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Best of ASMP 2008

Documentary nature photographer Daniel J. Cox volunteers his time and expertise to accompany a cutting-edge team researching the effects of climate change on Arctic polar bears. Often underwriting his own expenses with help from Polar Bears International, Cox has traveled with leading scientists to remote northern locations, to photograph, assist in data collection and take part in the first ever polar bear census. His willingness to give back has provided him with rare access to convey a powerful message about our threatened environment.

Daniel J Cox — Bozeman, MT

Web site:
Project: Volunteer work in the Arctic for Polar Bears International to document their Polar Population Project.

© Daniel J Cox
All images in this article © Daniel J Cox

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

DJC: Since 1981.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

DJC: I’m not sure, but I think it’s been since 1981

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

DJC: Documentary photography of the natural world and those who seek to understand it.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

DJC: Working with scientists in remote locations requires the ability to document their projects without interfering with their work. I’m not comfortable changing any part of the visual story. The photographs you see with all their specific elements are exactly as I saw them as Dr. Amstrup collected his data. This is extremely important since the credibility of the climate-change story is paramount to our goal of changing human behaviors and thinking.

Following these scientists requires you to be light and nimble. Helicopter time in the arctic is extremely expensive and taking an extra human body aboard not only takes valuable space but also requires extra cost in fuel. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible by taking two D300 camera bodies. One fitted with a 12-24 and the other with an 18-200mm lens. I also keep an SB 800 in my coat pocket and it’s used wirelessly with the D300’s.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

DJC: Nikon D300, 12-24mm lens and SB800 strobe. I can’t narrow it down to just one piece of equipment. These three pieces together are imperative for producing quick, professional results. Although they all stand out individually, together they are a powerful tool for getting the job done in an efficient and unassuming manner.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

DJC: Patience, the willingness to give back and a desire to be a part of the team. So many photographers think they understand the TEAM analogy, but all too often they put themselves in the position of the star quarterback. It’s absolutely amazing how many doors open and projects emerge when you understand it’s not just all about YOU!

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: How did you become associated with Polar Bears International (PBI)?

DJC: I’ve been taking pictures of polar bears for nearly 20 years. I met the president of PBI, Robert Buchanan, 15 years ago during a shoot in Churchill, Manitoba. Robert used to love photography before he took on the project of saving the planet by way of the polar bear. I was invited to serve as an advisory board member about six years ago. Actual board members can’t earn any income from polar bears but an advisory position allows me to continue making my living as a photographer and volunteer for a worthy cause. As an advisory board member, I have no voting rights on the board, but I’m frequently called upon to help make decisions based on communicating our message.

ASMP: You mention that your work with PBI is a volunteer effort. What, if any, financial arrangement do you have with them? (eg: Do they cover costs such as travel, lodging, food, photo supplies, etc?)

DJC: Up until very recently all my costs were my obligation but, as the group has grown, I’ve been reimbursed for some travel. They are a very small group and their ability to pay for my type of work is nonexistent at this time. However, PBI is run by one of the savviest marketing people alive today and all volunteers are treated like family. Robert Buchanan used to manage marketing for Seagrams International, one of the largest, most financially successful companies in the world. He has a knack for understanding how to make people feel as though they are important and have something to offer. PBI provides many win-win opportunities, which allows us to volunteer more time than we would normally be able to do.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: What kind of special equipment or preparation is most critical for shooting in arctic weather conditions?

DJC: The most important equipment a photographer can have in the arctic is high-quality, warm clothing. If you are freezing, it’s hard to take great photos. Layering is a must and should include down garments as well as warm boots. I’ve posted an article on my blog detailing the specific items I recommend. It’s a blog article about dressing properly for the cold in Yellowstone where the temperatures can be quite similar to those in the arctic. It has lots of specific details and links to places to get quality cold weather gear.

ASMP: What are the physical challenges you face in working in arctic conditions? What advice would you offer others interested to travel to and photograph in artic climates?

DJC: The biggest challenge is the cold, which I covered already. However, another physical issue is trying to stay in shape. Often in the arctic you are stationed in very small communities. Most often the food is not very healthy and exercise facilities are typically hard to come by. I’ve found that most arctic community schools are very welcoming to visitors and most have some sort of exercise rooms and equipment. Two weeks of sitting in a helicopter flying transects over the Beaufort Sea can lead to sedentary health issues, so I’m always on the lookout for a way to burn some of my own personal fuel.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: Did any situations arise where there was a concern for personal safety while photographing the bears or being out in the field?

