Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Here’s an interview and some of the majestic photos from a great new book from Frenchman Michel Rawicki that appears in our December issue:
By Chris Cocoles
Frenchman Michel Rawicki was influenced a couple ways as a youngster and then an adult – first by photography, and then by the Arctic and those humans and its wildlife living there.
“We have so much to learn from the observation of nature. When it speaks to us privately, it is a source of wonder and gives us a strong feeling of belonging to the universe,” Rawicki writes in a new book of 200 stunning images he compiled in a three-year odyssey spying the polar bear – known by the Inuit people in Alaska and throughout the Arctic as Nanuk – from the Last Frontier to Siberia and from Norway to Greenland.
“It was the moment to publish a book which throws light on the reality of the situation of the polar bear today, but it is first and foremost a homage to the polar bear’s beauty and its poetry,” he writes.
“Let’s protect all kinds of wildlife and nature, as we are part of it,” Rawicki, 69, said in an email Q&A when we asked about the polar bears he observed and other great big game predators around the globe, many of which are threatened, endangered or on the brink of extinction due to a variety of factors, including climate change.
In the following pages, Rawicki shares his infatuation with icy landscapes and fascination with one of the world’s most graceful, feared and iconic species. The photos are courtesy of Polar Bears: A Life Under Threat, by Michel Rawicki and published by ACC Art Books.
Chris Cocoles Congratulations on a fantastic book, Michel. What inspired you to take on this particular project?
Michel Rawicki My intimate relationship with this animal, a symbol of global warming and totem of the 21st century.
CC Growing up in France you had a passion for photography. Did you get to take photos of a lot of wildlife specifically or just scenery and people in general?
MW I started my career in 1969 and I quit college to work with Claude Lelouch, famous filmmaker [who won one Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film and was nominated for Best Director] as an assistant. Then, I worked as a “people” photographer in the show business area and photographed Tina Turner and Tom Jones. Then I worked as a still-life photographer for 15 years and discovered Greenland and its icebergs in 1992, and also (discovered) the polar bears in those same years.
CC What did you know about polar bears before starting this journey?
MW I was just fascinated by the animals and then learned and wanted to know more about them!
CC Later in life, you became fascinated with icy locations and snow. How did that impact your career in photography?
MW I was attracted from my childhood by icy landscapes, and at this time I discovered Greenland. I had always dreamed of witnessing the birth of the icebergs, these ice monsters, and discover Ilulissat (Greenland) and the Bay of Disko, the biggest iceberg distributor in the Northern Hemisphere. I was overwhelmed and fascinated by this natural power. (I wanted to) share my love of the poles and raise awareness as to the fact that the conservation of this fragile immense space concerns each and every one of us on a daily basis.
CC What’s the closest you’ve come to a polar bear?
MW A few meters, but I didn’t know he was behind me. I realized it after I discovered his footprints 30 minutes later.
CC Tell me about your experience with the bears in Alaska?
MW It was such an amazing atmosphere in Kaktovik on Barter Island with this number of bears wandering around the “bone pile” and seeing all the whales’ carcasses.
CC Did you get an opportunity to talk to any Alaskans and what was that overall experience like for you?
MW No, but I plan to travel over there some day.
I focus my work now on humans such as natives around the polar circle.
CC So you really enjoyed your time there and want to go back and experience more of the rugged and beautiful landscapes, plus the diverse wildlife?
CC And worldwide, did you have a favorite place in all of your travels when photographing the bears?
MW Of course. Svalbard, Norway, and Manitoba, Canada.
CC Is there something that you learned about polar bears that surprised you?
MW Yes; their fantastic capacity to adapt themselves to the changing (conditions), like getting on a rock at low tide and wait for belugas when [there’s]enough water to catch them.
CC What do you see in the future for polar bears given the threats of climate change and the perception that the Arctic’s glaciers are melting and habitat for these bears is getting smaller?
MW Today the population is stable, even growing but tomorrow, who knows?
CC After this adventure, is there another species or project similar to this one that you would like to pursue?
MW Yes, of course. I will still travel and meet Nanuk again, as I will travel next year as a guide in Svalbard on a ship named Polarfront. Also, I am now very focused on a third book dedicated to all these people who live in the “cold.” These are the nomads who are taking care of their cattle like reindeer – from Norway with the Sami to Mongolia with the Tsataan and Russia, of course, with the (indigenous) Evene, Nenetses and Dolgan people. ASJ