In the extreme cold, high winds, and blinding white landscape of the Arctic, Daisy Gilardini, a Swiss photographer living in British Columbia, Canada, and her team approached a polar bear family’s day den from a vehicle. The polar bear family seemed to have chosen this location to take a break on their journey to their hunting grounds on the sea ice because it was protected from the howling winds, due to the nearby trees and snowdrifts.
Out came the mother bear with her two young cubs in tow. The mother bear didn’t panic when she saw the strange intruding vehicular machine in her environment, and neither did the cubs. Gilardini snapped away for several hours, capturing polar bear moments that remind us of happy, playful human families.
Suddenly, the mother decided it was time to move on. One cub decided that it would be more convenient to ride on its mother’s behind, and it jumped on and gripped the fur with its jaw. Gilardini, finding it hilarious, preserved this moment in her lens, and it is now online for all the world to see and to smile and laugh at.
A look through Gilardini’s Instagram profile makes it clear why she has been published by renowned magazines and organizations such as National Geographic, Smithsonian, and BBC Wildlife and why she has won numerous photography awards. Her wildlife photos are beautiful, dynamic, and full of personality, and together, they weave a story of the animal world that most of us would never otherwise see.
For Gilardini, her now 22-year-long career as a polar photographer began with a childhood dream. As a little girl, her family and friends saw that she loved animals and would ply her with stuffed animals as gifts, including a stuffed seal puppy toy.
“My mom explained that the seal puppy came from a very cold place and it lived on and under the polar ice. I was mesmerized by those stories,” she recalled.
From then on, she had a dream of being able to see seals in their natural habitat. Initially, she hoped to become a veterinarian, but in a twist of fate she ended up taking on a career in finance and accounting instead.
Yet, she never forgot her dream. Over seven years in the financial world, she managed to save enough money to join an expedition to Antarctica, a trip she called life-changing.
Today, she characterizes her love for the polar regions as almost “an addiction or obsession.”
She notes that Antarctica is one of the few great, mostly-untouched wildernesses left on Earth. The white continent is a land, as she put it, “where animals are not scared of us, where penguins approach you to interact, where seals want to play with you and birds don’t fly away.”
In her view, the harsh conditions of the white continent are exactly what have preserved its harmony and integrity. Precisely because Antarctica is so extreme and so different from the modern world, she sees a trip to Antarctica as a way to reconnect with herself and the rhythms of Mother Nature, leaving her feeling rejuvenated, revitalized, and more mindful of the fragility of nature. She calls it her “magic pill” for self-healing.
Perhaps two of the most common reactions she, as a wildlife photographer, gets to her profession is either envy and admiration or concern for her safety. She wants people to know that while wildlife photography can be very rewarding, it is not always glamorous. She also points out that fear is usually a reflection of using the wrong approach to the situation.
A crucial component to being successful at wildlife photography is patience.
“Knowing your subjects, and knowing the ecosystem where they live, is crucial in order to be safe and able to anticipate behaviors to catch the action at the right moment,” Gilardini noted.
This learning — of light condition patterns and wildlife behavior and personalities — is crucial both to safety and to getting good photos. It is accumulated over long periods of time, by returning to the same locations year after year and spending long stretches there each time.
“It takes time and knowledge to capture their personalities and freeze — in a single shot, in a fraction of a second — those anthropomorphic expressions that are essential to making a connection with the viewer,” she said.
Making a connection with the viewer is certainly critical to the success of the conservation message she aims to spread through her photography. As a polar regions photographer, she understands the significance of the impact climate change is having on the northernmost and southernmost parts of the planet.
She points out that in the Arctic, glaciers and sea ice are vanishing at an unprecedented rate, while in Antarctica, more snow is falling due to more evaporation, which affects penguin reproduction as snow makes it difficult to find the pebbles they need to build nests, and warmer summers have meant the presence of new plant species. In addition, chinstrap and adelie penguin populations have been on the decline because they feed on krill that depend on sea ice, while gentoo penguins have been increasing in numbers due to their more varied diet, Gilardini said.
Given the obvious signs of climate change and the urgency to do something before it is too late, Gilardini sees her primary duty as a conservation photographer as using, as she termed it, “the sheer power of beautiful imagery” to inspire a greater respect toward nature from the general public. After all, images touch people in a way that the hard numbers of science publications cannot.
Toward that end, she strives for simplicity in her photographic compositions, which she sees as the best way to connect directly with the viewer’s emotions.
“Photography is not just an art form. It is one of the most important and powerful mediums of communication we have,” she insisted. “[I]t is in fact the only universal language understood by everyone, regardless of color, creed, nationality or culture.”
She sees to it that she can be an ambassador for mother nature, and with this has come a life that feels more fulfilling than ever before. She is humbled at the comparative smallness of our presence relative to the vastness of the universe all around us and the interconnectedness of humanity and other species, and feels in her heart’s core that nature really is our “mother” in that nature sustains us.
“Respecting nature also means respecting myself and humankind,” Gilardini said. “I love nature for its beauty, and I learned to be grateful for every single day of my life.”
Although many headlines show the selfishness of people in prioritizing profit over the health of our planet, one thing Gilardini said she finds hope in is seeing the images of millions of young people — the decision-makers of the future — marching to demand climate action.
She also sees the digital technologies available to us today as giving us an upper hand in tackling the climate crisis. In particular, the internet and social media allow us to share images that inspire action to protect the environment to more people than ever before.
To her, being able to raise this awareness is more important than any personal recognition she receives for her work. For example, one of her polar bear images, titled “Motherhood,” was awarded the Grand Prize at the Windland Smith Rice Nature’s Best Awards and was exhibited at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, DC along with one of her videos for a year.
“I was thrilled and felt personally proud of the recognition, but the most important thing to me is that the image reached 7 million viewers and raised awareness of the issues that polar bears face with habitat loss due to climate change,” she said.
Not all of us have platforms like hers, and most of us certainly do not have deep pockets or political connections where we can lobby for policies to protect the earth. But Gilardini wants us to know that every one of us who cares about the planet can do something to help.
“No matter how small or big your social-media platform, every single person has friends and family,” she said. “Share your knowledge. Be an ambassador for nature. Try to reach and mentor new nature ambassadors. Help them lead, by applying the same love and passion for our home planet that we all have.”