In his new book, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shares his personal snaps of planet Earth. Here, he talks with Globe and Mail photo editor Moe Doiron about what he has learned behind the lens in space.
At the beginning of the book, you thank your parents for giving you your first camera.
It was an Instamatic 100, with the film cartridge that plugged in the back.
Has photography always been a part of your life?
Yeah. For our wedding, a 35mm SLR was one of the gifts. They're big and heavy, especially if you're carrying three or four lenses, and it had this big leather bag I had to take everywhere. I resolved I was not going to be one of those dads who sees the whole world through the lens of a video camera, but I am gonna take still photographs. And so I took pictures of them through all through their childhood.
The family slide show …
Yeah, the slide show. [Even] for the first 10 years as an astronaut, all I did were slide shows. I'd bring a little tray of 35mms with me.
I flew twice in space and took pictures primarily on film for my first two flights. But it was really the third flight that provided so much raw material for this book, because I had the technology on board to be able to take thousands of pictures and to look at them as I went, and then also to share them with the world, and that was really the genesis of deciding to do this book.
Would you say your primary motivation was that of sharing – that feeling of "Hey, I'm up here, you gotta see this!"
Well, recognizing that I'm not there for myself – I'm there on behalf of an awful lot of people. I'm vicariously doing this for them, and so, what do you do with that. No. 1 is you do your job right: No one's gonna forgive you if you took good pictures but the spaceship came apart or you messed up all the experiments. So the core of what you're doing is the job; but just the experience itself is so rich – I mean just to float to the window. Imagine if while you and I were talking, if we went from here to Australia and it was all pouring by the window the whole time, and we weren't just counting on the sun slowly tracking across the sky to change the lighting conditions, but we're going so fast that we're changing that angle deliberately all the time.
We would see the southern Mediterranean, we'd cut across the Empty Quarter, we'd cut across the Indian Ocean, we'd see some of the Seychelles, or the islands in the Indian Ocean, or the Maldives, and then we'd end up across northern Australia, then across the outback in the time it's gonna take you and me to talk. And so you've got that happening, so what do you do with that? You can just ignore it, or you can take some pictures and look at them when you get home. But I thought, "This is too good to keep to myself."
And so, my first two flights I couldn't, but on this flight I could start to share real time. But a lot of pictures, I never even got a chance to look at. Because I'd go, "Wow, look at that" – click, click, click – take a bunch of pictures, and that night it was a busy night and I didn't get a chance to look at them. And the next day I took some, and the next day, then three days on I go, "Okay what pictures have I taken?" So a lot of the pictures that I took even I never had a chance to go through. And so when we were thinking about doing this book, it was really a nice chance to go back through the 45,000 pictures and pick out ones that some of the people had seen; but the vast majority, even though they were available, were really hard to conveniently access and to figure out what they are.
So to go back through the photos and look at them was really a pleasure.
To relive it again.
Yeah, but the idea was: You and I, if I was sitting and going from here to Australia in this time, it would be a way richer experience if you and I were sitting here: We could point it out to each other – "Look at that!" and "Wow, did you see that flash in the sun?" So the intent of the book was sort of like taking someone around the world once with me and trying to describe what I'm looking at and why. That's kind of the genesis of it, the combination of all those photos, of having made an initial effort to share them while I was in space, but now: What do you do with them? Do I just leave them in a vault somewhere forever? Do I try to make a museum exhibit that maybe a few people will go through? It just made sense. You probably know, but the proceeds go to the Red Cross. So I just didn't want to keep this to myself.
A lot of the memorable space photography we've grown up with is documentary in nature: to document the mission. With the exception of Earthrise, it tended to be about the astronauts. Was there a point where you decided you were going to turn the camera to face the other way?
I had the great fortune to have been an astronaut longer than just about anybody – 21 years – and in a bunch of different positions and roles, in increasing responsibility and flying three times in space in that time. So I think if I'd only flown in space once, on a Shuttle, then the minuscule chronologically driven events of that week are really important, they're blown up in magnification. But when you're in the business for more than a couple of decades, and you fly three times, and because I'm Canadian, I gave more presentations than any of the other countries do because there are so few of us in such a big country. So I've spoken, I don't even know, thousands of times, and tried to explain the experience.
And most people want to know: "What's it look like? What's it sound like? What's it feel like? Why are we there? What's it mean to me? How can I somehow piggyback or share or get into your experience a little bit?"
I did a lot of social media with my son Evan. I would just tweet and then he would do everything else; but at one point he sent me an e-mail: "Hey, Dad, why don't you just ask everyone what they want you to take a picture of?" And I'm like, "Hey, sure: Everybody, what do you want me to take a picture of?" So before I'd go to sleep at night I'd rip through all the Twitter commentary as much as time would allow, and the vast voice was: "I want to get a picture of my hometown." At first, that just made me laugh. I was like: Really, your home town? But then I thought it was both illuminating and kind of sweet. People are proud of where they're from and they love it.