DJC: Thankfully I’ve never had a negative bear encounter and, though that sounds boring and not exactly what people want to hear, it’s the best thing for the bears. I do everything possible to make sure I don’t have exciting bear stories. If I do then it means I’m either too close or have done something wrong that has put my life, and in turn the bear’s life, in jeopardy. Anytime a person is hurt or injured by a bear, the bear is typically destroyed. With that being the case, I feel it’s imperative that I do everything possible to limit my exposure to dangerous situations — for my sake as well as the bears’. A larger concern for me is helicopters. They scare the heck out of me. One of the biologists I’ve worked with has been in four separate chopper wrecks. One of Canada’s leading polar bear scientists was killed in a chopper wreck several years ago. Flying in the arctic is much more dangerous than the inhabitants on the ground. I hate flying in the arctic.

ASMP: Describe any collaboration you had with the science teams in the production of these photos.

DJC: As I mentioned earlier, tagging along with these scientists is expensive. Part of the requirement for me to be there was an agreement I offered to be a part of that stipulated I help with the data collection. Thankfully Dr. Amstrup has procedures that are fairly easy to follow. My duties included recording measurements, assembling the tripod scale, handling vials of blood, swabbing the insides of female polar bear paws with q-tips, handing over tools to the biologists and running back to the chopper when needed. In short, I’m a go-for and, though it’s not seriously romantic, it does allow me to be on site to shoot when I can. This is another reason you have to be nimble. One D300 and a wireless strobe recorded almost all of the images I shot for this assignment.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: Were there other photographers/media present when you were in the field? If so please describe your interactions with them.

DJC: Dr. Amstrup’s work is fairly high profile since his nearly 30 years of science has been the driving force behind the recent Threatened listing of the polar bear. That notoriety makes him the front line target for media requests. Last year CNN came up to shoot a piece for their Planet In Peril series. This year Jeff Corwin showed up for a show he was doing on the arctic. When news crews hit the scene I fade to the back. TV crews are notorious for lots of turmoil and because of this I much prefer to just shelve my cameras and wait for them to leave. They’re always on such tight schedules that they end up running the show and you can’t get anything realistic and natural. When shooting this type of documentary photography, I have a rule to not ask the scientists to stage anything! That doesn’t fly with TV crews. That’s not to say they are making things up. They aren’t, but they have a constant need to reposition, retake, etc., etc. It drives the scientists crazy and cuts into their time for serious work. When I’m shooting, I try to be a fly on the wall, so to speak. It’s more real, more fun, the scientists get more done and better images evolve.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: You mention that there are 19 different populations of bears. Are these different breeds? Is there any interaction between populations? Please elaborate further about this.

DJC: Nineteen different populations refer more to specific regional groups than anything else. They’re all basically the same but may live in different locations. An example is the Western Hudson Bay population. This is the most southerly group of polar bears in the world and most likely they will be the first to feel the effects of climate change and in actuality they already are feeling those effects. It’s important to understand these different groups, how many animals are in each region etc. Part of the Tri-P Initiative is to get an accurate count of the animals in these different regions. That’s never been done before and common sense tells you that, if you have no idea how many bears are there in the first place, how the heck will you know how many you have lost at some point. Polar Bears International hopes to solve this dilemma by funding the scientists to get out and count polar bears.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: How are your polar bear images being used to educate the public on the effects of climate change?

DJC: First is the newsletter that PBI publishes each quarter. It’s a beautiful publication printed in four colors, and anyone who donates gets on the list to receive a copy. Other uses include news publications as well as popular general trade publications, and then there is this new large-format print project we’re calling the Arctic Ambassadors educational print campaign. The Arctic Ambassadors large format print series is a group of images I’ve captured depicting a number of different arctic scientists doing their work in the field. The Arctic Ambassadors consist of over 40 zoos worldwide that are interested in spreading the word on how global climate chage is affecting polar bears and the arctic. Each of these zoos will receive 15 24x36 gallery prints depicting an arctic science theme, such as the one with Dr. Steven Amstrup. Our goal is to update these galleries three times a year, and Polar Bears International pays for all of this. Interestingly, zoos are one of the finest venues in the world for gaining access to the public. US zoos attract more visitors per year than all professional sporting events combined. The Arctic Ambassadors Gallery is printed on our HP Z3100 large format printer, and the final prints are truly stunning. It’s fun to have a good reason to print really, really large!

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: What rights do you grant to PBI for use of your images from the polar bear project?

