How do you illustrate the feeling of comfort in one of the most inhospitable environments in the world? This challenge was presented to Canon Ambassador Paolo Verzone earlier this year, when he spent a month on assignment on Disko Island, off the West coast of Greenland. Paolo documented each stage of a mammoth project involving a giant icebreaker ship, a group of scientists, three adventurous boiler installers and a team of dogs pulling a sleigh through a snowstorm.
"You're in this super strange, magical place with a crew for a month, and you really have to work as a team, otherwise you're dead," says Paolo over the phone from Italy, having recently returned from the assignment. The unforgiving terrain on the island didn't lend itself to careless exploration, and everything from transport to camera management had to be carefully planned and executed in order for the project to succeed.
How did Paolo end up on such a mission? It all began a few months prior, when Ariston, the Italian-based international manufacturer of heating and water heating solutions, needed a photographer to join its worldwide advertising campaign, The Ariston Comfort Challenge, created by J. Walter Thompson Italy. Ariston's challenge was to build and heat a house, the Ariston Comfort Zone, for researchers from the University of Copenhagen, which would keep them warm in extreme winter temperatures. Paolo was given the task of documenting everything from the long journey to Disko Island to the trips to pick up building materials from the port, the cumbersome building process and weather-related setbacks.
Paolo is no stranger to the Arctic, having visited Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, on assignment for Vanity Fair, and Svalbard and Siberia on jobs for Le Monde. But even so, the Ariston brief was an adventure. "It's a long trip to go there," says Paolo. "We arrived in Kangerlussuaq, then we took a flight to the centre of Greenland where they have a big hub. From there we took another plane, then we waited for two days in Ilulissat for a helicopter to take us to Disko Island."
The town from which they caught the helicopter is known as the 'Iceberg Factory' because it's home to the most icebergs in the world, which move constantly in the waters between the town and the island. "Every day you look at it and see new icebergs arrive, so normal ships can't go to the island," says Paolo. "We had to go to the port on Disko Island and wait for all the building materials to arrive, and they came on a giant icebreaker ship. Everything was unusual about this assignment."
The team spent several days photographing and filming on the frozen sea, which was risky in a landscape that constantly changes. "Parts of the ice that look like they're safe to walk on can melt very quickly. We would walk with local people and sometimes they'd poke their sticks at a part of the ice that looked safe, and the sticks would go right through the ice. To the untrained eye, it all looks the same, which was terrifying," says Paolo.
There were other dangers to watch out for on the journey too. "Sometimes we would find footprints of polar bears that the Inuits said were fresh. They said, 'Beware because polar bears like to hide in cracks in the ice to watch you. They want to eat you, and they're probably only 500 metres away.'"
Photographically, the weather and the many icebergs presented their own challenges. "Every day the environment changed, so it's not like a studio where you can prepare everything. You're literally photographing an iceberg and a very strong wind comes, and that changes everything, so you have to adapt to the environment," says Paolo.
Travelling with representatives from the advertising agency meant Paolo was able to discuss unexpected circumstances and adapt the brief. "We had been hoping for light snow, and we got a full-on snowstorm for days, which is much more interesting. I had quite a precise shot list, but we had been planning on light snow, and in the end, we had to adapt the shot list to account for the snowstorm, so I think about 50% of the list matched the original brief," Paolo says.
The transportation of the building materials from the port to the site of the house by a dog-drawn sleigh was a particularly challenging part of Paolo's reportage. "Imagine, it was late at night, -17 °C and it snowed a lot. The dogs were moving, and it was dark," says Paolo.
For these extreme situations, he used his Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, which he says is perfect for tracking moving subjects in the dark. "The subject was moving extremely fast, and I had to cover different angles quickly because it's cold and you can't stay out for too long. You have to be able to react to what's happening quickly, in low visibility, and the camera was perfect. You just crank up the ISO, and there's no grain."
Sometimes Paolo would lie flat on the ground and try to blend in with rocks in order to be invisible to the drone filming the crew overhead, and at other times, he would ride a snowmobile and follow the subject while it was moving.
Paolo also brought his Canon EOS 5DS R for portraits with mind-blowing detail in more controlled situations, and his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, which was his favourite camera for most other low light scenarios. "It has a sensor that can respond, and the image quality is fantastic," says Paolo. "You can go to ISO6400 with no noise problems at all, and get something that you would only have been able to get at ISO800 or lower even a few years ago. So it gives you a lot more than other cameras in the same situation. It changes the way you create the picture because it's the camera that adapts to you, rather than you having to adapt to the camera."
To capture crucial shots of the dog-drawn sleigh transporting materials at night, Paolo was particularly reliant on his two zoom lenses from Canon's professional L-series, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. "At the final stage, the main character – one of the installers – went to play with the dogs. So I had to work on two different levels, following the main character close up while telling the story of the scene from afar. I didn't have time to change lenses, so I had to be able to do the two shoots with the same lens in 20 seconds."
To enable this flexibility, Paolo carried two camera bodies, one for each lens. "When the dogs were far away, I'd use the 100-400mm, but they move quickly so at a certain moment I had to change to the 24-70mm to capture the dogs up close. You can follow a story perfectly from when they're far away until they're 20cm from you." When photographing the dogs in motion at night, Paolo shot with the focus on one point. "I wanted to use my Canon EOS-1D X Mark II because it focuses really well in low light. Even when it was completely dark, all it needed was the light of one of the installers' head torches, or my torch directed at the subject. That's all it took for the camera to catch focus and keep going."
Once The Ariston Comfort Challenge was completed, the scientists at the University of Copenhagen got a cosy and warm heated house on the ice where they could carry out research in comfort. To illustrate that comfort, Paolo emphasised the contrast between the extreme environment and the bright, warmly lit house. "The house brings protection and heating – warmth in an environment which is cold and dark. The main subject is outside, but the house in the background is a safe haven," he explains.
Each time he moved from the Arctic temperatures outside to warm indoor areas, Paolo needed to prevent his cameras from getting soaked with condensation. To do this, he took the camera in from -17°C outside and put it in an intermediate -5°C room for a couple of hours, before taking it inside.
"You never bring a camera directly inside from -17°C," Paolo says. "If you have to, use a well-sealed plastic bag. Seal the camera in the plastic bag when you're outside, then bring the camera inside, and the condensation will form on the outside of the plastic bag. But you have to wait for two hours before opening the bag, or it will get the camera wet in one second."
It's just as well that the house was warm and comfortable, because the team ended up stranded and spending 10 more days on Disko Island after the assignment was finished. "We had to postpone coming back because we were stuck. The storm was so strong that no helicopters were flying and no boats were sailing, because the ice was circling the island. Every day we would go to the heliport and ask if a helicopter was coming that day, and every day they would say no, try again tomorrow. So I got to enjoy plenty of walks in the magical but terrifying landscape," says Paolo.