By Anita Malhotra
Photographer Camille Seaman is best known for her stunning photos of polar ice and habitats as well as for her dramatic photographs taken while storm-chasing. Her unique style is informed by her Native American heritage and its emphasis on connection with and respect for nature.
A TED Senior Fellow since 2011 and a frequent public speaker, Seaman has received several awards, including a 2006 National Geographic Award and a 2014 John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.
Three books of her work have been published, and her photos have appeared in National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek and Time Magazine, among others.
Seaman recently moved from California to Ireland, where she is working on her first novel. Anita Malhotra spoke with her by phone on Dec. 3, 2018, a few days before she left for Antarctica on her latest photographic project.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about where you grew up and your childhood?
CS: I grew up on Long Island. My family on my father’s side are indigenous to Long Island. We’ve been there for thousands of years – part of the Shinnecock tribe. And my mother is black and Italian, so she came from New York City out to the island and met my dad and they got married.
I was raised in a mixed ethnic family, but in many native families we don’t judge people by their religion or their skin. We judge them by how they treat us. If I told you about all the cultural mixes of my cousins it would spin your head.
While my parents were still married, my father’s family had the main say in how we were raised, which was very much in Shinnecock tradition. We grew up in the woods, we grew up fishing, we grew up planting fish-heads in the garden so that the vegetables would be fertilized. I didn’t realize that that was different from how other kids were being raised on the island until I was much older.
AM: How did you first get interested in photography?
CS: When I was a little kid, my family would give me the Kodak 110 Instamatic and say, “Let Camille take the picture because she doesn’t cut off people’s heads.” So even as a little kid I had some ability with the camera.
As a 15-year-old, after my parents divorced, my mother got custody of us and she decided she needed to “Christianize her heathen half-breed children.” So she forced us – she was raised Roman Catholic – to go to church and to pray. And it didn’t go well. By then my artistic ability was starting to show in ways that she didn’t understand and we clashed. I left home at the age of 15.
Meanwhile, I was going to the “Fame” high school of music and the arts in Manhattan and they recognized that I was at risk. They put me in an after-school program where they gave me a film camera and said, “Go out and photograph your experience.”
I liked making pictures but I didn’t know that a career in photography was a possibility for me. I realize now that I’m much older that there was nobody that looked like me. It was always white men you saw as photographers. I just didn’t think it was possible until I was 32 years old.
When I was 32, a series of events happened that flicked the switch on. I realized that I wanted to use the camera to show that there was something beautiful about this life and this planet. I didn’t have a plan. I was just going to photograph my experiences. And then this path emerged that started to take me to the polar regions and then chasing storms and so on.
AM: What did you do in your 20s and early 30s?
CS: Before I left home I was so unhappy and I swore that I would never be that unhappy again. I took the time to realize what made me happy, and what made me happy was being outside, making things, and traveling.
You would think I would have come to photography sooner, having those three together, but for years I was a surfer. I worked different jobs to support that surf habit.
I worked in one-hour photo labs, I worked as hiking and biking guides. I did all these different jobs that taught me skills that when I did decide to become a photographer helped me.
When I had my daughter I was going stir-crazy at home so I taught myself how to do database-driven Web design. That was at a time when you could make a lot of money doing that. So, with that I was buying photo equipment that I loved. Finally my partner said, “You’re spending a lot of money on photo equipment. Maybe you should do something with it.”
AM: How did you start your photography career?
CS: When I decided that I was going to become a photographer, I knew that there was no way I was going back to school but I knew I needed skills that I didn’t have. So I decided instead to call up any photographer whose work made me say, “How’d they do that?” One of the first persons I called was Steve McCurry, the National Geographic photographer who’s famous for the Afghan girl with the green eyes.
I was really curious how he was able to make such soulful portraits all over the world using available natural light. He said, “If you want to learn that, you have to come with me to Tibet.”
I went with him first in 2004 for several weeks and he was so hard on me, almost to the point of bringing me to tears. At one point I remember saying to someone, “Why is he so hard on me?” And she said, “Because he sees something in you.” And the next year he invited me back and we did that for four years.
