I have a distinct memory of seeing Camille Seaman’s big, beautiful, blue prints of big, beautiful, blue icebergs many years ago (2011, I believe) at Cordon Potts Gallery in San Francisco. It was impossible to not fall in love with them, admiring the pristine ice, the distant locale only meant for the adventurous, and the quality and care put behind each and every image from her series, The Last Iceberg. I’d already seen her book of the same name, published by Photolucida, after she’d won the book award a few years prior to this first encounter with her work. The book was one thing, but this….this truly inspired awe. Getting to know the work was also an introduction into Camille as a person, and what she was most concerned about. She is passionate and committed to all life on this planet, and is more than willing to show us the way. Thankfully, I’ve had the chance to meet and speak, albeit briefly, with her on a couple of occasions. Her embrace for Mother Earth is readily apparent, and she is as humble as she is talented.
Like a compass needle, Camille seems magnetically drawn to the environment. She’s a bit of an iceberg hopping, storm chasing, animal loving, tour de force - and she is without question someone we can all learn from. A friend and protector and advocate of the environment, conservation and the natural wonders of this planet are seemingly always on her mind, and in her heart. She’s an obvious choice for an interview, but a tough one to catch up to at times. I’m just glad I didn’t have to chase after her through a storm or across an ice field to do it…though now that I think about it, that too would have inspired awe…and who isn’t up for a little of that?
Camille Seaman was born in 1969 to a Native American (Shinnecock tribe) father and African American mother. She graduated in 1992 from the State University of New York at Purchase, where she studied photography with Jan Groover and has since taken master workshops with Steve McCurry, Sebastiao Salgado, and Paul Fusco. Her photographs have been published in National Geographic Magazine, Italian Geo, German GEO, TIME, The New York Times Sunday magazine, Newsweek, Outside, Zeit Wissen, Men's Journal, Seed, Camera Arts, Issues, PDN, and American Photo among many others. She frequently leads photographic and self-publishing workshops. Her photographs have received many awards including: a National Geographic Award, 2006; and the Critical Mass Top Monograph Award, 2007. In 2008 she was honored with a one-person exhibition, “The Last Iceberg” at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC. Camille Seaman takes photographs all over the world using digital and film cameras in multiple formats. She works in a documentary/fine art tradition and since 2003 has concentrated on the fragile environment of the Polar Regions.
Michael Kirchoff: To start off, how about a little background about how you entered the photographic world?
Camille Seaman: I was pretty late to it and it wasn't until I was 32 that I decided to become a photographer and it wasn't until I was 36 that I could actually call myself a professional photographer. I think the motivation for me to become a photographer came right around the time of 9/11, and seeing our response to that event made me really concerned with where we were going as a species. I wanted to basically make images that showed that there was something beautiful about this life and this planet that weren't cynical.
MK: In addition to making images sold as fine art, you do a fair amount of photographing for some high profile editorial publications. Do you feel that you need to change your shooting style or way of creating when working for clients, as opposed to yourself?
CS: That's a good question. You know, when I first started showing my work at juried portfolio reviews, I thought that I was a photojournalist, and I would show my work to magazines and they would say, "this is too pretty, you should show it to galleries". Then I'd show it to galleries and they'd say, "this is too informational, too editorial". I remember walking away thinking, well, this is just how I see and I'm not going to change the way that I photograph just to fit in to some market. And what was interesting was not long after I settled that in myself, did both of those venues start to reach out to me. Galleries reached out to me and they said, "our audience, maybe it's time they had more informational work", and the magazines said, "we have more sophisticated readership, they want just more beautiful images". So, I think being true to myself, and knowing that from the beginning, partly because I did start as an older person where I was set in who I am. So that helped to serve me in a positive way.
MK: Was there a specific point in time where you felt that you had found your voice in photography and became satisfied with the direction of your work? Do you ever truly find yourself in a good place with your images, or are you always searching for more?
