An Interview with Wildlife Photographer Florian Ledoux

National Geographic

(ALL PHOTOS IN THIS ARTICLE BY FLORIAN LEDOUX)

RON B. WILSON: Florian, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for me and agreeing to be featured here on my blog. For those readers who are not familiar with you or your photography, please introduce yourself and describe your work:

FLORIAN: Ron, Thank you so much for allowing me to talk about my work here, you are such a nice person and it is a pleasure to discuss my work here with you.

I am a wildlife photographer based in the north of Norway, and I focus my work on the polar regions, conservation stories and climate change. During my career, I’ve had the opportunity to be published in a few magazines like National Geographic alongside Paul Nicklen, Time US, GEO, Paris Match, Nat Geo Traveler. I have received a few awards, which I am really grateful and humble about as it gave my work’s message a lot more visibility than I could have ever imagined in my life. A part of my work is also known for the drone perspective.

RON B. WILSON: I heard you say once, “Nature is everything to me.” What did you mean by that and how does that affect your life and work?

FLORIAN: Nature is everything to me in a way that it is the place where I feel connected to the rest of the world. I have a mind full of questions on what is life’s purpose, who are we as human?

How can the natural world be so perfectly balanced and in harmony?

Nature is the place where it all makes sense, the place where I find my answers. It feels like it is where it all began! These are our origins. Not only do we come from nature, but we are part of this complex ecosystem, the mysterious equation called LIFE.

Mother nature is the place where I feel inspired. It starts from when I wake up at home in the north of Norway with a view on the fjord and the mountains while having my breakfast, to the time of the day I go up and climb a mountain top. When I find myself in the remote Arctic, co-existing in harmony with the wildlife. I know that this is where everything makes total sense. I know it because I feel it deep within myself. It is a deep vibe that consumes my body and soul in its entirety. At this moment, the urge to create an image that I would remember for the rest of my life with a strong message to protect it comes naturally to me.

I just use my heart and creativity to compose an image, but nature does all the work. I clearly think that this connection I talk about is what is missing for most people and the main reason why we can’t solve the significant environmental issues we are now facing.

RON B. WILSON: I know you use drones in a lot of your work. In your opinion, how have drones changed photography?

FLORIAN: Indeed, a drone’s bird’s eyes became a major part of my work. I was always seeking a new way to show our planet earth. The drone is a revolution, allowing me to capture images that wouldn’t have been possible with a helicopter. It is also eco-friendlier.

I believe in and aspire to bring a new perspective of capturing wildlife we already know well from traditional photography. I think these images allow us to observe and document their behaviors from a new angle, revealing the animals in their entirety as well as in the broader habitat and landscape, in a way not before possible. It is a new way of learning about the white northern part of our planet.

Drones need to be used with care and ethic, especially when it comes to documenting wildlife, but it is actually the same as for a normal wildlife photographer: he wouldn’t run toward the animal.

RON B. WILSON: What kind of drone do you currently use, and for someone interested in introducing drone photography and video into their work, what brand and model do you suggest to start with?

FLORIAN: I started with the first drone generation Phantom 2 and quickly switched to the Phantom 3. They were still at a really early stage of the drone era. After that, I switched to the Phantom 4 Pro + in 2017 that I still have today. It is a wonderful machine.

I also now have an Inspire 2 mounted with an X7 full-frame camera. I love how robust it is, but the size of the machine isn’t the most practicable. I think that really soon I will be equipped with the new Mavic Pro 2.

The brand I have always recommend to people that want to start in drone photography is DJI. They are the leader in that field.

RON B. WILSON: You photograph a lot of polar bears. What attracts you to them? Is there something you’ve learned by observing them so closely that most of us might not know about polar bears?

FLORIAN: I love them! They are so incredible! I call them the majestic beast. They are so powerful, as most people imagine them to be, they can just kill you in one strike, but at the same time, they are so delicate and so peaceful. Can you imagine how careful the female needs to be when a newborn cub is between 500g to 800g, and she can’t retract her claw?

I got quite close to them a few times, and I never saw them showing any sign of aggressiveness. They walk with such a peaceful, graceful pace.

One of the highlights during my wildlife photography career was undoubtedly my close encounters with these majestic yet gentle polar bears. For me, there is no better feeling than being close to those magnificent mammals, sharing a space with them. I will always remember that moment I saw my first polar bear, I cried with emotions during the three hours we stayed close to them. I discovered it swimming, and by the time I put down my binoculars to announce it to our captain, he was also already crying.

