Whether scientists, adventurers, pilots, cooks or electricians, on their journey to the Polar Circles, they fearlessly surrender to the power, endlessness and beauty of nature. While on his own expeditions, French photographer Jean-Gabriel Leynaud got to know the Polar People and captured them in his fascinating series.
Who are the Polar People and what was your intention in accompanying them?
The Polar People are all those strange people who wander around the two geographic poles. Places definitively not made for human beings, and yet so fascinating and attractive. Whether they are pilots, adventurers, logisticians or scientists, the fragility and incongruity of the presence of those mortals outside their secure, comfortable, and connected world touches me deeply. Those men and women have given up themselves to a nature where its power and its beauty can be overwhelming
What did you want to show with your pictures?
I wanted those pictures to show both the beauty and the incongruity of the human presence so far up North or down South. No civilizations and only very few animals have been in those places before the scientists and adventurers of the 20th century. Whether you try to sail a boat in the pack ice, to work in the relative comfort of a scientific base or are alone pulling a sledge, you have been driven by a passion that has opened up a world bigger than you, and you have to embrace it.
What challenges of your own have you faced in your travels?
I’ve taken those pictures over more than 5 expeditions; but I’ve been lucky to have undertaken over 10 polar expeditions, and have spent a total of a year of my life at the Poles. I mainly had to take care of myself. Travelling toward the Poles is always an adventure. Waiting several weeks for a boat or a plane to get in or out of the ice is just normal. When you start on such a journey, you come to learn that time is simply running differently. On several occasions I even had to give up on the whole trip after two weeks waiting at the edge of the world. Once you reach the Poles then there is the cold of course, but, if you wear the right clothes and are patient enough, you just get used to it. You must become a Polar animal.
How did the camera perform in that extraordinary cold?
Once you get the camera out, it has to work…relatively easy when you are in a scientific base with power and warm rooms nearby, sometimes a challenge if you are out on the ice. For my M9 I had to build an external power solution; for the M240 and M10R, I just keep the batteries close to my body day and night, so they stay warm. The most complicated for me was to take pictures while doing trips on skis. I reached the North Pole twice from the North of Siberia – when on such an expedition, you have to keep moving, and taking pictures doesn’t exactly make you move fast.
What significance does snow have for you – also as a photographic element and stylistic device?
I specially love those moments when humans disappear into the white, and when they do things essential to their life, but which are meaningless in regard to the immensity surrounding them. I’ve tried to capture those moments in black and white and in colour and white. White is always there, but it’s never exactly white. There’s always something else in it. The ice is just a mirror reflecting the sky, the clouds, but probably also your inner thoughts. I have tried to stay away from the yellow sun and blue skies, because I find that they visually don’t describe the Poles properly. A blue-sky day in a picture looks warmer, but it’s actually colder when the sky is clear. The post card effect can hide the reality and stop you from seeing what’s really there.
In times of global warming, what changes can be perceived at the Polar Circles?
The Poles are melting, and you can see it happening in front of you when you stand out there. It’s no longer only a global warming we’re facing, it’s a global melting. When we were trying to cross the Polar Sea in 2006, we even had rain closed to the Pole. My very short experience of those places – it’s 23 years since my first trip to the South Pole – is long enough to feel a difference. That is absolutely scary.
What did you learn there about life? How does your own view of things change?
The Poles have taught me a lot. It’s somehow comforting to have been alone with my partner on the ice for 99 days. We knew that whatever might happen we had to figure it out, and somehow we did. All the people I met around the two Poles had accepted their human limits and weakness. I found that wonderful at times where everything must be controlled, checked, safe and precise.
What was your most impressive experience at the Poles?
My most impressive experiences at the Poles were surely the long ski crossings I did. But every day out there is special and being at a Polar base is also very powerful. So far and isolated, the humans there become closer to each other. You develop strong and deep relationships, and somehow you happen to meet the same scientist, pilot, cook or doctor from one Pole to the other, from one year to the next. Those places create a kind of addiction, I guess.
French photographer and film-maker Jean-Gabriel Leynaud has been filming for cinema, Netflix, National Geographic, Discovery Channel and others, while his photographs have been published by National Geographic, Paris Match, Elle, Billed Bladet, and in several books. His strong relation to the Polar regions was born from filming and photographing them, but has also pushed him to realize several ski expeditions. Find out more about his work on his website.