An Interview with Chris Linder

League members actively work within the iLCP to promote it, further the agenda for conservation issues, and collaborate with other photographers and organizations dedicated to conservation. Each month, iLCP will introduce you to a photographer within the League. This month, meet iLCP Associate photographer Chris Linder.

Chris Linder uses photography as a tool to educate and inspire the public about science and conservation issues. Working closely with researchers in the field, documenting them as they study the environment—whether it’s from the deck of a ship or a penguin colony, his goals are to educate the public about science
, inspire the next generation of researchers and communicate the need to protect wild places.

With education and training as an oceanographer, Chris has a special insight into photographing marine science and has spent more than a year of his life at sea on research ships, with over half of that time spent on the Arctic Ocean. His photographs have been featured in museum exhibits—including the Field Museum and the Smithsonian, books—such as his own Photographer’s Guide to Cape Cod, calendars and magazines worldwide.

When he’s not battling subfreezing temperatures in Antarctica or riding the waves on a research ship, Chris is happiest exploring the Pacific Northwest’s wild places with his family. We caught up with Chris and asked him a few questions about what it’s like to be a conservation photographer…

Q: When did you know you wanted to focus your photography on Conservation issues?

A: My first expedition to the Arctic in 2002 was a real turning point for me. In the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, I saw the effects of our changing climate firsthand, and it was sobering. Since then, I have focused my efforts on communicating climate change science. It’s a challenging topic; the visible effects are largely restricted to the polar regions and much of the science is difficult to photograph. But this issue more than any other has driven me to action.

Q: Who are the photographers whom you admire, or who inspired you to become a professional photographer?

A: Early in my career, Galen Rowell’s images inspired me. In particular, his book Poles Apart showed the convergence between nature, adventure and science photography. All of my colleagues in the iLCP are inspirational… But to list a few:

Joel Sartore: Joel’s stories for National Geographic always blow me away; I’m in awe of how perfectly he communicates stories with his images.
Jack Dykinga: Jack’s mastery of composition has inspired me for years.  Working with him on the Borderlands RAVE, I also learned about how he uses his images to help preserve wild places.
Daniel Beltra: Daniel navigates the world’s most dangerous places and comes back with haunting images of environmental devastation.
Joe Riis: Joe is an up-and-coming wildlife photographer and camera trap expert who I predict will soon be a regular among the pages of National Geographic.

Q: Most people don’t know what the lifestyle of a photographer is, can you give us some insight into your life in the field?

A: Since I work primarily in the polar regions, I’ve had my share of close calls with weather. In between those (thankfully) few and far between moments, I spend a lot of time sitting, watching, shivering, waiting for the right light or the action to happen. Most people would be surprised to learn how unglamorous a photographer’s life can be.

Last year I spent five weeks photographing at an Adélie penguin colony in Antarctica. That’s five weeks of hard hiking up and down steep icy slopes, sleeping in a tent in subfreezing temperatures, melting snow to make water to drink, and spending day after day kneeling or sometimes lying in fishy-smelling penguin feces to get the shots. Did I mention that the restroom is a bucket? Despite all of the physical hardship, the most challenging aspect of fieldwork for me is being away from my family. It’s getting harder and harder for me to be away from home, but I tell myself that someday when my kids are grown up they will be proud of their dad for getting out there and trying to make a difference.

Q: You’re on an assignment right now in the Ross Sea, and you’re doing live calls to students. That’s wild! Can you talk a bit about how technology has helped/hindered the conservation and science community’s fight to learn about climate change and protect wild places?

A: Technology is critical to what I do. I was an early adopter of digital cameras by necessity. On my first big assignment for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution nine years ago, I created an expedition website (a ‘blog’ before that word was even being used) to teach school kids about arctic oceanography from the field. My job was to produce daily updates from the icebreaker including photographs. Today (assuming you have a decent internet connection), a project like this seems trivial—you could do all of it with a smart phone and a few apps. But in 2002, I was using a Nikon Coolpix, coding the website by hand, and using FTP to transfer files to the server (at a speed far slower than dialup).

Five years later, I was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to document polar research expeditions from Greenland to Antarctica. In addition to daily photo essays like we did in 2002, I also hosted a series of live question-and-answer programs with museums nationwide. Iridium satellite phone technology—one of the few systems that works in the high latitudes—was instrumental in making that project possible. Using a portable handset, I was able to talk with an audience at the Smithsonian while hiking behind glaciologists on the Greenland ice sheet. I’m doing similar calls right now on the Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Ross Sea, using the same technology. We have middle school kids in New Jersey coming up with these amazing questions about oceanography, which they get to ask the scientists themselves and get answers on the spot.

When the audience can follow the action day to day as it’s happening, the science becomes more relevant and more ‘real.’ The live calls make kids part of the adventure and more importantly may help them see what an exciting career science can be. When I hear the enthusiasm from these young kids on the phone, I forget all about the lack of sleep, the scratchy connection and the dropped calls—it’s all worth it.

Q: If you could go anywhere on assignment, where would you go? What issue is driving you to act?

A: I recently read a Pew research poll that showed a decline in climate change literacy in the American public over the last few years. Clearly, I have my job cut out for me. I will be continuing an ongoing project documenting climate change studies in Siberia. Scientists have identified the permafrost soil as a major storehouse of carbon, which if thawed could double the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Between the hordes of killer mosquitoes and relatively unphotogenic subject matter (mud, essentially), it is the most challenging project I have worked on yet. Check my website for updates: