Simon Harsent: Portrait of an Iceberg

© Simon Harsent ‘Melt’ #1 [detail] 2008

Sort this shit out! Everything else is irrelevant.

If we don’t have a planet we can live on, everything else means nothing.

Introduction

This interview was unusual in that it does not form part of the themed series for the year. It was commissioned at short notice for a special edition of PhotoWorld on the theme of environmentalism and climate change. At the time, I was installing a show in Denmark and Simon was in New York. So, we put together the interview between time zones and I remain hugely impressed by Simon’s ability to turn things around with lightning speed.

The work is a stark reminder of the dramatic impact the warming of the arctic ocean is having on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. But it is given particular poignancy in the way that the artist identifies with the dwindling bergs, their journey through life and their slow dissolution as they travel out to sea.

Alasdair Foster


© Simon Harsent ‘Melt’ #5 2008

Interview

Alasdair: Where did you photograph these icebergs?

Simon: The images were made in two places: off the coast of St John’s in Newfoundland and around the Ilulissat Icefjord in Greenland. The outflow of the fjord is called Disko Bay.

How did you tackle a project like this?

It took about four years from when I first had the idea. Not that I spent the whole four years working on it, but I had to plan the project when I had time from my schedule of commissioned work. However, this gave me the opportunity to plan carefully and really think about the execution. I spent a lot of time looking at paintings by the American artist, Mark Rothko, and the way he used blocks of colour to divide the canvas. As a result, I decided I would similarly divided the image into three elements: sea, sky and iceberg. And I knew I wanted to shoot from sea level – from a boat. Once those key decisions were made, the project started to take shape. 

Shooting was done over two trips: the first to Newfoundland, the second to Greenland.

In Newfoundland, I tracked icebergs through the website icebergfinder.com and we would launch the boat and go to find them. It was really that simple.

In Greenland, I found someone who was prepared to take me out to the icefjord. It can be quite dangerous on the water, the icebergs there are massive and can collapse at any time, causing huge waves. And, because they are constantly moving, the icebergs can crowd into the mouth of the fjord and block your way back. These were things I’d never thought of…  

What drew you to photograph icebergs?

Originally, I didn’t have icebergs in mind. I wanted to explore how the paths we choose determine our future; how one definitive action or choice can change the course of one’s life.

I often wonder what I would be doing now if I hadn’t chosen to pursue a career in photography. I think about the course of events that lead me to choose this path, the things I have accomplished, the friends I have made and, on a deeper level, the birth of my son. These are the results of choices we make, paths we have taken. It’s our very own ‘butterfly effect’.

So how did that broader philosophical approach bring you to icebergs?

One of the significant things that changed the course of my life was when, at a very young age, I decided to pursue painting. This was itself a chance occurrence. It was a rainy day in England and I was bored. My father suggested I read a book or do a painting. I chose the latter and, for whatever reason, I decided to paint a picture of the Titanic sinking after it hit an iceberg. To this day, I still don’t know what drew me to that particular subject. I showed the painting to my father and he loved it. I could see his enthusiasm was genuine. The next day he took me to the art store and bought me some oil paints and canvas boards… and that was it. I was hooked! … well, at least for a couple of years, until I discovered photography. But it was that first painting that started me on the road I’m on today.

I began thinking about that pivotal moment in my life and about how it might be a catalyst for a new body of work. Could the Titanic become a metaphor for my own journey in life? As I researched the story of the sinking of the great ship, I came across a place called ‘Iceberg Alley’. This is said to be the origin of the iceberg which was to sink the Titanic. I was fascinated by the place and, if I’m honest, also a little amused by the name ‘Iceberg Alley’; it sounds as if the icebergs wait in this alley for unsuspecting ships to sail through before setting upon them like muggers.

It was then that I decided: it was not the Titanic but the icebergs that would be the metaphor for my own journey through life.

Why do you think you were drawn to the iceberg and not the ship and its passengers as the personal metaphor?

Well icebergs are tangible but also changeable. They are mighty but also so fragile and susceptible to shifts in the environment around them. They are on a course that can be altered by external forces such as currents and weather systems. And they are mysterious and alluring; to me they seem quite mythical. I liked the idea I could photograph something that would be mine and only mine. Sure, people will photograph icebergs in the future, but not ‘my’ icebergs, those have long gone. Each iceberg has a life span, it is born from the glacier and travels on its own journey, shaped by the elements before, finally, it melts back into the sea. The idea to present the work from creation to extinction was very much a conscious one. It is a metaphor for my own journey through life, which must also have an end.   

