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‘Absolutely raw’: In remote islands, documenting nature brings high risk, high reward

© Chris Burkard

Editor’s note: Louisa Barnes is Conservation International’s photography manager.

Getting to the remote Aleutian Islands, a small chain in the Alaskan Peninsula, is no easy feat: There are long-haul flights, ferries and complicated logistics involved.

Those who make the trek are rewarded with a dramatic landscape of active volcanoes and agate beaches, virtually untouched by development. For thousands of years, the Aleut Families have lived on these islands, fishing the Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

But as flooding and erosion have eaten away at the coastline, the future of the land and the people who inhabit it is unclear.

Award-winning photographer — and Conservation International photography fellow — Chris Burkard set out in a tiny, twin-engine plane to capture the beauty of the islands and the critical need to conserve them. In honor of World Nature Conservation Day, I spoke with Burkard to understand his process and what he hopes people take away from his photos.

Question:  Why did you choose to photograph the Aleutian Islands?

Answer:  They are absolutely raw. As a photographer, it’s incredible to document a place that few humans have ever seen, let alone know about, let alone could even locate on a map. There’s only about 5,000 people living on these islands. Logistically, I knew the biggest obstacle was that we wouldn’t be able to land on these islands: They are a series of volcanoes that make up the Alaskan Marine Wildlife Refuge, and a lot of these places have no other land to access.

So, for me, that was the draw — being able to bring back photographs not just from a faraway land, but from a place that had been deemed worthy of protection status because of the animals and the environment. To capture this beauty and the wealth of nature, we flew over the islands and four volcanoes and we tried our best to provide an aerial survey of this environment for people to experience.

Q: You’re an adventure photographer. What does that mean?

A: When you think about your images as a photographer, you think about how they are going to potentially stand the test of time. How will they record the beauty of the place, will they serve as a historical record? My work has always been for people. With my work, my goal is to transcend the impression that something is pretty and nice to look at, and show that it’s actually something that will be useful in understanding a landscape.

Photography is not only a tool for inspiration, but also a tool for education. It’s an incredible tool for healing, and has been many times in my life. It’s provided the opportunity to understand that there is hope in the world and beauty in the world, and whenever everyone wants to look at the glass as half empty, to go out and see a new landscape and thing, “how refreshing is this?” What a spectacular  environment we live in, and what an amazing place and how lucky are we to be able to experience this. We talk of saving glaciers. We talk of saving this and talk of saving that. But I think it’s nearly impossible to save a place that we do not personally experience.

And that’s where the power of photography comes in.

Q: What did a day of shooting look like?

A: In the beginning it seemed fairly easy. The goal was just to go and fly over these islands. But to get a plane out there that was safe and could fly low enough to photograph it was nearly impossible. Eventually, we tracked down a pilot with a Piper Navajo, a twin-engine plane, because you can’t bring a single prop plane out there because of the dangerous weather conditions and terrain. We flew out to Cold Bay from Anchorage, and from there we flew 1,000 miles to Dutch Harbor, and from Dutch Harbor we flew to the Aleutian Islands. We flew over these big bodies of water and volcanoes, and the whole time there’s nothing around for miles and miles and miles. It’s an absolutely barren environment in the most beautiful way.

We had to load as little gear as possible, including the clothes on our backs and cameras. We were based in Dutch Harbor, which is a well-known fishing area made famous by Deadliest Catch. We stayed there for two days and every morning we’d wake up hoping the weather would stay nice enough to fly again. Thankfully, we lucked out.

Q: Did anything surprise you on this trip?

A: I was surprised by how incredibly vibrant and alive these islands were. They were some of the most vibrantly beautiful, full of rich life and just astonishing. The ocean was teaming with animals. We could see fish in the rivers. It was mind-blowing to me on many levels. I wasn’t prepared for that. I was kind of thinking barren, bleak, that sort of scenario. And the thing is, I’ve seen plenty of images of this place — but I had never seen photographs that were close or intimate. So we flew low. We flew close by. And to know that we were doing it in the name of documenting a place that hasn’t been seen by so many was so thrilling as a photographer. These photos actually meant something.

Q: What is it about nature that draws you to it as a subject?

A: Being in nature has always felt safe to me, and I’ve wanted to foster this idea that we can seek out answers to our most challenging questions in nature. In thinking about how to communicate the value of nature to people effectively, I often wonder if the emphasis should be placed more on our basic understanding of our planet, and how Earth will thrive best. Do you believe pollution exists? Do you believe in protecting wild places? Do you believe in conservation of our precious resources and wild animals? Do you believe that we are stewards of this planet with a responsibility to ensure its longevity and health?

Maybe it’s naïve, but I think I would be hard pressed to find someone who believes smog is healthy for their children, or who enjoys yet another species becoming threatened or endangered. In such volatile times, it’s important to not give up building those bridges of understanding and communication, including through photographs that capture our natural world. It’s the only way we will build the world we all hope to see.

Check out Chris Burkard’s work, and reach out directly to Louisa Barnes to continue the photography conversation.

Louisa Barnes is Conservation International’s photography manager. 

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