CS: I spent a lot of time, when I did decide to become a professional photographer, a huge part of my personal exercise was looking at as much photography as I could. Not just my own images but every photographers work that I could get my hands on, my eyes on, and I would ask, do I like it and if so, why? And if I don't like it, why not? Then I looked very critically at my own work and started to lay out, literally, 4"x6" images on a huge table and say, which ones feel like me and which ones don't. Then I sort of evolved that voice, and I don't know if people, when they look at my work can say, oh, that looks like a "Camille". But, yeah, that's how I did that.
I don't want to make the same images over and over. I am constantly trying to see things and photograph them in ways that, not for any viewer, but for myself. I don't think it's as elusive as trying to make "the perfect photograph" because I don't think that exists, but I am constantly just pushing myself to try and keep seeing with new eyes, with the eyes of a child, or maybe not so naively stated, but with informed eyes that keep seeking.
MK: What mental preparations do you make to execute a particular shoot or project that you are excited about? Do you ever look back and find that nothing you had planned is what was done, yet you feel completely satisfied with the outcome?
CS: Well, it's interesting you say that because I go in literally quite blind. I try to do as little research as possible. I don't say, "oh, I'm going to Antarctica, I have to prepare to photograph icebergs". I go, and it's always about the light for me. It's very rarely about the objects unless the light is there. With that stated, what's amazing about that is how wonderful it is when you have no expectations, how incredibly surprised you can be. I love that. No one could have told me that going back to Antarctica after all this time, that I would see things and colors and light that I had never seen in all the years that I had been going. It was all new, and that was fantastic.
MK: You have proven that the photograph is a powerful and useful tool when it comes to informing people to understand and protect our environment. In an age where some governments and news organizations are challenging this, do you think this has made it more difficult, compared to when you started?
CS: No, I'd say it's the same. I do think that because of Photoshop and people's manipulation of images, I still hear, "oh, that's not real", or "did you do something to it"? I think in fact, for me, more people seem willing to publish the work, and that's good, from when I started. It's nice that they call me. I haven't ever had to call them.
MK: You have put yourself in some difficult to dangerous situations in the pursuit of making outstanding images. Is it true that “risk has its rewards”? Do you have a story about any close calls you wish to share?
CS: Well, life is dangerous and you can literally die in your house doing nothing. I think that way too many people have a fear of living more than they actually fear dying. I don't think of it as taking risks. I just think of it as actually living. That said, of course there are close calls. I find that when those close calls happen, they're happening because for some reason I wasn't allowing myself to be fully present in the moment. If I had allowed myself to be completely conscious and aware I would have felt and seen the signs that things were going awry. That's everything from taking too many steps out onto a ledge of ice and then noticing the crack, or when I'm chasing a storm, not necessarily noticing that the wind has shifted and suddenly this thing is collapsing instead of rising. I don't think any image is worth dying for. I just think that if you can be present, like truly in your body, in the moment, then you can have a feeling for these things before they go too far.
MK: From a technical standpoint, do you often need to take special consideration when photographing in challenging or hostile environments?
CS: Technically speaking, I think of the camera as a tool. Like carpenters have different types of hammers, and of course different hammers for different jobs. That said, for example, when I'm photographing in Antarctica, I don't know if it's going to be pouring rain, or blowing volcanic sand at high speed, so I do try to choose more robust tools for different environments, and that's about as far as it goes. I think I used to be more of a gear head than I am now. I think I've settled into what I like and how things work, and what gets the job done, and I feel okay about that. I think that chasing equipment can be one of those never ending pursuits, and I don't want that to be what my art making is about.
MK: What has the process of making books of your photography been like for you? Do you photograph with the thought of making a book, or does it all come together when you feel like you’ve accomplished everything you wish to say?
CS: In my case, because I do such long term projects, some over 10 years, the storm chasing was about eight years. I don't even sometimes know when it's at an end or what it should be. I've been lucky that I was approached by a publisher and I haven't had to say, this is what I want. They came to me and then I'd say, well, I agree to this, if you can do it with these guidelines, and I have been surprised they have included so many images. I never think about what a group of images or a project that I want to do will become. I have no idea. I just do it because I'm curious and then I see what comes of it. That might be kind of bad business planning on my end, but I'm not so premeditated.
