Polar Bear Selfie in Svalbard

Alex Kostich

27 Jul 2016

My Unique Photography Style in the Arctic

I signed up for Natural World Safari’s Arctic Adventure Photography Safari only two weeks in advance of embarkation; I had an unforeseen opening in my work schedule and seized the opportunity to jump aboard the M/S Freya for a polar expedition of guaranteed epic proportions. 

I couldn’t wait to become the explorer—and photographer—I had dreamed of being as a young boy.

But let’s back up a moment, shall we? I am hardly a ‘photographer’ by any stretch of the imagination.  I would say I’m not even a serious hobbyist.  I own a Sony camera obtained through an old employee discount, and I have never ventured beyond the “Automatic” setting in taking my occasional vacation snapshots.  

So in addition to the promise of spectacular animal sightings, I was compelled to join this expedition due to the two acclaimed cinematographers and photographers accompanying us, Russell MacLaughlin and Shannon Benson. Accomplished artists and animal conservationists in their own right, Shannon and Russ were going to help me build my (lack of) skills while I would show everyone back home in sunny Los Angeles that I had seen a living, breathing polar bear in the Arctic Circle.

The other guests on board the M/S Freya were a varied bunch, but one thing they had in common was a passion and deep knowledge of wildlife photography.  They had lenses. They had monopods. They had laptops and portable hard drives…and Lightroom!

Me? I had a Facebook account I was hoping to feed, and a looming insecurity that I was out of my element.  Select conversations I overheard in the mess hall centered around aperture settings, white balance, the challenges of manually focusing on a flying bird (impossible!) and things too technical for this newbie to even grasp.

Yikes.  How would I fool everyone on board into thinking I belonged on this expedition?! Fear and panic set in, but before I even had a chance to craft my excuse of an alter ego (“…I was an accomplished photographer, but a zebra trampled me on safari in Africa and I got amnesia, I don’t remember anything about my camera or how to use it!”) we encountered our first magnificent polar bear.

The bear lingered around the ship on the ice pack for close to 10 minutes, curiously standing on his hind legs, peering at us from every angle, and basically giving even a clueless novice like me plenty of opportunity for National Geographic-worthy photographs.

At one point, the bear approached the bow of the Freya, where I had positioned myself overlooking the action below.  He stood on a mound of ice and looked directly up at me-and at that moment I decided to do the unthinkable.

I held up my iPhone, reversed the view… 

…and took a Selfie.

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision…a 21st-century display of unabashed vanity…Instagram influence at it’s worst…but it also may have been the first—and only—Polar Bear Selfie anyone has ever taken (and it is certainly the only one I have ever seen).

Suddenly, my confidence soared.  

I had a photo that no one else on board had thought to take.  I was actually in the frame, with the polar bear, both of us smiling directly into the camera as if we were both in on this unprecedented and revolutionary idea. 
And with that shot, a masterful theme was born.

My fellow Freya passengers may have had brilliant photographs of this gorgeous animal, but I had a social-media-ready image, the only proof over anyone else that I was physically in the Arctic, sharing the frame with this spectacular endangered wild bear.

I decided to embrace my ‘newbie-ness’, to stick with what I knew best, and to pursue my post-modern exploration of Arctic wildlife as captured through the Selfie. Visions of a Tate Modern exhibition danced in my head, with art world luminaries showering me with praise between sips of Dom Perignon and shrimp toast bites. I would create a uniquely documented record of this Arctic adventure, where every miraculous sighting would be captured with me peeking into the lower corner of every shot, smiling knowingly with my arm outstretched, owning my talent unapologetically with my chin held high (which, as everyone knows, is the most flattering angle for snapping the perfect Selfie anyway).

So herewith, please share in my wonder, excitement, and awe as I take you to the Arctic reaches of the earth—one Selfie at a time.

“King of the World” Titanic-style selfie at the bow (and elsewhere) on the beautiful M/S Freya.

Selfie on the Pack Ice (880km South of the North Pole)! 

Walrus Selfie at Torrellneset

Glacier & Austfonna Ice Cap Selfie standing on a Zodiac (not as easy as it looks!)

And finally, our final zodiac ride to shore in Longyearbyen—which allowed for an Oscars-comparable Selfie opportunity with (nearly) all guests and guides at once

In the end, countless Selfies aside, I had the trip of a lifetime.  I learned about the wildlife, I learned about photography, I made new friends, and I created memories that will inform my appreciation of the natural world around me for years to come.

That said, I am still waiting for the Tate Modern to call…

Try for your own polar bear selfie...

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