It is interesting how these icebergs – as inanimate objects – each seem to take on a ‘character’ as we look at the pictures.

I wanted to present the icebergs as objects, like statues. I guess once you start presenting any inanimate object in a way that defines it as something unique, you tend to give it a character. This is why the title of the project became ‘Melt: Portrait of an Iceberg’. Originally, the working title had been just ‘Melt’, the second part of the title only came after I had completed the work and began reflecting upon the finished images. I felt that each iceberg had its own story. Each was formed differently, and each was shaped by scars gathered on the journey that were totally unique to it.

What have you since learned from this project?

The Arctic region has change dramatically over the last fifty years. The glaciers are receding at an alarming rate and we need to do something about it very soon. I don’t have the answers, but we have a responsibility to our future, and we should be doing everything we can to halt global warming.

This work has changed me as a photographer and as a person. It is very personal work – I believe it was the first piece of ‘real’ work I produced as a photographer. I did it intuitively, everything that led me to creating the work and beyond has been so natural and unforced. It was like a muscle reflex. 

What do you think each of us can do about these ecological issues?

I think we human beings are in trouble. We are so concerned with things that don’t really matter that we fail to see the bigger picture. It is not the planet that will suffer from our actions, it is our children and our children’s children, because what we are doing is making the planet unliveable for us. The planet will survive, it’s the human race we are destroying. When we are done screwing up the planet, nature will take its course. It is strange and sad to watch us destroying our own future.

It’s a kind of laziness. Like the way we mistreat our bodies by eating crap food and then take medicines to try to make it right again. It seems like the easy option, but all the time we are hurting ourselves more.

I think we need to look at long-term preventative measures rather than short-term ‘fixes’.

Can these images make a difference?

Unfortunately, I don’t think they can. The people who already have an ecological conscience might appreciate them, but I don’t think these photographs can or will help to change opinion. People seem so caught up in consuming things they don’t really need that they never consider the very real threat of climate change.

Even when Hurricanes Irene and Sandy hit the East Coast of the USA in 2010 and 2011, all we did was rebuild the houses for them to be flooded again the next time. And replace all the luxury cars and toys that add to the problem of global warming. It really is kind of crazy when you think about it: to keep blindly doing the things that will destroy us. It is almost the definition of ‘insanity’.

‘Melt’ is primarily about my personal journey told as an allegory. Even so, one can’t help but be drawn into the bigger issues that face us all.

My personal feelings are that the world we live in is treated as a playground rather than a spiritual ground. I feel sad that we are losing touch with our spirituality and adopting a riotous arrogance about who we are and how we live.

Have you made other work with an ecological theme?

I have, though I did not consciously set out to do so. I shot a series of images at Jones Beach on Long Island, USA, as Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast of New York State in 2010.

I love the ocean and have a relationship with it that borders on the obsessive. Maybe because I grew up a long way from the coast, the sea has always fascinated me. It is a power greater than humankind. I’m an atheist, so for me the real power is in Nature.

I guess if I have a ‘message’ in this work it would be that we should have an empathy for who we are and the planet we live on.

© Simon Harsent ‘Melt’ #39 2008

If you could send one ecological message to the leaders of the world powers, what would it be?

Sort this shit out! Everything else is irrelevant. If we don’t have a planet we can live on, everything else means nothing. Fight for what is real. So much money is spent on pursuing fictional ideals. Global warming is real, get a grip!

We human beings are our own worst enemies and people often don’t make the best choices for themselves. It is up to governments to tell us what is good for us. Our governments need to look after the community in the same way parents look after their children. We need to look to spiritual values rather than economies.

There is a saying: there is no point being the richest man in the cemetery. Is that what we will become?

© Simon Harsent ‘Melt’ #42 2008


Biographical Notes

Simon Harsent was born in Aylesbury, England in 1965. He began studying photography at Grange Secondary School in Aylesbury, continuing his studies at Watford college. He subsequently moved from England to Australia where he established himself as a commercial photographer. In 2000 he moved to New York City where he has continued his commercial career while also developing his fine art practice. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide and garnered numerous awards. A monograph of ‘Melt: Portrait of an Iceberg’ was published in 2009. He currently lives and works between New York and Australia.


This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The interview was additional to the main series, commissioned for an issue focusing on climate change.