Water art: photographer chases storms, ice to document changing planet’s beauty

Camille Seaman

Camille Seaman

By Kate Habrel

Environmental photographer Camille Seaman saw the sky rotating when she worked as a storm chaser.

“It was so visceral,” she said. “I looked up and for a second, I was no longer on the planet. Suddenly it was like I was in a nebula watching a star being formed. And as soon as I felt that, I was back.”

This deep connection to nature has been present Seaman’s entire life. Her heritage as a Shinnecock Indian informs and inspires her photography in a powerful way.

Seaman recently visited Michigan State University, where her exhibition “All My Relations: An Indigenous Perspective on Landscape” is displayed at the MSU Museum until September. It features photographs from two of her extended projects, “Melting Away” and “The Big Cloud.”

Seaman spoke at journalism  classes and held a photography talk at her exhibit. She also held another public presentation about documenting the Standing Rock protests in South Dakota concerning a proposed pipeline that would cross through sacred tribal lands for the Standing Rock Sioux.

As a child, Seaman was enamored by the Kodak instamatic she owned. In high school she never left home without her camera. But she never considered photography as a career.

That changed on September 11, 2001.

“As a teenager growing up in New York City, a lot of the pictures of me and my friends had the World Trade Center sticking up somewhere,” Seaman said. “And when it fell, I remember thinking that my daughter would never know those buildings in the way that I had except for in a photograph or film.”

The realization triggered in Seaman a desire to use photography to show not just tragedy, but the beauty of life on Earth.

She cites Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky as an inspiration for the work he did documenting man’s long-term impact on landscapes. She also studied under Steve McCurry, a National Geographic photographer most famous for his photo “Afghan Girl.”

“I consider Steve my photographic father,” Seaman said. “I went to Tibet with him. He literally took the time to show me what good light was and how to become sensitive to that.”

That knowledge served Seaman well in the polar regions for her 10-year project “Melting Away.” It documents the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice and the loss of habitat for the animals that live there.

Grand pinnacle in east Greenland. Image: Camille Seaman

Grand pinnacle in east Greenland. Image: Camille Seaman

The icebergs she photographs are not dead chunks of frozen water. They feature bright colors and fascinating shapes, making each a unique art piece.

Seaman wanted to show the changes happening in the polar regions because of global warming – and show what’s left there to save.

“I started to recognize that the photographs I had made were no longer ‘look what our planet is,’” she said. “It was becoming ‘look what our planet was.’ ‘Melting Away’ arose as a way to show more of what we were losing before it was too late.”

Her “The Big Cloud” exhibition also explores the power of nature. It follows her journey as a storm chaser on the Great Plains.

The project began when Seaman’s then 8-year-old daughter was watching National Geographic’s Storm Chasers. Seaman found herself wishing the camera operator would use different angles in their filming. Her daughter noticed and said Seaman should try it for herself.

On that suggestion, Seaman searched Google for storm chasing and discovered a new world. Three days later, she went on her first trip. When it ended she was hired to drive storm chasing teams to their targets, and chased storms for six years after.

Despite car rides of up to 10 hours, bad food, late nights and poor sleep, she said it was all worth the effort.

“Honestly, it was the closest I’ve ever felt to like I was watching God play,” Seaman said. “These are the same forces that create galaxies, and our solar systems, and our planets, and they’re just in a smaller form above your head. It’s pretty wild.”

Seaman’s projects are always long-term. It isn’t enough to spend two weeks in a location, she said. That isn’t enough time to really understand an area or issue.

To her, learning is just as important as photography. She never goes into a place with a premeditated plan, instead preferring to take pictures of what makes her curious, she said.

One of Seaman’s favorite photos was taken in East Greenland in 2007 — when, as she put it, she “nearly got frostbite” while handling a metal film camera. The temperature was so low she dropped her film just as the ship was passing by an iceberg she wanted to photograph.

“I look up at the bridge, and I can see the captain, and the captains never stop,” Seaman said. “But the captain did something no captain before or since has ever done. He turned the ship and circled the iceberg just for me. And it gave me that time I needed to reload the camera, so two frames ended up being the most amazing pictures I ever took.”

Seaman’s environmental photography rarely happens with a strict plan in mind. Through it, she expresses the effects of climate change and the need for a sustainable future. She is also a TED Fellow and has given talks about her projects and inspirations.

But she doesn’t want young photographers to aspire to imitate her art exactly, she said.

“A lot of people think that they need to replicate the work  of a Nat Geo photographer in order to become a Nat Geo photographer,” Seaman said. “That’s not what any publication wants. Figure out who you are visually and speak from that voice.”

The exhibition will be on display at the MSU Museum until September 2017 as part of MSU’s Year of Water. You can find out more about Seaman at her website.

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