Photographer Jenny Feast
Photographer Jenny Feast, Gracetown born and bred, but nowadays posted to far-flung corners of the planet in her work for the Weather Bureau, recently spent 18 months in Antarctica. Along with some of her amazing images, Jenny gives us some insight into living and working in this extreme environment.
What was the reason behind the journey to Antarctica?
I think I always wanted to go to Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to go to the most isolated places on the planet – the unique, off the track places that people don’t get to see. I work as a Meteorological Observer for the Weather Bureau which has allowed me to live and work in some pretty extreme places. In 2010 during a six month stint living and working in the Coral Sea on a tiny atoll (Willis Island) with three other people and a hundred thousand seabirds, I was selected for an 18 month posting to Antarctica with only a month’s break in between, an opportunity I really couldn’t say no to. It was a challenge, and I knew it was never going to be a walk in the park, but I’m pretty sure someone along the way told me I couldn’t do it, and that doing back to back remote postings couldn’t be done. So I did. Never tell a girl she can’t do something.
I was posted to Davis Station (which is in the Australian Antarctic Territory, between Perth and Africa in longitude) as the officer in charge of the weather program for a summer / winter stint – no breaks. Including training in Hobart, a month on the ship to get down there, and a couple of weeks on the ship getting home- it was the most phenomenal (and coldest) year and a half of my life.
What are some of the challenges that come to mind shooting photos in such extreme conditions?
It’s really hard to narrow it down. Probably the biggest (and most predictable) challenge in Antarctica is the cold. Keeping things like batteries charged means walking around with them against your skin under all your layers of clothing, it sucks the life out of gloveless fingers, and it really limits the amount of time you get to spend setting up for shoots and getting your shots right. You learn really quickly how to dress right, how to layer right, how to cover every bit of skin so that you can make the absolute most of your time outside. The light down there is super tricky too. Shooting white on white with a little blue in the mix makes for technically difficult photos trying to get enough contrast and still capture the stunning landscape. There are only two seasons down there, summer, where there is 24hours of sunlight for three months solid, and winter that has two months where the sun doesn’t break the horizon at all. Each hold their own challenges, but there is plenty of time to practice. Patience and persistence are real assets.
There are blizzards that pop out of nowhere and winds that pick up any inch of dust and sand and pit any glass surfaces. Mail only comes twice a year, so you have to be really careful about where you choose to change lenses and filters. If you mess something up and you don’t have a spare, there’s no magic solution.
The couple of months where the sun doesn’t come up at all can really mess with your mood and your motivation… (I’m selling this place right!). But there are Auroras. The southern lights that light up dark night skies with ghostly green ribbons like nothing you’ve ever seen, and the wildlife and the sheer scale of the place. You are constantly working against the place, the isolation, and the conditions and to a degree yourself- but it is so so worth it.
Any moments that standout while dealing with the vast array of wildlife found in the area?
Honestly, there are so many; seeing seal pups being born, rescuing snow petrels from newly forming grease ice, watching emperor penguins (the only animals that spend the dark winter on the ice) pop out of tide cracks directly infront of your camera…
The wildlife in Antarctica has such limited contact with humans that rather than being scared, they have this innate curiosity of what we are. The Adelie Penguins (around half the size of Emperor’s) down there are so hilarious! If you sit down quietly on the sea ice they will come from miles (literally) to see what you are. It’s so funny to see them barrelling along the sea ice at speed in groups only to have one of them slip over and take nine or ten of his mates out like skittles. It’s pretty validating for those of us with limited coordination when walking on slick surfaces!
On my last day in Antarctica I took one last walk from the ship to one of the Adelie penguin rookeries on an island infront of Davis Station. To set the scene, it was -10 degrees, comparatively warm to the -20s and -30s we’d been accustomed to over the 8 months of winter. I’d taken off my big goose down jacket to sit on the ice to wait for some penguins, hoping they’d come over to say hi. What I didn’t expect was for one of the Adelie’s (pictured below) to be so brazen as to slowly walk all the way up to me and climb on to the edge of my jacket. I could have (and definitely wanted to) picked him up and taken him home with me. It was the most surreal farewell to the most amazing place on the planet. Still sort of regret not sneaking him home with me!
What would you recommend photography wise to anyone wishing to capture images in Antarctica, which on average, is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent?
