CD: Daisy, we first met eleven years ago in the high Russian Arctic. I was on assignment for Islands magazine and you were shooting stock and teaching on a Soviet era nuclear ice breaker, the Kapitan Khlebnikov. I remember we were on the first zodiac to leave the ship and explore a small island with stands of whale bones. What impressed me about you was your willingness to go solo traveling into the arctic and endure whatever the weather threw at you all in the chase for exceptional images. What drives a young woman with a successful accounting firm in Switzerland to change her life and explore lands of deep ice and cold?
Daisy Gilardini: Many times I tried to understand this irresistible attraction to the Poles, which I would define almost as an addiction or obsession. These extreme adventures transport me out of my ordinary worldliness and lead me to discover my own primitive instincts. The Polar Regions, with their harsh and unforgiving environment, have the power to bring back the wild animal that resides deep inside all of us, awaking innate capacities of adaptations and survival in extreme situations. By returning to the foundation of existence, I feel comfortable by simply following the rhythm of nature, which inspires deep respect and awareness for the importance of these delicate wilderness areas.
As a child I grew up with the idea to become a veterinarian as I always loved nature and animals. But life quite often does not go the way you plan it and I ended up becoming a Swiss certified expert in finance and accounting. After my masters I opened my accounting firm and with a good business plan and organizing skills I managed to match my love for travel, nature and photography with my day job commitments. I soon started taking off on self-assignments for several months a year and I had to hire an assistant to help me out with the accounting business.
But every time I returned to the office I was feeling depressed and unfulfilled.
I started writing articles and looking for magazines interested in publishing my work. It was like having two full time jobs. My days would start at 7AM and finish at midnight, seven days a week. Believe in your work – patience, passion, and perseverance are the keys of success and at the end I finally succeed in having my work published and in 2006 I became a full time photographer.
Giving up a secure job and a good constant income, the certitude for the incertitude, was not an easy decision, but looking back I wish I took this decision earlier as my life has now a much more profound meaning.
By sharing the beauty and the diversity of the Polar Regions, with those who are not as lucky as I am, I hope to bring awareness on the huge issues of climate change.
CD: A few years ago, you joined a Russian expedition to ski the last degrees of the North Pole (89.00 – 90.00). I remember a conversation we had where you described hauling a sled and backpack around your hometown of Lugano in order to prepare yourself for this journey. How did you prepare yourself to face the mental challenges of this walk?
Daisy Gilardinin: In 2005 I was back in the Russian Arctic on board the sister ship of the Kapitan Khlebnikov, the Dranytsin, on an expedition to visit some of the most remote and unexplored regions in the world such as Novaya Zemlya and Severnaya Zemlya. The expedition leader was Victor Boyarsky one of the living legends of modern polar exploration.
Director of the Russian State Museum of Arctic and Antarctic in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Victor is also director of the agency VICCAR which is the only organization able to set up a base camp for extreme expeditions at the North Pole called “Barneo ice camp”. The camp is not only used for minor adventure expeditions as the last degree but also serves to resupply longer expeditions and more importantly, as an international science/research camp.
Victor needed some images and video footage to document the activity at Barneo and therefore invited me to join one of his expeditions called “the last degree”, 14 days on the ice skiing towards the North Pole.
At first I was a bit reluctant as I never considered myself an athlete but he assured me that more than being physically fit one has to be psychologically prepared. He said skiing to the North Pole is not like climbing a mountain were you can see the summit. While on the ice the North Pole could be anywhere , there is no landmark, and only the GPS will be able to guide you and tell you that you’ve succeeded.
So I accepted and three months in advance I started training (5 sessions of training a week – 3 cardiovascular on bike and 2 for power and resistance, pulling a 40 kg sled in the mountain).
I totally trusted Victor’s ability and experience and I was so super exited to be part of the team that no other mental preparation was needed.
While on the ice I had to face a few challenges.
Unexpectedly the temperatures during the first few days of the expeditions were quite mild averaging -10/15 Celsius and I was totally comfortable in the tent at night. During the day due to the mild temperatures we had to cope with total whiteout conditions. This was a bit challenging as navigation was exclusively by GPS. Being in the white, skiing on the ice cap of the deep arctic ocean, with polar bears potentially around could sound a bit crazy and scary. I loved every minute of it and felt as if floating on a cloud surrounded by nothing but myself.
Mentally speaking the worst challenge and disappointment was in the morning when switching on the GPS to find out that you back drifted South more than what you skied the previous day and you have to start all over again.
This was the greatest adventure of my life; a trip that lead me to deeply understand and connect with the polar regions and gave me the opportunity, the space and the time to wander trough my inner self.
CD: Arctic tourism has grown significantly in the past few years. It is within reach of many people to book passage to the Arctic or Antarctic, take along a DSLR with a long lens and shoot acceptable images of wildlife from a Zodiac. You are known for your intimate and quiet images of polar wildlife. What is your checklist and approach for photographing wildlife that helps you create images that are exceptional?
Daisy Gilardini: This is totally true. The Arctic is becoming much more appealing to tour operators as the ice is melting and opens up routes that were inaccessible just a few years ago and the tourism in Antarctica has reached 25’000 units in the 2012/2013 season compared to the 12’000 units in 2000/2001.
It is also true that nowadays technology provides amazing DSLRs, but this is really not worrying me as I still think that it is not the camera that does a great photo but the eyes that are behind it. There is no technology available to improve your patience, sense of observation, design, and composition skills.
There are millions of great images of polar bears and penguins out there. The market is over saturated… but I simply don’t care! I love polar bears and penguins and I keep shooting them. It is the love and passion that drives me that will make better pictures. The love will shine trough them.
Deeply understanding these creatures and spending an incredible amount of time with them will give you the opportunity to come up with something new and different.
There is a lot of frustration involved in wildlife photography and a huge amount of patience is needed.
While shooting wildlife and landscapes I focus on composition and my final goal is to convey emotions by simplifying the shapes. Simplicity is the magic word and I would like to mention two of my favorite quotes:
Simplicity is nature’s first step, and the last of art. (Philip James Bailey)
There is nothing quite so complicated as simplicity. (Charles Poore).
CD: Describe how you approach wildlife photography – your ethics, beliefs, and goals. Also, you joined the International League of Conservation Photographers a couple of years ago. What is the goal that you hope to achieve by aligning yourself with ILCP and ultimately of your arctic imagery?
Daisy Gilardini: The mission of the league is to further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. Awe-inspiring photography is a powerful force for the environment, especially when paired with the collaboration of scientists and decision makers.
As environmental photographers it is our duty to capture the beauty of places at risk and spread a message through our images.
Nowadays wildlife and nature photography is an extremely competitive field where the word ethics sometimes (too often) gets lost.
Ethical is an adjective describing something related to moral principles and we all know that those vary a lot depending on culture and locations.
Personally I put my ethics in front of everything and easily give up a shoot if I think it is inappropriate.
These are a few situations which I would consider unethical: feeding wildlife, interfering in the animal life cycles, obstructing passages, not respecting distances, approaching nesting sites causing stress in the animals…
For many years I dreamed of the opportunity to shoot snowy owls in Canada. On the internet you can see amazing shots of them landing with their wings wide open. After a quick search I found out that those owls were actually attracted close to photographers by releasing live mice. I felt really sorry for the poor bait mice and decided that I can easily live without those images. It is a question of choices; respect for wildlife comes first.
CD: What advice would you give a young woman photographer starting out in the business today?
Daisy Gilardini: Whatever you do in life in order to be successful apply the 3P rule:
PASSION, PATIENCE, PERSEVERANCE