MK: Can you tell us a little about being a TED Senior Fellow and what that means to you?
CS: TED and the Fellowship has been literally life changing. It's not just that they take you to a TED conference and introduce you to lots of big wig people, it's that they also mentor you and give you skills so that you can, one, feel more comfortable around these people and, two, embrace the fact that you are one of these people that will change the world, that can change the world. I think it's an incredible program and I feel privileged and thankful that they allowed me in it.
MK: Your photographs have been the source of inspiration for so many, but what is it that inspires Camille Seaman?
CS: I have a very strong art history background, and so I like painting, I like looking at paintings. I grew up in New York City having to, because I went to the high school of music and the arts, having to go to the museums and private collections all over the city, and have exclusive access to some of these things, being able to spend time with these paintings. This artwork always gave me such a sense of envy because I didn't have those skills. I was also always too impatient to be a good painter, but I feel like what they do with paint I can do with my camera So I look, yes, I look at a lot of painting, and I also look at a lot of film. I love watching film and I think I'm moving more that way, towards filmmaking. I think I always will have a place for still imagery in my heart, and do that, but I'm starting to fall in love with moving images.
MK: Do you study what others are doing, and do you find their influence in your own image making?
CS: I don't know. I don't think so. I think probably everything influences everything. So there's probably something going in to it, but I wouldn't say that I study what others are doing. That's like spending all your time looking around at your classmates' work instead of really exploring your own mind and your own world. Not that there isn't a validity looking at what your classmates are doing, but I think that our own worlds are much richer when we are connected to that.
MK: Anyone working in an artistic field has matured and grown over time. Is there anything you’ve discovered lately that you’d like people to know about you or your creative process?
CS: My creative process. Well, it's interesting, I find that I use my cell phone a lot more, just to sort of do what I call visual pushups. I don't carry around my camera when I'm not "working". It's interesting that that has become a defining thing in my personal relationships with my family and friends. Over time I've discovered that I should not go into work mode when I'm with people that deserve my full attention. It's not fair to them, because I do sort of go into a mode. So that's part of my creative process.
MK: Do you collaborate with like minded individuals on projects, or do you find it more productive to handle everything yourself? Are there any collaborations in the past that have been particularly beneficial?
CS: I think it's more the case where people see the end result of my images and they say, "can we use them this way", or some video that I've done, they said, "well, we'd like to put music to it" or something, but I don't think I actively seek collaboration. I think that photography is very solitary, and I like that. I've never had an assistant.
MK: Who or what has enabled you to grow as an artist more than anything else during your prolific career?
CS: I don't even know how to answer that. I'm sorry. I think not having a Plan B has enabled me to grow. A lot of people can fall back to they'll become a teacher, or they'll do this and maybe maintain their art as a side. I've never had that opportunity, so I have to make it work.
MK: You’ve recently made a move from the United States to Ireland as your home base. Is this a creative change? What’s next for your photography? Any new projects you have in the works?
CS: I left the U.S. for many reasons, one of which was my daughter has left the nest, going off to university. I've never lived outside of the country, and now seemed (wink, wink) like a very good time to "get out of Dodge". I felt like this is my James Baldwin moment where I get to look back. I'm here at the edge of the the mouth of the Shannon River, at the edge of the Atlantic, looking back at the United States, and will have the opportunity to point and say, "is this what you do to a pristine, perfect continent and call it progress, and can you say that our nation is beautiful or "great".
So what's next for my photography? I'm actually still working in Greenland and Antarctica, and other parts of the world I am photographing. My new projects are actually writing a fiction novel. That's part of what I'm doing here. That novel will be turned into my first directed movie. So keep your eyes open for that. Probably in the next one to two years.
MK: I’d like to extend my thanks to you, Camille, for taking the time to make this interview happen. You prove time and time again that you stand on the side of informing and educating people with your work, and that can never be understated. Both the photographic community and our environment owe a debt of thanks to you as well. I appreciate all of your efforts with this interview, and beyond.
You can find more of Camille’s work at her website here.