Deception Island - Snapshot Photography and Art

Rusted Tank in the snow at Whalers Bay on Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands archipelago.

Deception Island, part of the South Shetland Islands archipelago, is located off the Antarctic Peninsula.

I explored the abandoned whaling station at Port Foster on Deception Island, during a snowstorm, as part of a photography tour I co-ran with my friend and colleague David Burren.

This post features documentary portrait photos as well as more artistic interpretations of the landscape surrounding the abandoned whaling station at Port Foster on Deception Island.

The foul weather we encountered made photography challenging. But the experience was exhilarating and, to my mind, one of the most memorable from the tour.

We sailed from Ushuaia in Southern Argentina on the Polar Pioneer, a Russian ice-breaker operated by the Australian tour company Aurora Expeditions.

David Campbell photographed while exploring an old oil drum during a snowstorm at Port Foster by the shores of Whalers Bay on Deception Island, Antarctica.

Rustic Background for Portraits

The above photo features tour participant, David Campbell, who had been photographing inside the interior of an old boiler at the abandoned Hektor Whaling Station during a snow storm.

I remember entering the space to find shelter as much as through any need to explore what was inside this old shell.

But once out of the wind I realized the potential this gritty, rustic background offered for portraits.

I immediately went about photographing David and his camera, all rugged up against the rather extreme weather we were experiencing.

It’s not a pretty picture. But it’s interesting, authentic and documentary in nature.

Since this trip David has gone on to travel to Spitsbergen in the Arctic, in search of polar bears, and to Alaska to photograph the Northern Lights.

Photography tours are a blast. Sometimes that term can be used quite literally as this photo of Ken in a snowstorm on Deception Island, Antarctica illustrates.

Portrait Photography in the Snow

This photo features tour participant Ken experiencing some of the foul weather that had been served up to us that day.

The tour was divided, primarily, between three different interest groups:

  • photographers

  • kayakers

  • scuba divers

There were also more general tourists and, I think I'm right to say, that Ken and his wife Jan fell into that group.

It's a Snapshot and, Sometimes, that’s Enough

In the case of the photo of Ken I was as warm as toast. Clearly Ken wasn't, and that influenced the way I went about making the picture.

Ken looked really cold and I just couldn't get past the fact that his glasses were covered in ice.

I made the photo as a simple record of the location and of Ken’s experience being there. It’s a snapshot, but there’s still value in it.

That whole notion of the eyes being a window to the soul is such a beautiful concept that underpins the success of many great portraits.

As much as anything else this picture is the antithesis of that concept. And that's one of the reasons why I made it.

Ken was a great model, which I appreciated, though I’m not sure if he enjoyed the process as much as I did.

Two Desperate Views

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Landscapes Of The Mind

Being from South Eastern Australia I've grown up without the joys and hardships associated with living in a much colder part of the world.

In particular I refer to long months living in a world covered by snow and ice.

To experience snow I've had to travel considerable distances, usually to overseas destinations. As a result I still find photographing snow and ice to be a fairly unique experience. In fact I love it!

The photo directly above, made looking out the window from an abandoned hut in Port Foster, Deception Island onto a bleak, snow-covered landscape is interesting to me.

I feel the photo suggests three landscapes, which I can describe as follows:

  • The exterior and quite desolate view of the landscape, during a heavy snowstorm.

  • The interior landscape of this historic hut, which seems to offer only a bare minimum of protection against the harsh weather outside.

  • A psychological landscape, which I like to refer to as a 'landscape of the mind'.

David Burren in the ruins of a building at Port Foster on Deception Island in the South Shetland Island Group, Antarctica.

The photo of my friend and colleague David Burren was made under slightly cheerier conditions inside one of the ruined buildings at Fort Foster on Deception Island.

Because the photo was made in more comfortable surroundings than those of David Campbell and Ken I was able to take a little longer making the picture.

What’s more the light and, therefore, the colors within the scene were much more pleasing to work with.

The light is coming in through large open gaps in the building, where sections of the walls have fallen down, on either side of David and also behind me.

It’s important to understand that large light sources produce a soft, flattering quality of light.

Some of the light that entered through those large holes in the building bounced off interior walls, further softening the quality of the light that reflected onto David.

You can that by taking a few steps out of the weather quite flattering portraits can be made.

Ruins of a building at Port Foster on Deception Island, Antarctica.

Photograph The People That Inhabit Your World

All three portraits were made more for the guys I photographed than for me.

We photographers often feature in too few photos so, where I can, I try to make some beautiful photos of my friends and peers.

While my preference is to make beautiful, life affirming images there are times when the conditions I’m working under make that exceptionally difficult to achieve.

Sometimes the best option is to take a different approach and opt for visually interesting photos that may not, necessarily, produce a particularly flattering likeness of the person being photographed.

That might mean more character driven portraits or photos that are as much about the weather and or the surrounding environment as they are about the person being photographed.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

After all, these kind of photos may well be the ones that best describe the most memorable moments of a trip. They may also elicit the most enthusiastic comments from friends and family.

There’s nothing wrong with making straight documentary images that record, for posterity, the following:

  • Where we’ve been

  • What we’ve done

  • Who we were with

After all, it’s not everyday you get to go to Antarctica.

The Value of Snapshot Photography

There is value in the snapshot. Sometimes that value becomes evident overtime.

After all photos are time capsules that hold in trust memories of how we looked, where we went and the things we did in years gone by.

Photos are important as they document our life’s journey.

On one level our photos serve a documentary purpose and, some would say, that there’s no need for those photos to explore any deeper meanings, metaphors or messages.

It's not the way I prefer to work or, for that matter, live. But it's okay to make those kind of basic record photos, every now and again.

They function as a visual record of important moments and events that we’ve witnessed during our lives.

It’s not necessarily art we’re making, but it’s certainly history that’s being recorded.

Snapshots allow us to see how friends and family members looked back in days gone by.

It can be great fun to look back, with a bit of a giggle, at these photos. But that’s not to dismiss the value some of your snapshot photography will have in years to come.

Some of these visual memories may become critically important over time. For example I’ve only ever seen a small handful of photos of my grandparents.

I sure wish there were more as it would give me a better understanding of who they were and the life they lived.

A group of old rusted oil drums at Port Foster on Deception Island, Antarctica.

Photography as Art

Photography, as art, isn’t so much about simply recording what we see in front of our camera’s lenses.

Art is about intent, meaning and exploring what those subjects or scenes suggest about ourselves, the world in which we live and the Human Condition.

Make Of The World What You Will

It’s true that we may not always have a great deal of control over the following:

  • The scenes or subjects in front of our camera

  • The weather we photograph under

  • What happens to us while we’re there

But what we make of those circumstances, events and interactions is what matters most.

The choices we make determine our reality in the present and, as a consequence, in the future.

Choice is a gift, and all great gifts come with responsibility and consequences. Do they not?

Our lives are determined not so much by what happens to us, but by what we choose to make of what happens to us.

Experience can be a useful thing in guiding us to make the right decision. But what we make out of what’s going on inside our own head, right now, is all that really matters.

Because it’s that decision that determines how we feel, in this very moment, as well as what world we create for ourselves in the next.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru