I have been in the Canadian Arctic for three full days, but I haven't yet created a photograph I'm proud of. So far, I have taken a boat trip that put me within 10 metres of a pair of swimming polar bears, and have gone AquaGliding (like snorkelling, with your head in the water, but you lie on a floating mat) with hundreds of beluga whales, getting so close I could look right into their eyes.
They were two of the most moving travel experiences I've had, moments that brought tears to my eyes and made me think hard about the consequences of the warming of our planet. And yet my photographs of them are … unremarkable. Not blurry or crooked or under exposed, but just kind of flat, and not conveying any of the intense emotion I felt.
So this morning's photography tutorial couldn't have come at a better time. It takes place in a boat shed on the shores of Hudson Bay in Churchill, a remote town of just 800 residents that's nicknamed the "polar bear capital of the world", and is being led by a photographer named Jason Ransom. These days, Ransom spends half his year as a naturalist guide for Lazy Bear Lodge where I'm staying, but before that were 20 years covering international news events, including a decade as the official photographer to the Prime Minister of Canada and as a photographer for Canada's Olympic team.
As an electrical storm rages outside, we sit in the cosy shed listening intently to Ransom's lessons about how to "avoid snapshots and mindless documentation", and make our photographs more arresting and poignant. We're learning about using foreground and background to give a photo context to help tell a story more effectively, and how to play with silhouettes, reflections and shadows to make a photo more thought-provoking.
The most intriguing lesson comes when Ransom discusses the rule of thirds – dividing your image using two horizontal and two vertical lines, then positioning important elements along those lines to make the image more pleasing for the viewer – and how we can turn this rule on its head to create uncomfortable images.
On a projector, Ransom shows us a photograph he took of a polar bear trying to pull itself out of the ocean onto the ice. The shot makes me feel uneasy, and Ransom explains that's because there's no negative space in front of the bear. "Why did I crop it this way? To teach the viewer a lesson about the effects of climate change," says Ransom. "If I had put the bear in a comfortable frame, you would have thought, 'pretty polar bear'. This way you think 'poor polar bear', because he's jammed up against the edge of the frame, which tells you he doesn't have a lot of ice left." Whenever you put your subject in the "uncomfortable rule of thirds", says Ransom, you're telling the viewer it's a situation they should be anxious about.
Another big takeaway comes when Ransom discusses the "decisive moment", a phrase coined by photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to express the ability of photography to freeze a potent yet fleeting moment. I think about my failed attempts to capture the face of a beluga, seeing their eyes was what touched me so deeply, and by photographing them I hope to share that emotion with others. So far, though, I've succeeded only in snapping their white backs.
When I tell Ransom about this he suggests I "spray and pray", putting my camera in burst mode, taking as many photos as possible and praying that one of them works. I think of Cartier-Bresson, who's said to have taken only about four photographs an hour, and am a little saddened by the idea of slow, painstaking image-making becoming a relic.
But I'm also elated the next day when, while out on a Zodiac with the beluga whales and trying the "spray and pray" method, I capture a baby beluga's face looking right at my camera. Finally, an image I can feel proud of.
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Travel Marvel.
Air Canada flies to Winnipeg via Vancouver from all major Australian airports. It's then a nearly two-hour flight to Churchill, using local carrier Calm Air. See aircanada.com.
Travel Marvel's seven-day Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure, runs between July 11 and August 24, 2020, and is priced from $7395 a person, twin share. See travelmarvel.com.au