The Emperor Penguins of Antarctica: Interview with Stefan Christmann

Marianne Stenger
18th December 2019

Winter weather can prove challenging for even the most experienced photographers, but what about shooting in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius and wind speeds of up to 120 km/h? These are the sort of weather conditions that Stefan Christmann, a nature photographer and filmmaker from Koblenz, Germany, withstood to capture his images of emperor penguins in Antarctica. 

Christmann’s work there won him the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio Award. His winning photograph, “The Huddle,” shows more than 5,000 male emperor penguins huddled together as they seek shelter from icy winds and unforgiving temperatures while caring for their eggs. The photograph is part of a larger body of work that Christmann was able to build up of the emperor penguin colony in Atka Bay, Antarctica over the course of two years. 

We had the opportunity to speak to him about what it was like to work in Antarctica, and get his view on the responsibility that nature and wildlife photographers have to document not just the beauty of nature, but also the threats it faces. 

How did you get started as a nature photographer? 

It started with a trip to Yellowstone National Park during a student exchange program. I was blown away by nature around me, which included geysers blowing off steam, bison walking through hot spring areas and coyotes searching for food in the great valleys. 

All I had with me at the time was a digital compact camera with a very limited focal range and an even more limited personal photographic skill-set. As a result, the images I captured didn’t really do the scene in front of me justice. 

Upon my return to Germany I borrowed my dad’s old fully manual Minolta SRT-303b SLR camera and three lenses; a 28mm, 50mm and 135mm lens. Nature seemed like a great place to experiment, so a friend and I would venture out into the forest whenever we could in order to play with long exposures, shallow depth of field, polarizing filters and so on. 

The time I spent in nature really got me hooked on the complexity of ecosystems and the treasures hidden all around us. Over time, I learned to anticipate how a real life scene would look through the lens at different camera settings. Essentially, the camera evolved from being a tool for creating an image of nature into a tool for creating my own interpretation of nature. 

So how did your trip to Antarctica come about? 

I actually wintered twice in Antarctica. The first time was in 2012, right after I had finished studying physics at the University of Tübingen. One of the alumni at my institute had worked in Antarctica as a scientist for the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research and was giving a presentation in a nearby town.

It snowed heavily that night and I considered not going, but decided to give it a try. The stories he told and images he showed got me hooked on Antarctica. I applied for a job myself and ended up being selected as a geophysicist to winter on Neumayer-Station III. During the 15 months I spent in Antarctica, I used my free time to document the nearby emperor penguin colony. 

In 2014, the BBC discovered my images and contacted me. They wanted to make a movie about the emperor penguins and had selected Neumayer as a potential basis. They asked if I wanted to be part of the film team and winter in Antarctica again in 2017, this time as an expedition photographer and camera assistant.  So that's how I got my second stay at the end of the world and had the unique opportunity to capture all the shots I’d missed the first time.

What was it like to work in such extreme weather conditions?

Overall, living and working in this environment is unlike any other place in the world. Everything has to be meticulously planned as things can go wrong quite quickly. The weather is the most dominant factor and will ultimately decide if it’s safe to be outside or not. 

We would go out in groups of at least two people and always carried emergency equipment like radios, GPS units and a survival box with a tent, food and a small stove. Thankfully we never needed the emergency equipment, aside from the GPS units which led us back home once the wind picked up and visibility dropped due to drifting snow. 

There was a day when we planned to film in a storm, and took a spare GPS unit with us, which we ended up using after the batteries in our first unit died. It was impossible to change the batteries with thick gloves on and wind speeds of 120km/h. 

In general, working in cold conditions with thick gloves on is quite cumbersome and it takes a while to get used to the reduced tactility and viewfinders fogging up all the time. Sometimes it was so cold that we couldn’t use the LCD screens on the backs of our cameras. 

When coming back in we had to take special care of our equipment to avoid condensation on the electronics. In fact, most of the time we kept our equipment outside and only brought the batteries and memory cards inside. I could go on and on and on about how special it is to work in Antarctica; it’s even a treat to be exposed to the elements, because it really makes you feel alive. 

Can you tell us about your winning photograph and the circumstances in which you took it? 

The photograph is one of many images I’ve taken of the emperor penguin colony in Atka Bay. On the day I took the photo, it was extremely cold and the slightest bit of wind created a wind-chill that was almost unbearable. The birds were feeling the same, and at that time of year, only the males were left in the colony, working together as a giant incubator. 

They formed a huddle, which is the emperor penguins’ secret weapon against the cold. It’s one of the most marvellous examples of cooperation in the animal kingdom, and many scientists have described emperor penguin colonies as superorganisms exactly for this reason. 

