It was refreshing to be disconnected, and this often promoted self-reflection and development. It’s a self-inflicted, technological exile. The closest things to cell phones were 90’s era Motorola pagers. Wi-fi is reserved exclusively for science traffic much of the year, and there is always a wait for one of the limited number of internet-connected computers in a very public kiosk. After a stretch of time, anything that exists outside the square mile of ice and snow we inhabit is a distant memory referenced only on holidays when you dial a ludicrously long number to reach your loved ones back in the United States. No texts, no Instagram, no SnapChat (I still don’t even know what that is), no Hulu. It sounds like a Millennial’s nightmare, but for me, it was a creative dreamland. I was surrounded by like-minded people, musicians, crafters, painters, woodworkers, metal smiths, all creating in their respective fields and brilliant in their ability to turn nothing into something.
Without your face buried in an iPhone, quick or reliable access to the internet, or the constant drone of a television, your mind starts to clear and it’s a great time to assess your life. This is what happened to me, and I found I was missing a creative outlet.
While I had always been involved in creative activities—sewing, painting, crafting, drawing—it was on the 7th continent that I discovered a passion for photography. Returning to the Ice, as we call it, for my first winter, I found that I had a legitimate excuse to take the plunge and invest in some gear. I enlisted a couple of good photographer friends, handed them my credit card, and let them pick out everything a beginner would need. I ended up on that southward bound flight three years ago with a Nikon D7000, and 18-105 F3.5-5.6, and a sturdy tripod.
What resulted was a large collection of photographs, most no good, a few with promise, and the occasional gem enhanced by the fact that I was fortunate to have an ever-interesting, ever-changing backdrop against which to shoot. Many of the photos in my collection were taken during the winter months, with low-lit skies, or in the pure darkness against which the southern lights, the Aurora Australis, glows its eerie green.
Before we talk more about the obvious photographer’s subjects—wildlife and landscapes—I do want to mention a little about the work we do down there, because that is itself a subject for endless questions, and is also, as you see, a subject for a few interesting photos.
McMurdo station is like a small city. We are all there for the same purpose: to support science and research. But that looks a little different depending on your skill set.
McMurdo is the largest inhabited location on the continent and needs everything that a regular town would need, from janitors and chefs to doctors and plumbers. It’s a place where electricians find challenging work in their own field, liberal arts graduates drive forklifts, and PhDs wash dishes. If you’re willing to push yourself into trying something new, working long hours 6 days a week, and can learn to adapt to often grueling environmental conditions, it’s a great place to spend a few months. For a photographer, it’s a great place to spend a few years.
Even the most amateur photographer will find that Antarctica provides a rich environment, from its 24 hours of sunlight during the summer to the glow of bright full moons of winter, to the seemingly interminable sunrises and sunsets in between. The magic golden hour light shines for full days at a time. Seals bask in the warmth of the sun on the ice shelf, whales play in the frigid and rough sound, and sometimes penguins explore the rocky shoreline.
That all sounds wonderful, of course. But for me, when I think of shooting in Antarctica, what immediately comes to mind are the immense challenges it presents. The most obvious and most difficult is that you are constantly fighting against elements that are determined to win. If it’s not the bitter cold wind stinging your eyes and throat, then it’s the dangerous game of fumbling with your camera settings through insulated gloves or—and this is tricky—daring to take them off for a few desperate seconds and risking a touch to the bare metal of your tripod or camera. Bare metal will reach temperatures well below freezing and if you aren’t careful, you can get immediate contact frostbite. The only incident I had in four years was when I got overzealous shooting the wreckage of Pegasus (a military plane that crashed in the permanent ice shelf in 1971). My entire hand got dangerously cold, but my pinky finger got the brunt of it, and to this day, I don’t have feeling in the tip.
Another challenge for me was a lack of motivation. Once winter sets in full force, when you’re living in perpetual darkness, stuck in that same square mile, it starts to be more than just monotonous. Weeks, months would go by where my camera sat forlornly in the corner. I knew I should be taking advantage of this amazing opportunity, but the desire to stay warm won out over my creative guilt and the camera moved from a corner to a drawer.
But once in a while during those long months, someone would ask me to photograph something. Sometimes it was just to capture events going on around town. Sometimes it was to collaborate on a project or have photos to send home. I liked these opportunities because it pushed my comfort level and got me shooting an aspect of Antarctica that wasn’t as stereotypical as penguins and seals. One project that was suggested by a friend was to recreate the famous portrait of early Antarctic explorer Thomas Crean. Crean wintered over in 1915 and capturing his distinctly Antarctic look seemed like an interesting way to connect our winter crew with the one that came 100 years earlier. It started out as a small project, since it was my first attempt at “studio” (I use that term loosely) photography. I hung a blanket in the back room of the galley (what we call our dining facility; the word that hangs around from the days when the Navy ran McMurdo) with some makeshift soft boxes made out of cardboard and sheets. Over the course of four sessions, I captured images of over 100 winterovers, pipe and all.
Another project involved creating postcards, of a sort. Antarctica brings to mind images of pristine isolation, floating icebergs in perfectly blue water, sunsets over ice. This is what most postcards in our tiny store reflect. But the reality is that our little space of land is covered in gritty volcanic rock and older buildings that, while functional, are not visually appealing. It’s a makeshift town, often hobbled together by the ingenuity of hardworking folks who keep the town running to support science.
So, I created a photography series depicting some of the most mundane scenes. One shot, entitled “McMurdo skyline,” shows a tangle of electrical lines all conjoining over a decrepit old smoking hut in the center of town. My favorite of this series is “Entrance to 155,” showing nothing more than a doorway into an old building. While these photos don’t paint the most beautiful picture of our little slice of heaven, they do represent a more accurate portrayal. Antarctica is not glamorous. While some of us are lucky to see a penguin on occasion (many do not), the reason we are there is to help further scientific endeavors. We work hard and we care about the mission, despite what some news articles would have you believe.
The hardest part about photographing wildlife is finding wildlife. The rare occasion to see a penguin or a whale can sometimes stop tasks midstream. People will drop what they are doing, pop their heads outside, and remember for a moment why they went to Antarctica in the first place; and as much as I loved shooting penguins or seals, I loved putting the camera down and just enjoying the moment even more. If Antarctica taught me anything, it’s that you should always appreciate the journey to get the shot just as much as you appreciate the shot itself.
Bradley Geer contributed to this article.
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I found this posting through a link on dpreview.com and am so glad I did. I recently returned from a 3 week trip to Antarctica, So. Georgia and the Falklands as a tourist during the summer season. It was interesting to read about your experience working at McMurdo during the winter, and I delighted in your wonderful photography. I had seriously cold fingers on more than one occasion during our trip and can only imagine how brutal it must be to use a camera during the winter. Great job and thanks for sharing this!
Great read! I’m sure I would do well in the Antarctic climate and environs.
Nice article, but having lived here for 15 months I have to say that even in the middle of dark winter months my camera still got used on almost a daily basis. Auroras, sunlight twilight hours, star trails, snow crystals and Icicles and everyday life still exist.
Also, in your whole article you don’t mention about how quick batteries goes flat from the cold and how you must keep spares in your jacket close to your body warmth.
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