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As part of our Interviews in Extremes series, we speak to fascinating nature photographers worldwide who withstand challenging conditions to tell stories about our amazing natural world and the wildlife species within it.
Polar expeditioner, educator and photographer John Bozinov is used to extreme environments, as he spends 6-8 months of the year on ships operating in the polar regions. Here, he ventures out to remote locations to capture amazing photographs and footage of wildlife and their natural habitat, to educate people about these wondrous regions and the threats they face.
John has learnt to weather sub-zero temperatures. From encounters with sleepy Weddell seals through to unsuspecting chinstrap penguins, his travels have taken him to some of the world’s most isolated locations. But how do the freezing temperatures affect his work and life ethos? We had a chat with him to find out more.
'My sister was always more of the creative one in the family' John recollects. Observing her experiment with old plastic toy cameras inspired John to buy one himself, and so he bought his first cheap plastic camera, ‘the Hallgarth’, second hand. He considers, ‘This opened up a huge can of worms and I became obsessed with photography!’
Day and night, John read, practised and learnt all about the tricks of the trade. Whilst his local environment – Wellington, New Zealand – was a huge source of inspiration, he was soon keen to travel further afield, taking road trips around New Zealand.
'I was deeply inspired by photographer Kevin Russ […] He travelled around the western states of America taking pictures on his phone. He was like the OG travel influencer!'
Russ’s ability to capture beautiful photography on his iPhone inspired John to do the same, and he set off travelling around his home country with a plastic camera and smartphone in hand.
I found that I always had a bit of an affinity to wintertime. I was always doing these trips in winter […] I’m still like that today. I’m not a huge fan of warm weather […] I love the cold and the snow. I started building a bit of a photography portfolio and it all had a very strong winter theme to it. I think this is what eventually led me to the polar work.’’
John was keen to explore unchartered places that hadn’t been previously documented by photograph. The remote nature of the sub-Antarctic islands south of the New Zealand mainland held huge intrigue. His love for wintertime coupled with his passion for wildlife made the subarctic regions the perfect destination for his photography.
When it comes to technical problems, sub-zero temperatures also bring their own set of challenges. Environmental damage, such as sea spray, snow and rain can severely impact camera equipment. This is one of the reasons why he enjoys the simplicity of capturing footage on his iPhone, which is less prone to water damage.
The biggest problem for me is water damage to my cameras. Snow, rain, and especially sea spray because salt gets in everywhere and destroys everything with time!”
The bitter temperatures also negatively affect camera batteries. As John divulges, back-up batteries are essential. And he’s lost many a camera battery to the cold Arctic climes…
‘If the battery gets too cold it can’t send the energy from the battery to your camera.’ To counteract this, John keeps his phone as well as spare batteries for his DSLR and mirrorless cameras in internal pockets to keep them dry.
‘A lot of people think it’s crazy that I go to the polar regions and shoot with a smartphone!’ He reflects. But the smartphone is, in many ways, the most appropriate tool for the job! I can have it out in the rain and snow for hours, and I know it’s going to be fine.’
His more cumbersome cameras, with more nooks and crannies that could potentially be subject to water damage, can cause more issues.
I’ve destroyed many cameras throughout my career, from the accumulation of water damage over time! I’ll be lucky if I get two seasons out of a camera before the internal chassis is completely rusted.’
John reflects upon the relatability of shooting photography on a smartphone, as a more accessible piece of equipment. As part of his work, he strives to help individuals feel more connected to the polar regions. With no native populations living out there, John’s work offers people a lense into life in the Arctic.
A lot of people struggle in cold environments, but I’ve always felt much more comfortable in them.”
John’s work seeks to help audiences to recognise the importance of protecting our natural world, and one way his does this is through highlighting the relatability of the animals that share our planet.
‘In order for a place to be protected, people have to have a desire to protect it […] I try to connect people to the polar regions through wildlife.’ Through capturing unusual animal behaviours, and images of wildlife going about their day-to-day, John shows his audiences that really, we are just like them.