In a huddle, every bird will be standing close to neighbouring birds; sharing dissipated body heat with the group. As a result, the birds in the entire group will be able to regulate their body temperature more efficiently and stay warm even on a very cold day. 

Obviously the centre of a huddle is a lot warmer than the outer regions of it, so there will be a constant movement of birds from the inside to the outside and back again. Birds exposed to the wind will break away from the huddle and move to the sheltered side of the group. As more and more birds do this, the birds from the outside will slowly be moved to the interior of the huddle. 

Eventually, the centre regions of a huddle can become so warm that they become unbearable and the huddle breaks open, releasing clouds of steam into the cold Antarctic air. The birds will then cool down for a certain amount of time and regroup to form a new huddle. 

What’s your favourite part about working as a nature photographer? And some of the more challenging aspects of it?

My favourite part is definitely spending time in nature and experiencing the wonders of this planet firsthand. I’m amazed by simple things such as ripples spreading over a water surface when a leaf or a drop of rain falls onto it. Observing and admiring nature calms me down and makes me focus on the aspects in life that are truly important.  

When I’m in this mood, I feel inspired to photograph these little wonders, so I can share them with people who may have never experienced this state of mind, or need to be reminded of it. 

Of course, when you’re working on a photographic assignment, there isn’t always time to enjoy the moment, so you must be focused and determined to get the shot. This is why I really try to balance my assignment work with the work I do for my own personal entertainment. 

The most challenging aspect for me was that I had to leave my wife alone for a long time when I was photographing in Antarctica. Even on days when the weather was bad and I would have loved to stay inside, I had to find the strength and go outside and work on the project. 

Knowing that there was another person investing time into the project by dealing with life’s everyday challenges without me was the extra motivation I needed. It helped me make the most of the time that was given to me in Antarctica, even though I was really tired and fatigued by the end of it.

Have you personally noticed any of the impacts of climate change on the wildlife and nature you have photographed? Is it something you’re interested in documenting? 

I think it’s of the utmost importance that photographers show not only pretty pictures, but also the things that are going wrong in nature. Even a photograph of something “bad” can be beautiful, however. For example, whenever I photographed a dead emperor penguin chick in Antarctica, I took extra care to make the image beautiful and tasteful. I wanted to show the sad loss of life, while at the same time paying my respect to the animal. 

Concerning climate change in Antarctica, unfortunately we were able to witness the influence of climate change on this isolated continent, albeit indirectly. While we often hear about icebergs the size of little states breaking off the Antarctic ice shelf, the temperatures actually seem to be quite stable. At least that was the case in Atka-Bay for the past 30 years. 

The problem Antarctica is now facing is not necessarily the air temperature, but the temperature of the ocean currents that encircle the Antarctic continent. As they gradually warm up, they have a devastating effect on Antarctic sea ice, which is the main habitat of the emperor penguins. With the sea ice forming later and breaking up earlier each year, the penguins have less time to breed successfully. 

One potential adaptation strategy that we witnessed during our stay was that some of the birds and especially the late-moulters would climb up onto the ice-shelf to gain some extra time until they'd fledge and leap into the water from the edge. 

However, while this adaptation strategy is clever, it’s also quite dangerous. When the chicks climb up the ice ramps that lead up onto the ice-shelf, they can easily fall into the gullies that form between the sea ice and the ice-shelf. Additionally, if the chicks are still being cared for by their parents and the sea ice breaks open too early, they will simply starve to death, because their parents are no longer able to reach and feed them. 

Is it important for nature photographers to learn about the species and the environment they're photographing?

I would say that many images reach a new level of value once you have understood why an animal is acting in a certain way and what kind of behaviour was captured in a frame. As a photographer, working on a story and staying with an animal for an extended amount of time is very rewarding.  

To me, it’s a prerequisite for intimate images and captures, which are different from everything else that has been seen before. Once you really know and understand an animal, you can anticipate its behaviour and plan your shots, create a storyline, and focus on the message you want to convey. 

In my case, after spending a total of around two years with the emperor penguins of Antarctica, I was able to create images that convey the deep bond between these birds, which I have called Penguin-love. It’s the main topic of my story.

Images © Stefan Christmann. You can see more of his photography and work in Antarctica by visiting his website Nature in Focus or following him on Instagram @christmannphoto

Biography:

My name is Stefan Christmann and I was born in beautiful Koblenz/Germany in 1983. I had my first contact with nature photography during a student exchange with the US state Montana in 2002. While visiting Yellowstone National Park I took the first consciously composed photograph of my life with a little digital point and shoot camera. However, I quickly realized, that it was impossible for me to capture what I had just seen with this little device.

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