Jacques Cartier, Marco Polo, Jacques Cousteau – the names of famous explorers are peppered through history, the profession itself a thing that has long shaped daydreams and inspired works of great fiction. There’s a certain allure to the idea of exploring the unknown world, the nooks and crannies of our planet that have rarely – if ever – seen human life. Centuries ago, this may have involved journeys to balmy countries in pursuit of spices and treasures, or perhaps frigid voyages in search of that elusive, rumored Northwest Passage. In today’s increasingly populated world, those untouched parts of the planet are becoming harder to find, as is the concept of the ‘explorer’ in the traditional sense.
There is perhaps no better archetype of the modern-day explorer than Sebastian Copeland. Photographer, writer, environmentalist, activist – his work is, figuratively and literally, all over the map. His work has also buoyed him to celebrity status, demanding a juggling act between life in the world’s entertainment epicenter, Hollywood, and its most remote regions. An advocate for education on environmental issues, specifically global warning, Copeland was voted one of the top 50 adventurers in 2015. He continues to expand on his already extensive body of work with plans to re-release his 2007 book, Antarctica: The Global Warning.
Copeland recently took a brief pause from his glacier-scaling, tundra-braving schedule to chat with us about his work, the challenge of mass education on global warming, and readjusting to life in L.A.
You started your career as a photographer within the entertainment industry. What made you turn your attention to photography as a tool for activism?
Working for the commercial establishment was a great training ground and gave me a lot of professional validation. But there was a dimension missing and I had to move on. I am very lucky in that my work today allows me to combine my greater skills and passions. Luck and design have conspired to solve that age-old quest for purpose for me, like a rubix cube coming together! I was trained as a professional photographer and worked commercially for years before focusing exclusively on the ice. I have been an athlete my entire life, and an adrenaline seeker. So, sports have always been a necessary part of my day. The Romans coined the expression “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body), and I have subscribed to that philosophy from youth. Curiosity has been my best ally. The places I choose to travel are so exotic that to learn about them is a no-brainer. Given its direct impact on the ice, climate change is a constant in-your-face reality. I am fond to say that he who travels the land will soon become an advocate in its defense. As a career athlete and perfectionist, I seek to excel at all I do. In the end, I may not be the best in those various disciplines, but I am unique in my field for doing them all at a high level.
A few weeks ago, one of your photographs – a picture of the remains of a juvenile bear – went viral. However, it was published without consultation from you as to the bear’s cause of death, and consequently there was a great deal of misinformation shared about it. In your opinion, are social media platforms a tool or a weapon when it comes to proper education on climate issues?
Social media is a powerful tool to circulate ideas and populate them across demographics. It allows virtual real time information to reach millions. That remarkable strength is also its weakness. Unlike traditional media that is beholden to fact checking and accountability, the social media is a mixed bag of affiliations and persuasions, where opinions are often confused as facts. And, given the unlimited amount of information available, it can be challenging to separate fact from fiction. That is a perfect environment for counter-information propagandists to fester — as both sides will vehemently claim! Opinion makers can question science without liability. And many will look for any source to legitimize their conviction. Climate deniers have mastered the art of disguise, often purporting to be science-based, and cherry-picking data to validate their positions. Social media is great, but it remains that legitimate facts must be carefully sourced from institutions whose reputation is founded on credibility.
Have there been moments of danger on expeditions that made you feel, in the moment, as though you would never do it again?
I have never contemplated re-calibrating my passion because of external circumstances. I think falling through the ice in minus 35◦C weather is perhaps the most frightening, but it happens so fast that the fear is mostly lived in retrospect. Being charged by a large, aggressive predator whose intention is to kill and eat you is [an experience] that seems to happen in slow motion, and rational thinking takes command of your actions. It is imagining what could have happened that sometimes gives me shivers in the middle of the night. But getting pinned down in hurricane-strength winds for multiple days, as I was in the southern Greenland ice sheet, makes you feel really insignificant, and you have plenty of time to think about it – one mistake can make the difference between life and death.
You’ve traveled so much of the world – is there a remote place that you haven’t yet seen or photographed that you would love the opportunity to explore?
Small though the world seems by virtue of our extended footprint, jet travel, and educational media, it remains a vast playground for the curious minded and nature lover. There is plenty to discover within a small radius of anyone’s home grounds. It just depends on how carefully you look. But for the big sensations, and a plethora of choices, I could get a healthy dose of south pacific ecosystems! In reality, I am an ocean man. And terrestrially, that world is the last frontier.
Your work as an activist requires you to spend at least part of your time in the public eye. Given that you spend so much time exploring the most remote parts of the world, do you have a hard time readjusting to the bustling, commercial world of L.A. whenever you return home? How do you cope with the transition?
There is no question that L.A. provides a study in contrast to the wilderness at the edges of our planet. But its surrounding areas offer a rich diversity of terrain and conditions. L.A. is a global communication center. And you need those to communicate the big ideas.
What were the greatest lengths you ever went to in order to capture a photograph? Have you ever risked your life?
That depends on whom you ask. My mother might have a different take! But risking your life is a relative term, and in my reality, I have not deliberately put myself at serious risk to get the shot. However, antagonistic environments are de facto places where reason can be stretched, as [can] safety standards. When risk is a constant traveling companion, you may assess it differently than in a more conventional environment. I have allowed situations to develop beyond what some may rule reasonable, notably with aggressive predators, but I did not think that my life was on the line or I would have acted differently.
Was there any particularly extraordinary thing that you’ve witnessed, while on expedition, that changed the way in which you look at the world?
Harsh environments help re-calibrate our place on the nature order. Outside the convenience of urban centers, nature has a straightforward way of catching up to us. On the ice, trash sticks out like a stain on a canvas; there are no places to hide. Everything is raw and exposed, especially how vulnerable we really are. We have created asylums for ourselves in cities but individually, we are out of touch with a relationship that sustained us for millennia. Humans traditionally were close to nature and respectful of its harvest. Today we manipulate that relationship, and the burden is on us, though we have not yet figured that out. That lesson is coming, and it will be painful. The ice, more than anything, humbles you. It also narrows your needs down to a practical minimum; in the end, we can get away with very little to be happy. That lesson is the first to come from the ice.
Do you have plans in place for another book?
My publisher (teNeues) and I have plans to republish my 2007 book on Antarctica, which was a best seller in its category. It will feature additional images from my 2011-12 transcontinental crossing of [Antarctica’s] ice sheet, as well as updated texts and commentary – what we know of the conditions ten years later. The book will be part of a trilogy, including one volume on the expedition life, and [along] with my latest book on the Arctic, will be available as a box set: a complete visual collection of fifteen years of intense travel across the world’s largest bodies of ice.