At the Edges of Our World

Editor's Note: The annual TED Conference (Feb. 26-Mar. 4) is an invitation-only affair known as the place where high-tech tycoons, Nobel laureates, and other very smart people gather to share ideas that will inspire. The TED Fellows program was established to give people who wouldn't ordinarily have the opportunity—or the means—a chance to present their remarkable work to an audience that just might include Bill Gates and Al Gore. In a series leading up to TED, will feature interviews conducted via e-mail with a handful of this year's fellows.

Camille Seaman

Camille Seaman works at "the edges of our world." Since 2003, she has been capturing the harsh yet fragile beauty of the remote Arctic landscape.

A Native American, Seaman is an award-winning photographer whose work has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Men's Journal, among many other publications. In 2008, she had a one-person exhibition, The Last Iceberg, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

Seaman, 41, is currently going through the last six years' worth of her images documenting our planet's polar regions, in the hope that it will make "a powerful record" of what that world looks like.

How do people react to your work?
I wanted to make images that would spark some emotional or visceral response, just small reminders of how amazing our planet is, and how lucky we are to call such a place our home.

I think the images (partly due to their foreign nature) strike awe and wonder. Viewers may feel many things, and I am happy that an image has such power. I do not like telling people what they should think or feel. I just like that I can present an image and it sparks its own conversation with a viewer.

Why take photographs of "the edges of our world"?
I had not set out to photograph in these places, it all just evolved. In 1999, I gave up my seat on an oversold flight and was rewarded with a free round-trip ticket to Alaska. This, I realize, was the first step in a direction that has led me to sit here and write this. It was most unexpected, but has been an amazing and bountiful journey. Being at the edges of our planet expanded my understanding of just what our planet is, and all of its intricate interconnections that allow us such a comfortable, a bountiful life here on planet earth.

When you take pictures of the Arctic, how long are you exposed to the elements? Is it dangerous?
I am usually outside for 8-12 hours whether that is on the ship's outer deck or hiking across tundra or ice. I have learned over the years how to dress efficiently, and having the right gear makes all the difference. It doesn't matter whether it's raining, snowing, or dry. I am outside because that is where the images are for me.

Being in polar regions always has an element of danger, whether it's from the sea itself, ice, or animals, but being here is what I enjoy and it's worth the risks if you keep your wits about you. I have been in subzero temperatures many times in many places. In Siberia, for example, it was minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit and with the wind I really felt that!

If you could discuss photography with one person, who would that be?
Probably Martin Parr. His work mystifies me. It seems so opposite of what I do and how I see. I think he could enlighten me about some other ways of seeing.

Who is Martin Parr?
Martin Parr in an English photographer famous for his sarcastic over-colored images of people and social situations.

Do you recall the first picture you took?
I have made images since I was a child, so I don't remember taking my first photo. I do remember each time I press the shutter button that feeling of power, the ability to stop time and capture a moment that flashes before it's never to be seen in that specific way ever again.

In addition to your photography work, you have installed wood floors and rebuilt a motorcycle? Are you naturally curious or handy—or both?
That's funny! Yes, it's true! I just like knowing that I can make things from nothing. I knit often because I have so much time in airports and transit situations. I am a bit of a motor head and technically inclined, as well as just damn curious about my own ability to do things. It keeps my hands busy, and you know the saying about busy hands… I have installed many a hardwood, bamboo, or cork floor. I worked on my own cars and motorcycles until I got a modern car.

What's the one photograph you'd like to take?
Just ONE!? Gee, that is not fair at all! I need a few years to think about that!

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