Something he said – and I think it’s true – is it didn’t matter how good your subject matter was, how good your composition was. If you didn’t understand quality of light, your images would not stand the test of time. And both he and I were interested in making images that would resonate, if we’re lucky, for hundreds of years.
One year we were photographing side-by-side and very similar images. He was able to sell his images to Apple as part of the Aperture software, and I thought, “Whenever anyone thinks of Tibet they will think of Steve McCurry first.”
I needed to go somewhere that was not known and I saw a lot of ice work coming out of the Arctic. I’m not the first person to photograph there by a long shot but I felt like they were missing something. It felt so static.
And then when I went there myself and I saw the place – not just saw it but felt it – I brought my indigenous perspective and started to photograph portraits of these beings, because I saw them as the water of our ancestors, knowing that we’re made of the material of this planet. That everything is interconnected. And that these are our relatives.
When I did my first TED Talk in 2011 I got a lot of flak from people saying, “All this touchy-feely stuff – ice is not alive.” And I said, “You’re 70 per cent water. Does that mean you’re 70 percent not alive?” Now, people see it instantly. I am so proud of the Idle No More movement and the Indigenous Rising movement where indigenous voices are stepping forward at this critical time of the climate issue.
AM: Can you describe the feeling you had when you made your first trip to a polar region?
CS: My first actual polar trip was before I was a photographer. I was just going up there because I was curious and, of course, I had a camera tucked inside my parka. I had it in my mind that I was going to walk across the frozen ocean in Alaska towards Russia.
It was kind of extra-terrestrial because as I set off onto the ice I realized that this was not some kind of science fiction movie. This was my planet I was walking on. It was so powerful to understand the harshness of that environment and yet the fragility of it.
All my grandfather’s teachings were just flooding in – that we are made of this material, that we will return to this material, that none of us is separate. This idea that humans are somehow separate from nature is so flawed.
AM: What are some of the challenges photographing icebergs?
CS: Most of that is not usually in my control. Because it’s not in my control, I have to be outside – either on deck or out in the little boats as much as possible. And be ready for those moments when it does present itself, and the light is right, and everything is as I would want it to be.
A lot of people say, “I hate the cold, how do you work in the cold?” There’s a Norwegian saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
So over the years I have developed a wardrobe that works so that I can be out there for 8, 10, 12 hours in freezing temperatures and not feel like I’m going to die.So that when those moments do arise I’m in a position to make the image. It’s just being prepared and being there. If you’re inside, you’re going to miss it.
People often ask me, “How do you light the icebergs?” I say, “That’s the clouds.” I mope around the ship if it’s blue skies. That light is not interesting to me. But when it’s this low, overcast sky, oh my goodness!
I would love to talk to a scientist that specializes in how light works to figure out how this effect his happening where the icebergs seem to be glowing. Some of them even look like they’re neon.
AM: Do you bring a lot of gear with you on these trips?
CS: One of the most valuable lessons I learned in Antarctica was, “Don’t ever change your lenses outside.” In fact, don’t change them at all. Once I go on ship and I put the lenses on the camera they don’t come off till I leave.
I learned the hard way that it is so dry and there’s so much static that if you get dust on your sensor it’s really bad.
I ruined thousands of images from one trip where the dust was just so bad on my sensor and I couldn’t clean it and it made it worse. So you’ll see me carrying two bodies. Sometimes three or four that have different lenses on them.
AM: What kind of post-production work do you do on your photos after your trips?
CS: My joy is not being on the computer. My joy is making the image in the camera as close to what I saw. So I have a personal rule that if it takes me more than 60 seconds in Photoshop I will not use the image. And because I’m held to the standards of Nat Geo for photojournalism, I can really only do simple curve adjustments and some cropping. Even cropping, I rarely do. Because the whole point of my images is to show that there’s something amazing about this planet – about this life – without Photoshop.
AM: Can you tell me how the photos for your book The Big Cloud came about?
CM: In 2007, when the U.N. announced that climate change was real, my phone started ringing and everybody wanted to publish the work and show the work. I went from obscure to being named “emerging photographer of the year” and “person to watch.”