But the other side is: People want to know how they fit in, to see themselves in the true perspective of the planet. And I was in a unique position to do that. And so I tried to honour it as much as I could.
There's a little town in the middle of nowhere, I don't even know what it is, and I would look and then maybe try and access it through our atlases on board and try and figure out what this town was, but it really hammered home to me the commonality of the human experience. That worldwide wave of response was just an undeniable reminder of the commonality of our experience and what we all hope for. And to be in a position to help deliver was really nice.
So this process was one of discovery for you, too?
Oh yeah. Well, at first you take pictures of the obvious stuff. Look, there is, whatever, that river flowing out of Madagascar; I want a picture of Niagara Falls; I want to get the Great Lakes, I want to get my hometown, I want to get the big cities of Canada, just the obvious stuff. But if you give yourself a little grace time, you start to see what is different. The lighting up there – it changes so fast. It's so transient, and yet it shows you such detail that disappears in a second. And if you just look in sun glint, or look where the shadows are going to be and wait a second, you can see a three-dimensional detail that otherwise you never would've expected. And you start to know parts of the world, like, "I know where Mecca is and I know where Jeddah is, and I want to line up an afternoon sun angle, because that'll be best for the hills where Mecca is. And I need a pass coming this direction." And so you look ahead on your track for a week and you go, "Oh no, it's not till next month." So, on that day, you set the alarm. The alarm goes off, you go racing in there, and here comes Mecca – and then it's cloudy and you don't get a picture.
[Or] the swirls off the South American coast, because the Pacific is so cold there and you get the dryness of the air, so the cloud patterns there are just bizarre; its like a swirling test tube. And it's like that a lot. I wanted to get a picture of Ayers Rock – Uluru – but I never did. I tried, and I never got a picture of Brasilia; I never got there: I tried over and over, for five months, but it was never a combination of clear, overhead and awake. Never happened. It took months for the Philippines – to get a picture.
But I describe it as almost a relationship with the world. Every time I came around, it showed me something more, like it was pulling its petticoat up. I'm not the best photographer in the world, but I was there. And I got to know the world better and better, and did my best to capture what I could see.
You describe the process being similar to that of a hunter, stalking your photos. Did you approach it from the point of view of a photographer or that of scientist, because a lot of the photos are like serious lessons in geology?
Mostly what I was looking for is the art, the beauty, the contrast, the unusual formations, the surprising stuff, or to see something ugly, bad, different: a bad volcano, or an ugly city, or a sewage deposit in the Aral Sea, or the mess in some of the Chinese cities or Mexico City. So you're looking for the transient beauties and irregularities in the unusual parts of the world.
So many of the photos come across as a piece of art and not a geology lesson. Yet they're really both.
Oh yeah, the geology. I mean Australia is just bizarre, and its almost all geology. It's so dry; it's largely uninhabitable – but it's so geologically stable, it's allowed for the mountains to be ground into powder. And they haven't been torn apart by overrunning land masses or volcanoes or anything, and so it's like nowhere else.
Your geological knowledge plays an important part in this?
Oh, they train us. We have geologists brief us, oceanographers, meteorologists and the geographers too. They teach us about all the ancient, like there's a picture in here along the Nile of that ancient irrigation pattern that's been there for thousands of years or the Eastern European fields, those are obviously, there was no plan, there was slowly through fiefdoms and following purely the contours of the land, and then you go to North America where there's streets and there's roads, they don't even have names, they just have numbers. And the patterns of civilization and of geology; and about looking for crater impacts, looking for the big alluvial fans and the inland marshes and the inland deltas and the big discontinuities, the fault lines and the big surges that come up. Actually, geology was kind of my first love, geology and archeology – but I thought I would see if I could be an astronaut first [laughs].
In one page you're photographing something that might not have changed for thousands of years; and another, modern effects of civilization. The one that comes to mind is the view of the San Diego-Tijuana border.
Isn't that amazing? That's so strikingly crystal clear, and you hear the euphemistic, "Oh, you can't see borders from space." Well, you sure can in some places. It's almost like an artistic depiction of what it actually is. All those people just trying for a better life and being hemmed in through this little tiny weir of an entrance that maybe some of them can trickle through and pursue what they're dreaming of. And you can see it in sort of the bulging discontinuity of the human presence on the border. Makes you think.
Any advice for a photographer planning a trip to space?
Do your homework in advance: Understand the geology and history and geography of the world as much as you can. Don't let your lack of knowledge force you to not understand what you're seeing. Try and understand what it is you're likely to see before you get there, so that you don't miss it and you're not just looking for shiny, sparkly things. That would be my recommendation.
And don't keep it to yourself.
The timing is fantastic: The right guy came along with the right technology at the right time. Are you going to keep shooting?
Oh yeah. I take pictures all the time, and I need to get a decent camera.
My photography has changed since being in space; I think I notice the things that intrigue and amuse and disappoint and delight me more artistically than I used to. And I think it's partially a result of the training, but mostly a result of so much time away from the planet.
This interview has been condensed and edited.