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Searching for Beauty in Polar Science – Interview with Esther Horvath – with PHOTOS!

Balázs Frei 2021.06.06.

Under the aegis of our foundation’s podcast series, we sat down to talk to World Press Photo Awards winner Esther Horvath about her journey as a photographer, her experiences on polar expeditions, and her mission as a science communicator. 

For more on how Esther turned her passion into a full-time career and her experiences, see our conversation with her on video here

Journey as a Photographer

I understand you started taking photos quite late, after finishing college. What made you fall in love with photography?

Although I studied economics at university in Hungary, my childhood dream was becoming a book illustrator. I always imagined that I was going to tell stories through visual media. I got my first camera two years after I finished my studies, at the age of 25, while I was working in Vienna. It was love at first sight. I felt that I could live my childhood dream of telling stories through pictures.


Esther Horváth is an internationally accomplished photographer who won first prize in the environment category of the World Press Photo awards last year for her photo entitled Polar Bear and her Cub. Her pictures have been published by the likes of the New York Times, Time Magazine, and National Geographic. She is currently lending her skills to documenting polar research.

How did you end up documenting polar expeditions? 

I figured out pretty early that

I wanted to document people who can be inspirational to us, who can motivate us to be better. I wanted to capture the beauty in their humanity.”

Having completed a project documenting the lives of the New York City Fire Department’s Special Operations Command, which was published by the New York Times, and another chronicling the lives of people who worked with endangered sea turtles, I went to a portfolio review. There, I met Audubon magazine. Three weeks later, their director of photography, Sabine Meyer sent me an email with an assignment to the arctic Ocean. 

Rescue Battalion Chief James Yakimovitch, Chief of Special Operations Command is on a meeting with Fire Fighters at Rescue 2. 04.03.2013, NY, New York, Esther Horvath

What made you decide to keep working with polar scientists?

This first assignment was to be on U.S. Coast Guard ice-breaker Healy. This was in 2015. I spent two weeks with scientists researching the arctic ocean and the polar regions. While I was on this expedition, I fell in love with the Arctic Ocean so deeply, that I decided that

I wanted to dedicate my photography to the polar regions, and work together with scientists to raise awareness about the rapid changes happening in the arctic, and climate change in general.”

Polar Expeditions

How many expeditions have you been on so far? 

I returned a month ago from my thirteenth polar expedition. In fact, I would be on an expedition in Greenland as we speak, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

Icebreaker Healy, Esther Horvath

What is your favorite memory from your expeditions to date?

Possibly, my very first memories, from 2015. I would wake up early every morning to start documenting scientists’ work, and would keep at it until midnight. Every day after midnight, I would go to the bridge, and I would be completely mesmerized by the view, by the constantly changing sea-ice that so far I had only known from photographs myself. One would think that the Arctic Ocean is a boring place where there was only white ice, blue sea, and white-blue sky. In fact, this is not the case; I was fascinated that in the summer, there is 24-hour sunshine, and as the sun moves, it creates different colors on the ocean, on the ice. Colors constantly change from yellow to purple to blue to green. This creates a breathtaking, ever-changing landscape that you find it hard to take your eyes off of.

Hungarian Esther Horvath Wins World Press Photo Prize
Hungarian Esther Horvath Wins World Press Photo Prize

Hungarian documentary photographer Esther Horvath has fetched 1st prize this year in the World Press Photo competition’s environment, single category, the WPP announced in Amsterdam on Thursday evening. The picture shows a polar bear and her cub examining equipment marked with a flag scientists had placed on an ice sheet in the Arctic Ocean. You […]Continue reading

What is the most interesting and unusual experience you have had on an expedition?

What completely threw me for a loop was spending three out of the three and a half months on the ice-breaker Polarstern in complete, pitch darkness in winter 2019-2020.

There are months in the arctic during which the sun does not rise. Experiencing this every day for twelve weeks was something I could not prepare for.”

In the morning, I knew I’d come out on deck in complete darkness, and on a clear day see the moon shining down on us on one side of the ship, and in the afternoon I’d see it on the other side. Experiencing this on moving sea-ice; 50 cm of ice above 4200 meters of ocean, the ship drifting with the ice, while knowing that a polar bear could appear at any moment was something truly extraordinary. In fact, polar bears did appear; this was the expedition on which I took Polar Bear and her Cub, which won last year’s World Press Photo Awards in the Environment Category.