Everybody wanted to interview me and show the work, which is great. But in interviews, people would always ask, “So what are you working on now?” I was like, “I don’t work that way. I don’t have a plan.” I started to feel like, “What if I’m a one-trick pony and this is all I have?”
One day I was vacuuming the living room while my daughter was watching Storm Chasers on Nat Geo channel. I was looking at the screen and said, “Look at that light and those colors!”
I wanted them to show more, and she saw me trying to look sideways into the TV. She was eight years old at the time and said, “Mom, you should do that.” And her dad said, “Why don’t you go Google it?”
So I Googled “stormchasing” and this whole world emerged. One site in particular really stood out to me. It was uber nerdy. It had lightning flashes across the screen and thunder noises.
All of these trips were sold out so I wrote an email saying, “I’m really interested in doing this. Please let me know if anybody cancels.” Less than an hour later he emailed back and said, “I just had a spot come open.”
I wasn’t even prepared for it – it is so visceral. The smell and the feel of the wind, and the colors in the cloud. It was just amazing. After that first week, I said to the guy, “If anybody cancels, will you let me know?” And he said, “Can you drive?” I said, “Yeah, I have a commercial license for up to 15 passengers.” So then I was a professional, paid storm-chaser. And I did that for six years.
It was a wonderful way to experience nature – to watch it create and destroy. It taught me incredible empathy and compassion for the people that live in those areas. And then in 2014 I just realized I wasn’t enjoying it anymore – too many hours on the road – and was just like, “I think I’m done.”
AM: You are leaving for Antarctica in a few days. What will you be photographing?
CS: I’ve been photographing there for over a decade and I wasn’t sure that there was anything new that I could say about the place. And some part of me was a little anxious about going to back to see if it is really bad because of climate change. But each time I’ve gone back since 2016, I see incredible color that I hadn’t noticed before when I was there 10, 15 years ago, so that’s really new and interesting.
My first ever Nat Geo cover in July 2017 was this iceberg on a blood-red sea and that was just due to sunset. I’d never witnessed that kind of light or color before. It was surreal. So I’m enjoying, “What’s going to happen this time? What am I going to see that’s different?”
AM: You do a lot of public speaking. What do you generally speak about?
CS: Most recently my love is to speak especially to young people but also to older people who don’t necessarily see themselves represented in mainstream media. I say, “We need you to get out there to get out and do the things that you didn’t think were possible.”
I tell them, “I was a homeless kid at 15 in New York City and never thought that I would end up having such a magnificent, adventurous life. There is hope for us all.”
I share with them something that my grandfather told me before he died. He died when I was 13 of cancer.
He called us each in before he went, and he said to me, “You are billions of years in the making and there is no one like you. You carry all of your ancestors with you and you can access them at any time. You are made of this time, for this time, and your job is to figure out what you do like no one else can on the planet – and do that. Because that is how you will serve.”
We all live in service to each other. You are part of everything and if you sit still long enough you will feel that connection. So mostly that is what I’m sharing with people these days because I think the only way forward out of this mess that we’ve created is to remember that connection.
AM: You recently relocated from California to Ireland. Why?
CS: I had a brief jaunt around the globe and was thinking about where I wanted to live, and I needed a place that I could have access to the sea. I was paying a ridiculous amount of rent in California, and I found myself complaining a lot about the expense and the crowd and the noise and the traffic.
I’d been in California for 29 years and I thought, “You know, my daughter’s gone off to university and why not? I don’t need to stay here. I could live anywhere in the world.”
I chose Ireland because every time I came here I had a great experience. I love that it rains here – I was living 29 years in a place where it doesn’t rain regularly. And the people are friendly and sociable.
There’s this wildness still here. I was also very eager to step away from the U.S. while the current regime is in power. I’m writing a novel right now and I needed to have that distance. I felt that being in it it’s very difficult to escape the daily chatter of all the mayhem going on there. Here I can fall into the rhythm of the sun. Just watching the sun move across the sky and being very aware of it.
For more information about Camille Seaman and her work, please visit camilleseaman.com.