Every Paul Nicklen photo poses a question. Sometimes it’s a question about the subject: Where are those bear prints going? Other times it touches on the metaphysical: Why do those meltwater channels look like human capillaries? And often, the question concerns the mental state of the photographer himself: How did he get so close to that bear’s jaws without being eaten?
Much of Mr. Nicklen’s life has been spent conducting a one-man polar inquisition. When he was four, his family moved to Iqaluit before settling in the village of Kimmirut, at the southern edge of Baffin Island. “The icy polar sea, snow, and ice were my sandbox, and the Inuit were my playmates and my teachers,” he says of those days. He would trek far from home, examining the flora and fauna from every conceivable angle, even adopting seals and gulls as pets.
In 1990, he moved south to attend the University of Victoria, but the call of the North never stopped. After spending five unsatisfying years as a wildlife biologist, he decided the only job that would truly slake his thirst for the Arctic was that of National Geographic photographer, an audacious dream for a kid from Kimmirut.
Over the last 15 years, Mr. Nicklen’s work has been featured in the magazine 15 times. He has earned more than 30 international awards, including a first-place World Press Photo honour last year, the highest recognition a photojournalist can receive.
On assignment, he generally travels with 14 to 20 cases, each weighing more than 25 kilograms. In pursuit of the perfect, intimate shot, he has stalled his ultra-light plane and run out of air beneath several feet of ice. All those moments of misery contribute to his greater cause of helping to preserve endangered areas.
“For me, if it is not intimate, it is hard to create the emotional connection I feel is needed for people to care about the challenges facing polar ecosystems,” he told The Globe. “In order to do so safely, both for me and for the animals, I have spent years understanding their ecology, their behaviour and the subtle communication cues they are always giving me.”
Over his lifetime in the North, he has seen the Arctic sea ice shrink. He says he won’t stop until “people care about the regions as much as I do.” It’s a tall order. But then, the boy from Kimmirut has made a life of exceeding lofty goals.