I try to capture […] behaviour that could be perceived as humanlike […] this helps people to connect with the animals that are there and then have a desire to look after them and protect them.’
John has witnessed the devastating effects of climate change first-hand working in the polar regions. Given that these environments are made largely of ice, ‘a change of one degree can be the difference between frozen ice and liquid water’. These changes, most notably, have directly impacted animal behaviours within these habitats, who have had to accommodate to the devastating consequences of global warming. The extent of arctic sea ice in the summertime has visibly changed during his time in the polar regions.
‘We will try and go up to the edge of the arctic sea ice every summer, usually when we are doing voyages in Svalbard, which is an archipelago slightly north of Norway. So we do trips around there and then we’ll go up the sea ice to see if we can spot any polar bears along that northern sea ice edge. I’ve been there for like, the last five years now, the last five summers, and every year you have to go further and further north to get to that sea ice.’
‘Educate yourself about the environment and the different ecosystems out there through documentaries. After a while, you get this kind of deep appreciation for the natural planet and animals, and that turns into, rather than motivation, it becomes more like this drive, this internal drive to really kind of latch onto these things.’
Through his appreciation of the environment, John slowly changed his diet over time to include less and less animal products. ‘You don’t necessarily have to go the whole way. You don’t have to become a complete vegan.’ John highlights that mindful decision-making can be more effective in making meaningful change. ‘It’s good to try and reduce where you can rather than cut it out completely.’
John was keen to capture the ‘otherworldly’ way that Weddell seals communicate when underwater.
He got lucky. He overheard one of these seals mimicking such a noise, but when hauled out on land, a phenomenon which he describes as ‘incredible unusual and quite rare to hear.’ Thankfully, he had his camera at the ready, and was able to take a short video of the creature whilst it was sleeping.
His second encounter was equally awe-inspiring.
John was driving in his zodiac (a small inflatable boat), when his colleague rang him to inform him of an unexpected visitor – a chinstrap penguin which had jumped onto his boat.
On hearing the news, John journeyed over to see what was happening. The penguin jumped out of his colleague’s boat, and into his own.
‘It was just standing next to me, looking around. It was really odd! Very unique behaviour for a penguin. I’ve never seen anything like that! That was a really cool experience.’
As someone who adores home and familiarity, being away from it for long stretches of time has been a challenge for John.
‘I definitely like my home comforts and being in a familiar environment. I think when I first started working in the polar regions it was quite difficult for me to be away from home for such a long period of time.’
Having to deal with these long periods of unfamiliarity has increased John’s resilience, and he is able to endure these long bouts of homesickness better than before. John examines the importance of getting outside of your comfort zone; something he’s tried to channel within his own work. ‘I think it has helped me to grow as a person in some capacity.’
“That’s a tough one!” John ponders. “I would say the yellow-eyed penguin would be my favourite animal. It’s a penguin species that’s endemic to New Zealand, and it’s also the rarest penguin species in the world. They are very timid and bashful penguins, but they are really beautiful […] and unique in their colouration. It’s an animal that’s quite severely threatened […] with habitat destruction […] Within our lifetime [they] will likely be extinct because of how quickly the numbers are declining. I’ve been fortunate to see them on a number of occasions and photograph them, and yeah, they are absolutely stunning.”
‘The clip that has probably stuck with me the most is from a few years ago. The crew from Frozen Planet went down to the Antarctic Peninsula to film orcas hunting seals – crabeater seals and Weddell seals – they were hauled out on the ice. A line of orcas swim towards an ice flow all together, and dip down at the perfect moment to create a wave and wash the seal off the ice. The intelligence required for them to do that is just amazing […] my jaw just hit the floor! I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it on video.’
Orcas knocking seals off waves was thought to be a myth when Producer/Director Kathryn Jeffs set out to film them in Antarctica for the series. Watch that very moment captured below.
As part of our Interviews in Extremes series, we speak to fascinating nature photographers worldwide who withstand challenging conditions to tell stories about our amazing natural world and the wildlife species within it. Be the first to hear more inspiring stories by signing up to the BBC Earth newsletter below.