DJC: Each assignment is different but, in general, we allow all project images to be used in the newsletter as well as some promotional uses such as Keynote presentations and advertisements. We also are very liberal with the scientists we work with, allowing them to use the images for their own personal Keynote presentations and brochure usage. Additionally, we’re in the process of developing a database of images that are available for no cost to certain types of clients. My office, Natural Exposures, will be in charge of managing this database. We want to be as giving as possible for very small nonprofits, schools, zoos and other educational institutes that have little or no budgets for photography. However, we do require that all interested parties wanting to use an image go through a request process. This gives them the chance to plead their case for little or no payment for photo usage. Typical publishers will still have to go through the normal stock photo request procedures.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: Has your work with PBI and the distribution of these images led to your inclusion in other photography projects?

DJC: At this point, not really; but there are signs that signal changes are happening. For one thing, there has been a resurgence in publishers’ interest in environmental and conservation imagery. We’ve been fortunate to have been doing that exact thing since 1981. I’m currently discussing other opportunities for science-related documentary work with a conservation group based here in the West, and we were contacted due to my work with PBI. It’s kind of niche market, one that many photographers have ignored. I’ve always loved science but was never very good with the classroom part of it. PBI has given me a chance to be a part of some of the most cutting edge science, be around very intelligent and interesting people and, at the same time, use my skills as a communicator to try and make a difference.

ASMP: What are the plans for future documentation of this subject? Are there any books or exhibitions in the works?

DJC: Right now the main thrust is the Arctic Ambassadors project. However, long term I do see a book and possible traveling exhibit based on the interesting stories I’m collecting. These people we’re documenting are on the front line of the environmental changes we’re all seeing and feeling around the world. What could be more invigorating and real than to hear these scientists talk about the astonishing changes they’ve encountered over the past 20-30 years of arctic field work? The stories they tell are based on first-hand accounts. They’re not talking about climate change because some conservation group has created a media plan. They’ve seen the issues we’re all talking about and they know it’s real, and it’s from their heart. They provide a powerful message, and I’m hopeful I’m up to the challenge to help them get that message out.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: You are also involved in sponsorship arrangements with other companies. How did these relationships initiate and how long did it take before you secured sponsorship?

DJC: Yes, I’m very fortunate to have some sponsorship opportunities. The most notable is with HP, and that happened due to a winning entry in Nature’s Best photo competition. I had actually been using the HP Designjet 130 prior to our official consulting arrangement. The 130 is a very capable printer that allowed me to get into large 24-inch wide prints without breaking the bank. I was amazed at the quality of that machine. However, their newest products — including the Z3100 — are light years ahead of the 130, and I couldn’t be happier with the quality of the work we’re able to produce. My arrangement with HP is on a project-by-project basis, so it’s really no different than any other client coming to us and wanting to feature our skills to help promote their products. There is no annual contract similar to what some other photographic companies provide certain photographers. I like it that way. Each job is based on its own merits, and I’m free to change with evolving technologies if my opinion about their products change. At this point, they are leading the industry and I’ve never worked with a more fair and dedicated group of people. HP is a fabulous organization to be involved with.

Nikon is similar. That relationship has taken literally 30 years to establish. Once again, I don’t know of even one photographer that is under a long-term annual contract with Nikon. In my situation, as with HP, my work is used on a project-by-project basis. I’m very fortunate to have them send me test equipment now and again on a consignment-loan basis. This is the best of both worlds, since it allows me to keep my options open yet work with one of the world’s leading companies in the photography industry.

© Daniel J Cox

ASMP: Do you have any particular business or accounting strategies set up to address your non-profit/volunteer work or your sponsorship arrangements?

DJC: Good question. No. Maybe you have some advice for me. The long-term volunteer work is fairly new to my business model and, frankly, I’m not aware of any special tax incentives, etc. that may be available. You’ve piqued my interest. I’ve just made a note to myself to discuss this idea with my accountant.

ASMP: Do you have any advice for other photographers about securing corporate or manufacturer sponsorship or doing volunteer work?

DJC: You know there are really no secrets when it comes to establishing good working relationships. Although, there is one little piece of advice I tell all my workshop students and I really believe in. That is, “Life is a contact sport. Get out and play the game.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard young people say, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and to be honest there is some truth to that. The deal is, however, that you have to be able to deliver when that person you know gives you a call. My philosophy on building good relationships that opens doors is, number 1, to be a good person and, number 2, do great work in something you’re passionate about. Everything else will fall into place. One last final thought that might go under the heading of number 3: Be prepared to work a lot of years to be a success in this business. Nothing good happens overnight.