RON B. WILSON: What other animals do you concentrate on photographing?

FLORIAN: Basically, everything that lives in the polar region and is facing threats. Indirectly all the animals are facing a threat with the decrease of the sea ice, which is either a platform to rest, feed, reproduce, or merely the ecosystem at the base of the food chain. I have been mostly photographing large animals, like narwhals, belugas, walruses, crabeater seals, leopard seal, whales, and penguins.

RON B. WILSON: Why do you prefer working in the arctic, and how did it become the center of where you shoot?

FLORIAN: I prefer both the Arctic and Antarctica, probably equally but in a different way. I love those regions of the planet for their immense landscape and nature, which remains wild and almost untouched by human activity. You can sail, hike, and explore for several days or weeks without witnessing any sign of human presence. The scale of those landscapes where incredible species live draws me there. I was deeply touched while I took my first journey above the Arctic Circle when I was ten years old with my parents, and this feeling is something that is still growing in intensity as I explore further.

RON B. WILSON: I remember you saying at your talk in Sharjah at The Xposure Festival that you decided to quit your secure job to follow your passion as a photographer. Can you tell me that story again?

FLORIAN: After this journey in the Arctic, when I was 10, I went back to France and wasn’t really clever according to the system, so I did some technical studies where I learned how to fix airplanes and helicopters. At 19 years old, I went into the military, where I worked as a technician.

Quickly I realized that I wasn’t in the right place. Nature was missing in everything I was doing, and the call for it only grew. So during the next 10 years, I made my way back to nature. I spent a lot of time in the Arctic on my holidays and taught myself photography. This helped me to eventually become a photojournalist in the navy to gain more skills. But I was already committed to nature.

I did my first expedition to Greenland the same year I became a photographer in the navy and used my new skills to document more of this Arctic country. It was a lot of investment of my own time and money, but it was the call for my passion. I was just following my heart.

After a few years of going to Greenland, I built a network of people that allowed me to embark onboard a long sailing expedition for two months in 2017. The only big problem was that I didn’t have any holiday left from work, just about two weeks. I had to quit and reinvest all my savings into new photo equipment. Of course, everyone at work told me I couldn’t do this and I wouldn’t make it. But I did not care about what they thought, so I just went for a lifetime expedition that has changed my life and my commitment to protecting the natural world.

RON B. WILSON: The name of the talk was “The Photo That Changed My Life.” Was that really one image, and if so, what photo was that?

FLORIAN: Well, during this long expedition, as the result of long hours of work, I got this aerial image of the polar bear leaping the melting ice of the Arctic during summer. An image that hasn’t been seen before with a strong message behind it. The photo is at the crossing of three-point: Creativity, Conservation, and Science. This image has received 12 awards, including the title of Drone Photographer of the Year 2018, Grand prize Drone Photography 2017, and other prizes in conservation. The image allowed me to bring the entire message of my work out to the public and created a lot of meaningful connections. Of course, then it was essential to have the rest as storytelling.

RON B. WILSON: Can you explain the project in Greenland you are working on concerning the glacier melting, and what you would like the world to know about the scientific findings that resulted?

FLORIAN: I traveled one more time to Greenland last May as part of a four photographer team. Our Arctic Art Project team finds visual evidence of the latest scientific finding on climate change in Greenland.

A two-week science communication expedition to Western Greenland revealed many of the dramatic changes scientists have been quantifying in recent papers. This allowed the Arctic Arts Project team to document visually what the science brings to light and to share it with the public.

When we met in Copenhagen, the leading climate researcher Jason Box, gave us some alarming data: “2019 is setting up to be a very high-melt year for Greenland due to several factors; thin snow cover from a dry winter and melt starting 3-4 weeks earlier than usual. These conditions at the start of the melt season allow the albedo feedback to maximize its impact.”

The warm weather (after a dry winter) has a swift and meaningful impact on meltwater coming off the great ice sheet that covers so much of Greenland. In a flight over the western side of the ice sheet, they saw, in this endless expanse of white, huge amounts of blue. The albedo effect (albedo is Latin for “whiteness” and refers to the reflectivity of a surface) changes dramatically when a surface is no longer white. More of the sun’s energy is absorbed by darker surfaces. This, in turn, causes more ice to melt and increases the amount of water that will flow to the ocean.

