(Photo courtesy to ladzinski.com)
Carnegie Mellon University

National Geographic photographer Keith Ladzinski on his experience in Antarctica, climate change

The mountains in the background, gray rock dressed in patches of snow, glow golden from the angled sun. The sea, dotted with a few ice floes, is mostly clear with slight tints reflecting the mountains above. On top of one of the ice, stand a polar bear, its fur dripping wet.  

National Geographic photographer Keith Ladzinski observes this scene in Greenland, photography equipment in tow. Click. It’s a frame of a world changing as rapidly as the ice underneath the polar bear’s paws. 

Ladzinski’s work has had a wide reach: he has 1.6 million followers on Instagram and his photos and videos have been featured by National Geographic and the New York Times, among other organizations. His photographic style is versatile, reflecting his passion for finding the beauty and adventure in our world and his hope to make a positive difference.

From menacing stormy and dramatic skies in the heart of the U.S., to rock and ice climbers whose pursuits are designed to take your breath away in awe, to stunning landscapes and dynamic, soulful photos of the wildlife that populate these landscapes, Ladzinski has documented the diversity of mankind and what people can see in nearly every corner of the world. 

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Ladzinski has come a long way from when he started doing photography. He started in 1995 as a teenager who had gotten a camera mostly to take recreational photographs. 

Ladzinski said that he did not have any serious intentions, as his main interests involved outdoor recreational activities such as skateboarding and mountain biking.

As he matured in the art, he started working with sports and outdoor magazines.

Working for these magazines not only allowed Ladzinski to connect with top athletes but also introduced him to new clients, as many of these athletes were sponsored by brands such as North Face. Sponsoring brands were interested in photographs of the athletes in the field, creating new opportunities for Ladzinski to sell his work.  

He also started teaching at photography workshops that were sponsored by National Geographic Adventure, a magazine from National Geographic Society that is no longer in circulation. Gradually, through the connections he was able to make with the editors via these workshops, he got the sense of being integrated into the group of National Geographic contributors. 

In 2012 he went on his first full assignment for the parent National Geographic magazine. He was able to make a small contribution to the magazine and produced a television episode for National Geographic Channel, and afterward started getting more consistent work from National Geographic.

Reflecting on his journey to National Geographic, he said that nurturing good relationships was crucial to standing out amidst a wide pool of competition.

In addition, he emphasizes the importance of having good ideas in getting the attention of potential clients. 

“There’s an abundance of good work,” Ladzinski said. “[But] good work accompanied by a good idea — that’s high currency right there.” 

His first, and one of his notable, assignments were in Antarctica, documenting rock climbers scaling cliffs in a mountain range that had never seen a human footprint.  

For him, adventure means more than what most of us would dare to take on.

With the tough weather conditions on the continent and the challenges of climbing even in good weather, Ladzinski called it “one of the hardest expeditions in [his] life.” 

Yet, he was drawn to this extreme task.

“Exploration is really about seeing the unknown and experiencing the unknown and showing people the unknown,” Ladzinski said. 

It’s not all about documenting daring exploits on his assignments, though. Ladzinski, like many in his field, is passionate about protecting the environment and raising awareness of how human activities can impact the planet.

On another assignment in Antarctica, he documented a continent rapidly changing due to climate change and the overfishing of krill, which are near the bottom of many food chains there but are also commercially prized for use as fish feed and its oils that are used in health supplements. 

Between climate change decimating sea ice and wreaking havoc on all levels of the food chain (including the krill that feed on sea ice algae), and the fishing boats, the extent of potential damage on the ecosystem was very concerning. 

With that piece, he hoped to raise awareness of the unsustainability of what’s happening in a corner of the world most will never visit and a place which is in the legislative domain of several countries. He pointed out that although it is difficult to get many countries to agree on legislative protections for Antarctica, public awareness could help pressure governments to take action. 

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He is now working on a National Geographic story on the Great Lakes region — which comprise 20% of the freshwater in the world. He is focusing on the many environmental issues it faces, such as pollution, invasive species and climate change. 

“I’m just shocked by how mismanaged the levels of pollution [are],” Ladzinski said, calling the companies that are polluting the Great Lakes region “irresponsible.” 

Ladzinski wants people to understand that climate change denial originates from people selfishly spreading misinformation for their own benefit, and has harsh words for those who try to deny the facts that are as clear as day.

As just one example, he mentioned that in the late 1970s, some polluter companies paid for ads in newspapers that resembled legitimate newspaper articles but claimed that the evidence regarding climate change had been debunked. 

Ladzinski also finds it unbelievable and infuriating that even with mounting evidence of climate change such as Arctic areas on fire that has never burned in human history, not to mention the many charts and graphs documenting a clear warming trend over the last century, some people will still try to insist that the reality is not what it is.

Even insurance companies understand that sea level rise is a real threat to some coastal areas and thus are not willing to insure homes built there.

“It’s funny when you hear the counterfacts. The counterfacts are so ridiculous,” he said.  

Psychologically, people might try to publicly deny reality and push so-called alternative facts to others if the actual facts make them uncomfortable by clashing with their deeply-held beliefs or personal desires.

In that vein, Ladzinski sees climate change denial as being generally the result of financial conflicts of interest that the denier doesn’t want to give up. 

“I can be wrong, [but] my cynical opinion is [that climate change deniers are] bought and owned by something,” Ladzinski said. “To me, [being that ignorant] takes a very, very unique set of circumstances.” 

It is already difficult to get different nations with diverging interests and unequal statuses in the world to agree on anything, especially measures that would to any extent require nations to put aside short-term selfish interests.

Climate change denial, while a minority of the population, nonetheless provides a ready excuse for inaction on climate change. And of course, climate change is far from the only urgent problem that we face as a society.

For Ladzinski, it is the younger generation, and young people’s obvious anger about climate change and other social issues that we face, that gives him hope. Inevitably, someday, today’s younger generation will gain the majority of political power.

He believes that the new generation of leaders will do things differently, as they grew up in the background of these issues. Ladzinski has a firm belief that change will happen, though it just takes time.

“What gives me hope is that I know [change] is on the horizon,” he said.