Online Exclusive: More with Photographer James Balog

October 2012

In our November issue, we introduced you to Boulder photographer James Balog, founder of the Extreme Ice Survey and the guy behind the stunning time-lapse imagery—as in, you can finally see a glacier move—in the groundbreaking documentary Chasing Ice. Meet the man behind the film.

5280: We’ve heard you were a skeptic about climate change before this project. Yet you have a graduate degree in geomorphology.

James Balog: That’s been somewhat bent around a bit. I was a skeptic 20 years ago; it was before this project, but it was a long time before. I just had a skepticism about the validity of things that were generated on computer models. Once I realized it wasn’t about computer models, but about the tangible record of climate change that was held in the layers of ice, then I discovered there are lots of other signs of climate change out in the field. That’s what brought me around.

5280: You and your team risked your lives during this project. When was the closest you came to facing your own mortality?

JB: Probably the most terrifying thing was when we were in a very remote part of Greenland in a helicopter that had lost one engine and was in the process of losing a second. And if we lost the second engine, we were down in the drink—in the ocean. You’d survive for only a few minutes in water that’s that cold, and there’s no hope of rescue in those places. You go in, you die.

Out on the ice there were a couple of situations where there was a huge amount of uncertainty about the behavior of the ice, and we were not defended in anyway. If the ice had continued to kind of gyrate around and crack, I ran a real risk of getting catapulted down into this huge, deep silo of this big canyon. For a whole bunch of stupid reasons that no experienced mountaineers should have ever been subject to, we had no equipment to anchor me in, and I was out in a fantastically vulnerable position with the ice sheet actually quaking underneath me.

I was laying on the ice with part of my body leaning over this huge hole that went down into oblivion. The ice was like glass; you couldn’t stand up on this stuff, it was so slick. And I’m thinking: Oh my god, I so desperately want this picture, but if we get a spasm in this ice it’s just going to shoot me off here like I’m on a springboard, and I’m gone. I’ve got nothing to hang on to. That was probably the most gripping moment of the whole thing…That’s the place where I still lie awake at night.

5280: Yet, at that moment, you’re still thinking, ‘I really need this shot?'

JB: Yeah, it’s a kind of sickness, actually [laughs]. It’s a devotion to this quest and this goal. I’d been looking for that image for four years, and I was hell-bent on getting it. At the same time, another channel in my brain is going: ‘This is incredibly dangerous and stupid to be out here right now.’ You have these two warring factions in your head. You creep out there in the first minute…and your brain gets habituated to a completely insane situation. Human beings do this very well; we get habituated to really crazy, dysfunctional situations quite rapidly.

5280: It took six months to get the camera equipment Arctic-ready. How frustrating was that?

JB: The challenge is to make the equipment durable enough to withstand temperatures of –40 degrees Fahrenheit, winds up to 150 mph, and tremendous quantities of snow and rain. Making the electronics work in that kind of cold is a huge question. The other question is how to make the electronics work, period. It’s not about the structure or power supply, per say. It’s powered by solar energy. But there are some custom electronics inside that tell the camera when to fire, and the engineering of all that was quite a laborious and nerve-wracking process. It took about a year and a half to get that right.

5280: Was there ever a moment when you thought about giving up?

JB: Not in the field, per say. Once you get out there, you’re absolutely in it. It’s when we’re back here in Colorado dealing with the endless financial and logistical stress, and many, many, many times I’m saying to myself, ‘Why am I torturing myself with this?’ The physical dangers—at least they were short-lived experiences. The financial stress was unrelenting for five years. To me that was a much bigger stressor and point of suffering.

5280: What else should we know about the film or the greater issue at the center of it?

JB: I don’t consider climate change a partisan political issue. This is a universal issue that has consequences to everybody. Not just here in the Front Range or in the United States, but everybody on the planet. We have the universal human right to clean air and a stable climate, and if we don’t have [those], we have consequences for our health, national security, economic stability, and environment. It’s vital that we keep sight of the big picture and not get bogged down in a lot of negativity about ‘We can’t handle this.’ We can handle this. We’ve got the economic and technological skills and the policy ideas about how to deal with this. All we need is the perception that we’ve got an issue, and we can move ahead. It’s on the perception side of this that Extreme Ice Survey is trying to make its contribution.

5280: This is a hard project to top in terms of globally significant impact. What’s next?

JB: I’m not telling. We’ve got two, maybe three big ideas in various stages of coalescing. I’m kind of letting my instincts guide me, and letting them evolve psychologically over time. By the middle of next year it ought to be be fairly clear what the next big one will be.

5280: Not even a little hint?

JB: No. The one I think is the leading candidate is so wildly improbably as a photographic project that nobody would ever guess it. But it’s incredibly fundamental to your existence and mine.

For more information, check out Earth Vision Trust, a new nonprofit that stems from Balog’s work and aims to “be a visual voice for our changing planet.”

See It: Chasing Ice premieres in Denver on November 23 at Landmark Theatres—specific theatre TBD.

Image courtesy of James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey 2008