It’s not very often that a Photocraft talk begins with words from a saint. Tonight’s speaker, John Nathan, started with a quote attributed to St Augustine: ‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.’ It was fascinating tonight to, as it were, open another page of that book with the help of spellbinding photography.

Canoeing by a Glacier – copyright John Nathan

John Nathan is an amateur photographer and retired GP, who has been a member of the Royal Photographic Society for over thirty years and a judge for the SPA since 2011 (we much enjoyed his judging at Photocraft last September). His particular photographic passion is travel photography. He has travelled the world, including in 1994 as a member of the British Mount Everest Medical expedition. By the way, John is donating the fee for tonight’s talk to the Himalayan Trust, a charity devoted to supporting the mountain people of Nepal. I really applaud this two-way relationship with the subjects of his photography – not just a case of taking photos of a beautiful region but also giving something back to benefit its people.

His aim in all his travel photography is to ‘give viewers an essence of the place’ and to give ‘a feeling of what it is like to stand there’. In July 2008, he did a circumnavigation of Spitzbergen. He took lots of pictures and produced prints, from which he was awarded the distinction of being an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. Tonight’s talk was a chance to relish his pictures of the wildlife and grand scenery around Spitzbergen and to take a look at the panel of images that he successfully submitted for the ARPS award.

But where on earth is Spitzbergen (aka Svalbard)? I confess I had to rush to Google to find out and discovered it’s a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole, population under 3000 and temperature predicted to dip below -12°C this Wednesday night (and we thought it was cold in Wallington!). The circumnavigation began at Longyearbyen, the most northerly permanently inhabited settlement in the world. John loves remote travel. To properly ‘feel’ a place he avoids staying in plush hotels or on luxury cruise ships and during this expedition he was on board a modest-sized Russian vessel in a party of approximately one hundred.

Arctic Light – copyright John Nathan

July was a good time to be in Spitzbergen, during their four months of perpetual daylight. Obviously, it wouldn’t have worked so well in the winter, during their four months of twenty four hour darkness! The Arctic light was amazing, John pointed out, even when the sky was cloudy. The blue hue of old ice was a wonderful sight, as were cold-feeling vistas with a slight hint of pink in the sky above. Some of our screens will have done better than others during the Zoom event at conveying the quality of the Arctic light, but I, for one, got a real sense of what he meant.  

John was a Canon user back then and went heavily laden with camera equipment. In the event, he found that, for the greatest proportion of his pictures, he used his trusty 70-200mm f2.8 Canon lens, at high ISO and with a shutter speed usually above 1/500 second (since he was usually photographing from the boat or rigid-inflatable). His greatest challenge was preserving the charge in his camera batteries – the damp killed batteries even quicker than the intense cold. John told us he was on deck eighteen hours a day. It was exhausting, but this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and he came back with many outstanding images.

We were taken by means of John’s photography to stunning Arctic scenes – enormous 80-100 feet high glaciers, vast ice-laden landmasses free of human habitation, with beautiful contrasts and contours. I’m rather lost for words – his images were much better than my description! John said that the ‘stark remote beauty completely got me’. It was ‘an unforgettable experience’ and he was so grateful that his photos could bring it all back, nearly fourteen years later. This was a really good example of someone conveying the feelings behind their photos – something we’ve been talking about on the Photocraft Forum recently.

We also met some of the wildlife that he encountered, such as reindeer, walruses, Arctic foxes, little auks, kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars, petrels, Arctic terns, eider ducks, and, most stunning of all, polar bears. When I say that John ‘encountered’ polar bears, of course the organisers of his expedition made sure that he kept at a safe distance from these cuddly-looking but very dangerous animals. He photographed the bears from the sea, at one point in a small Zodiac rigid-inflatable, sailing up and down past the bears for some thirty minutes, but not too close, as polar bears can swim! When the party were on land, they had to be protected by armed sentries against the threat of attack. To my surprise, John pointed out that polar bears aren’t completely white and actually look ‘yellowish’. He certainly came back with some amazing pictures of polar bears – I particularly enjoyed the ones with their cubs.

Polar Bear & Cubs – copyright John Nathan

The beauty of the landscapes and wildlife didn’t blind John to some of the less perfect aspects of the area. Even in 2008 there was evidence of global warming, with a noticeably receding glacier. And his images of whale bones and walrus remains were a reminder of the scale of past commercial hunting. John said ‘I would like wildlife to be shot by nothing but a camera’. Amen to that!  

John took thousands of images on the tour. They weren’t all successful ‘keepers’ but many were and there were certainly enough for him to put together a carefully balanced set of fifteen pictures that won him his ARPS distinction. He ended tonight’s talk by showing us his ARPS panel.

Thank you, John, for a truly amazing travel documentary!   

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