I was told three things before I went down: take good glass, take a good zoom, take the best kit you possibly can. You don’t know if you’ll ever get to do it again.
It was the most solid advice I was given. All I would add is;
· take a good, heavy tripod, or a tripod with a hook to weigh it down in the wind. You’ll be surpised how much you’ll use it down there and on the way down. Trust me, you can not shoot clear auroras without one. (I tried!)
· Do your research. If you’re going down there, find someone who has been there and ask them every single question you can think of. And then get their email address so you can ask them some more when you think of them. It’s cold, there are some things that you need to learn to do with gloves on which takes time. Learn to dress right – it’ll mean you can shoot longer and better.
· Take a spare. The last thing you want down there is to mess up a camera and not be able to take any photos. Most people take a good quality point and shoot, and honestly, they are priceless.
· Be patient with yourself, the light is different to shooting in Australia, or in the tropics. There are things there that are on scales that honestly have nothing to compare things to in real life – It’s next level. Shoot everything you think you should when you see it – don’t think “I’ll get back here another time and take that photo” because you’ll regret it later. Be kind to yourself when photos don’t turn out the way you want. So many of my best photos were ones I didn’t think much of when I shot them.
· Every now and then, remember to put your camera down and look at things as they are (even if it’s just for a second without breaking it down into ISO and shutterspeed). Some moments in that place are life changing. Sometimes you need a reminder of just how small you are, and just how immense Antarctica is.
Do you have plans to return to Antarctica in the near future?
I don’t have any concrete plans right now but it’s definitely on the cards in a couple of years time. I’d really love to get to Macquarie Island (subantarctic island around halfway between New Zealand and Antarctica). They have the most insane animals there all year round! Plus the landscape looks amazing! No icebergs, but hills and cliffs and beaches… Apparently there’s an awesome point break just off the station if you’re willing to brave the icy water, elephant seals and the killer whales….
If you had to jump on a plane for a remote photo assignment, what’s in the bag and what do you wish could be in there?
Right now it contains Canon 5dMkII, 70-200m, 24- 105mm, 16-35mm, 28mm fixed, 15mm Fish Eye, Canon G10 point and shoot with underwater housing, 580Xii Flash, Remote timer, Sturdy tripod, 4 batteries and 4 CF cards, lens cleaning equipment, chargers, Laptop and multiple spare harddrives, Head torch, mobile phone, reflector, garbage bags and a sense of humour. Hopefully sometime in the next few weeks it will also contain a new Canon 5d MkIII.
One day I’d love to include a Canon 1Dx, a 100- 400mm Zoom, and maybe a sherpa (I’d settle for a donkey) to carry all this around for me, but dreams are free right?
Self taught or Schooled in the art of photography?
Self taught. Mainly in landscapes and wildlife photography, though in the last year I’ve been mentored by a couple of amazing photographers who’ve been really generous with their time and their knowledge which has really allowed me to focus on and improve my people photography. In Antarctica I was always picking stuff up from other photographers down there, and I have a constant competition going with one of my brothers which pushes me to improve. I love that every time I shoot I learn something new. So I would definitely say I’ve been schooled, just not in the common sense of the word.
It must feel fantastic to be published in Australian Geographic magazine, how did the article all come about?
Yep. It was definitely a highlight! It was a bit random actually. I met an author by the name of Jesse Blackadder on my return voyage from Antarctica, who has now written a book detailing the history of the first women in Antarctica. Late last year Jesse was writing an article about women in Antarctica throughout the last forty years and wanted a modern perspective of living and working as one of the only women on a male dominated base, and AG (Australian Geographic) wanted a photographer. The editor of the Australian Antarctic Magazine contacted me just before I got home from the ice about using one of my iceberg images as the cover of their magazine and in a book they were producing. So I think she showed them that and got in touch to check if I’d be up for an interview and some photos for the article, and it just sort of flowed from there…
What’s the photography plans in the future for Jenny Feast?
Right now I’m in the process of building my website and sorting out my portfolio, and I’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline with some book covers and a couple of wedding shoots. Hopefully when the website is up I’ll be able to work on selling some more prints and shooting some more events and weddings and family shoots… and then shooting landscapes in my downtime just because I love it. The photography stuff really took off for me in the last year, and I’m still so excited about taking photos, so I’m just running with the momentum and trying to learn as much as I can on the way.