Polarstern on the MOSAiC Expedition, Esther Horvath

How do you take pictures under such extreme conditions?

Initially, I experienced a lot of discomfort. You cannot really learn how to work in this environment without doing it. I was often not appropriately dressed; you have to have very specific clothing. You cannot have any skin exposed to the elements, because you will get a frostbite immediately in minus 42 degrees Celsius. Moreover, everything you wear has to be wool, typically Merino wool. Wearing many layers, and carrying a lot of heavy equipment can make you perspire, which can be extremely dangerous. If you wear something other than wool, such as cotton, for instance, sweat can stay on your skin, which can leave you freezing. Early in polar expedition history, many died as a result of wearing cotton clothing.

Communicating through Photography

Photography is of course a complex art, but what is the most important thing for taking good photos?

For me, it is always about searching for beauty. If you are trying to capture something, the way to make it memorable is to capture it in a beautiful way.”

When I’m working, I am constantly looking for beauty. I work with scientists, and I try to communicate about climate change through their work, and to me, the most inspiring example of how beauty can make something memorable for us is the moon landing. When you think about it, when we think of the moon landing, we typically do not think about the thousands of pages of research that were published as a result of it. Instead, an image of Neil Armstrong with the US flag comes to our mind instantly. 

Scientists walk back from Remote Sensing Site to Polarstern during stormy weather. December 4, 2019, Esther Horvath

So you are trying to communicate about climate change in the arctic. What is it that can visually communicate to a lot of people the effects of climate change on our planet?

My angle is very different to that of most others. Many photographers try to talk about climate change through ecosystems, often by setting up cameras and taking pictures over a period of time. My angle is talking about climate change through the work of scientists.

Climate change does not happen overnight; we can only talk about climate change because there are long-term observations by scientists.”

They dedicate their scientific work over a long period of time to documenting changes in the natural world. Only through their work do we know the facts. 

As an example, Svalbard of Norway is a hotspot of global warming, having experienced an increase in temperature much more rapid than the rest of the world. We only know this, however, because scientists have released a meteorological balloon every single day for the past thirty years. 

Anja Sommerfeld from Alfred Wegener Institute lauchnes a ozone sonde as a part of the work routine and MOSAiC science training. April 6, 2019, Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, Esther Horvath

What do you enjoy most about your occupation?

I love to work with scientists. I love to learn about their work, their findings. I love to collaborate with them, and through this, communicate about their work. I am a very curious person, I’m generally very curious about people. I always document their work, but I capture their life as well. I also love to be in freezing cold temperatures. 

Where do you see your career developing? What themes are you excited about exploring in depth? 

Until now, I’ve focused on sea-ice in the polar regions, but now I’m moving my focus to land-based measurements. I’ve just started to work with permafrost researchers. 25% of the landmass on the Northern Hemisphere is covered by permafrost. We know that permafrost thaws at a high speed, and as it thaws, we do not know how much of various greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere.

Right now, there are 165 gigatons of greenhouse gases stored in permafrost, which is a lot more than we currently have in the atmosphere.”

I feel like, while many people now know about sea ice, not a lot of people know about permafrost, which is why I would like to focus my storytelling on that now. 

Furthermore, I am creating a project on women on polar expeditions. There are many expeditions where I’m the sole female participant, but generally there are more men than women. This is never an issue for me, but what I see is that there is a gender gap in polar science, and

I would like to highlight the women who contribute to polar science and expeditions to show a new generation that they can do anything they set their mind to.”

At Ocean City, there is a microplastic survey every week throughout the entire MOSAiC year. During Leg 1 it is conducted by Bjela König (on the photo) and Antonia Immerz . 500 liters of sea water are pumped through a filter to collect microplastic for observations. This is done twice during a session. The filters will be analyzed in the lab of Alfred Wegener Institute by Ilka Peeken after the MOSAiC expedition. November 6, 2019, Esther Horvath

For more on how Esther turned her passion into a full-time career and her experiences, see our conversation with her on video here

Telling the Story of Polar Science Through Photography – Interview with Esther Horvath - Hungarian Horizon #6
Telling the Story of Polar Science Through Photography – Interview with Esther Horvath - Hungarian Horizon #6

"I wanted to document people who can be inspirational to us, who can motivate us to be better."Continue reading

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