Richard Sidey on a Photographic Voyage

A Conversation with the Wildlife Filmmaker & Nature Photographer

Walrus, Photography by Richard Sidey

Richard Sidey was born and brought up in Wanaka, New Zealand. His affection towards visual expressions from behind the lenses of the camera started early. But not until his first voyage with Icebreaker to Antarctic did Richard’s creative passion found an outlet.

After this first trip, Richard Sidey has gone on to journey from the deep forests of Darien province in Panama to the pristine islands of South Georgia, from Greenland to the arid Namib desert, not to mention the many expeditions he made to both Arctic and Antarctic.

You often travel to arctic regions and as a part of your journey came face to face with arid deserts of Africa, both of which are examples of utter desolate environment that also nurture life within their harsh terrains. As a traveller and photographer documenting life as it is, how is your experience of it?

Traveling to remote and desolate environments is always exciting because they’re generally the areas with the least human impact, which is also generally better for wildlife (as unfortunate as that is!). Looking at a vast ocean, a polar desert or a mass of sand dunes, it’s easy to think that there is nothing there, but in reality, everything is. Life is everywhere on this planet and sometimes it requires just a little bit of patience or understanding to see it. This is one of the reasons I prefer visiting the Arctic over Antarctica. With Antarctica life is visually abundant around the coastline, and you can see a lot of wildlife in a short time. With the Arctic, you really need to spend time looking and observing and appreciating the subtleties. Photographers like their challenges and I get the greatest satisfaction from capturing or experiencing a close encounter in the Arctic.

Northern Fulmar, Photography by Richard Sidey
Northern Fulmar

Does being brought up amongst the natural wealth of New Zealand influenced you directly or indirectly to have a greater appreciation for all things natural?

Growing up around nature dictated this lifestyle and profession for me, absolutely. Now, when I leave my mountains (the Southern Alps of New Zealand) behind on a contract or expedition somewhere, the yearning to return to the mountains never ceases until I spot them through the plane window on my return.

You have visited arctic many times. Have you focussed on a different facet of life over there in each of your visits?

My visits to the Arctic are very opportunistic. I get there by working on cruise ships as their expedition photographer and taking pictures and videos of the tourists onboard. These ships are generally in two locations per day, with only 3–4 hours in each spot, so I really just have to make the best of what nature delivers, in terms of weather, sightings and logistics. I definitely focus on the natural side of things. While 100 lenses are pointing at the ship in ice, mine is usually in the other direction, such as getting a whisp of cloud cresting the horizon.

Curious Walrus, Photography by Richard Sidey
Curious Walrus

On your journeys are you more of an open-minded traveller willing to be surprised or a meticulous storyteller with predetermined focus area?

Having travelled for the last 10 years in a large variety of jobs and cultures, I believe I am an open-minded traveller, and I have more of an understanding of where people are coming from than I did in the past.

Black Guillemots, Photography by Richard Sidey
Black Guillemots

What is your first-hand experience of the changing nature of Arctic?

Absolutely huge – this place is changing incredibly quickly and there’s no denying that. I have witnessed the huge loss of sea ice in the past decade as well as the reduction of glaciers. The ships I work on are now able to travel to areas that were impossible just a few years ago because of the lack of summer sea–ice. A colleague of mine visited the North Pole this year and the ice was too thin to walk on at the pole. The situation in the Arctic is that the ocean is mostly now first-year ice and in the final stages of disintegration. I believe that in 2-3 years there will be no summer sea ice in the Arctic at all, and the result of this will make the next decade very interesting indeed.

Does the issue of arctic ice melting and change of weather pattern only remain a fashionable topic to discuss over or the genuine concerns translated into real actions?

I find it fascinating how we always talk about they and them. Everyone is one of they and them. You and I are one of they and them. We can all do something and we all make a difference.

Arctic Free of Ice, Photography by Richard Sidey
Arctic Free of Ice

Your journey to the nooks and corners of the world to document many hues of nature and life are fuelled by your adventurous self. How the artist in you stay in harmony with your adventurous mind?

I have found myself in situations becoming blaze with the amount of travel and experiences I get put up too, and I feel terrible for it! So I force myself to view every experience with fresh eyes and look for that deeper level of understanding, push myself out of my comfort zone, and that itself makes my art better and more rewarding.

Would you like to share any particular story or incident that is fresh in your memory?

Getting thrown out of a zodiac into icy waters by a popper (a submerged iceberg rising to the surface) is still pretty fresh. (Luckily I managed to save my camera otherwise I would not have the same enthusiasm for this one!) But really my best stories come from close up encounters when thing are happening as they would when no people were around, or when you see something really special. Recently I was standing on the bow box of a zodiac in Antarctica when a Minke whale swam directly underneath me, a foot below the glassy surface and it rolled to look at me as it passed just beneath my feet. I felt a bit silly with my telephoto lens, which was too large to focus on that short distance and for something of that scale. So we just looked at each other, not really knowing who was more interested in who!

You deal both with photography and filmmaking. Do you consider one to be the extension of another or approach both the forms in mutually exclusive ways?

I am required to do both with my contracts, and unfortunately, both usually suffer compared to if I am focused on one. However, different situations fit different forms and some things suit video better, some stills. They both have similarities, in terms of composition and exposure, but in an art form they are completely different and need to be approached individually.

The young Richard who jumped to the opportunity of boarding on a ship has matured over the years behind the lens. How does he describe this artistic journey thus far?

Indeed – I’m 30 tomorrow! I was 21 when I boarded my first vessel on a vodka-filled adventure to the Ross Sea with the Russians. Little did I know that opportunity would change my career – and my life. As for the artistic side of it all – I am always learning, and I think I will forever be. I still don’t have my one dream shot, and as time goes on and my self-expectations rise, maybe I will never achieve that. But I know that if the 21-year-old Richard saw my work today he would be fully stoaked, and that is most satisfying.

Portrait of Richard Sidey

Richard Sidey

‘Home is where the heart is’ for Richard. He loves reading Being Caribou by Karsten Heuer, or listening to Efterklang’s Piramida while sitting on the balcony of his home soaking in the natural beauty all around him. Spaghetti Bolognese is one item that he really cannot resist devouring.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Richard Sidey