The warmer air melts the snow and ice earlier in the year, creating water-filled bogs in the tundra. This water wakes the plants, and, when it happens so early in the spring, these plants can bloom before the insects hatch to pollinate them. The result of several years of early bloom will be catastrophic to these ecosystems as the plants can no longer reproduce effectively, and the animals that feed on them are left with less and less food.

The fishing boats were out early, harvesting thousands of more tons of fish each additional day they could work. A warmer Arctic is a very different place.

The Project’s team was stunned by the immediate effects of an early, warm spring. They saw temperatures of 16 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) in Ilulissat. People were wearing shorts and sundresses where normally their parkas and boots would still be needed in late May. The sea ice was nearly gone when dog sleds would typically still be running along with it.

RON B. WILSON: I know you’ve had several exhibitions and award ceremonies already this year and many more coming up soon. Can you tell me about a few that you are most proud of, and their dates and locations?

FLORIAN: The past event and prizes I have been the proudest of and honored are, The Drone Awards 2018, the Xposure 2019 Sharjah, where we met, nature’s best photography, which allowed me to have my work exhibited at the Natural History Museum of Washington.

An upcoming list of events:

Film Festival Nature Namur (Belgium) 17-20th October 2019

– Siena International Photo Awards + Drone Awards (Italy) 23-28th October 2019

– Drone Film Festival South Korea Jeju 28th October-3rd November 2019

– Agora Award ceremony (Spain) 5-8th November 2019 (to be confirmed)

– Peugeot/Dji Drone Film Festival Award Gala (Germany) 9-11st November 2019

– Nature Ecology Photography Exhibition (Sanmenxia, China) 14-19th November 2019

Later in winter:

– Fine Art exhibition at the Carousel of the Louvre in Paris 12-15th December 2019

Those events result in a few flights, indeed. But people have to understand that I don’t go on holiday but in those different places to put light on issues, bring awareness about the polar regions with talks and print exhibitions. Honestly, if someone tells me there are no issues and you don’t need to do it, I’d rather do something else. It is a crazy madness, and once you have started to dig in it and work on it, you can’t reverse it; otherwise, it feels like life has no sense for me.

RON B. WILSON: Can you tell me about “I Am Fragile” and what is next for you and your career?

FLORIAN: I Am Fragileis a mini-documentary highlighting the beauty and fragility of the Arctic regions, this short film was screened over the world as part of the Ocean Film Festival World Tour 2019 and has been displayed at a few big Museum like the Red Dot Design Museum of Singapore (2018-2019-2020)

I shot I Am Fragile during this expedition in Nunavut. I wanted to create something with emotion, and try to reconnect people with the beauty of the powerful, yet fragile Arctic.

RON B. WILSON: You have a fantastic following on social media and on Instagram in particular. What is your process for attracting followers and staying engaged with them?

FLORIAN: Thanks, but I do not have so much actually. Some more celebrated photographers have a few million followers. If you think about that, even with a million followers, we only reach a tiny part of the world population… But so far, what I do is that I use a platform called “Buffer” to schedule my post in advance, cross-post them on three different social media pages at the same time. Then I just try to keep it human and respond to people, talk with them, and thank people for their kind words and support. Once I remember, I even chose five people that always use to comment a lot and put nice things, and I sent them a 20x30cm print of the Polar Bear and Arctic Fox in the snow. They were so excited, and I was happy to do it.

RON B. WILSON: Thank you so much for the time and for being an inspiration. Is there anything else you would like to add to our conversation?

FLORIAN: Thanks again for your interest in my work Ron, and your interesting and meaningful questions.

I would like to end with this critical thought. Since I was a young boy, I heard about climate change issues, more or less taken seriously. Now that I just turned 30, nothing has changed in our way of living… Nothing has changed except the climate. So I tried recently to step back from this and analyze it. We all focus on finding new technology and innovation to change it, but we keep thinking the same way. What we are currently doing is that we put water, innovation, and solutions on a huge fire, but let the fuel come at the source, our way of thinking and see us distant from nature, tie to the economic system. In the end, the fire only keeps growing.

I do think we need to reconnect people to nature if we want to solve the major issues we are now facing. We need to live in balance and harmony with the planet and stop harvesting it. If we were part of the natural world, we would not destroy it.

Photography can help us not only to bring light on issues but also to reconnect us to the natural world, make people understand that nature creates this entire beauty.

Thank you.

Follow Florian on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/florian_ledoux_photographer/

And learn more bout his work on his website at: https://www.florian-ledoux.com

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