Exploring Extreme Climates with Maria Sahai

Exploring Extreme Climates with Maria Sahai

Maria Sahai’s work makes you want to get a credit card with better travel miles. A Fujifilm-X photographer and f-stop gear ambassador, she’s best known for images of the frozen Arctic in places like Greenland, Norway, Iceland and Svalbard Archipelago.

As part of our weeklong celebration leading up to Earth Day, we caught up with Maria to learn more about photographing in extreme temperatures and how she’s able to capture such amazing photos around the globe.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. All images by Maria Sahai. Each image featured below links to a gallery on her website featuring behind-the-scenes stories and details about that specific climate.

Can you tell readers a bit about your background? (Where you’re from, how you discovered photography, your professional journey thus far, etc.)

During the Soviet era, my family worked all over the USSR. One of those places was a region, Magadan, in the Russian Far East. It was a military-protected area with no land access, harsh climate and six months of no daylight in winter. Or as my mom puts it, “it was the best place on Earth to be.” She fell forever in love with the communities of indigenous people and with the ever-white landscapes of the Russian Arctic.

After Magadan, my family moved thousands of miles to Kazakhstan, but the Arctic never left my mother’s heart. My nighttime stories were the legends of Russian Eskimos. I still remember the old books with illustrations of igloos, polar bears, whales, seals, northern lights and icebergs.

Later when I got into photography, my primary motivation was to be able to go to the places I’d heard so much about as a child and to capture them through my point of view. When I met my husband and fellow photographer Karim Sahai, we felt an immediate connection through our shared love for the remote and undiscovered places.

How did you get involved with Svalbard (a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole)? I read all about it on your site. How does your camera gear fare in such extreme temperatures? 

I’ve always been interested in remote Arctic regions and love reading books about polar expeditions and extreme adventures. I heard about Svalbard Archipelago because it’s the last stopover before travelers start their North Pole expeditions and a place with unique lunar-like landscapes and amazing Aurora Borealis. I’d also heard about Barentsburg, a 200-person Russian settlement situated on the archipelago’s main Island, Spitsbergen. All of that put Svalbard very high on my wish list of places I wanted to visit.

Luckily, the same aspects of Svalbard that interest me fascinate my husband. For many years now, we’ve been going there regularly, every time exploring new areas and discovering new photographic opportunities.

Naturally, one of the main challenges when photographing in Svalbard is battling extremely low temperatures. We spend a lot of time outdoors exposed to the dry and cold air and strong winds, which means that we have to take serious measures for protecting our gear.

I’m lucky to work with Fujifilm. My XT-2 is small and light enough for me to carry both the camera body and the extra batteries on my chest between several layers of fleece and down jackets. This way, the warmth of my body keeps the batteries from depleting and the camera from freezing. When I am on a snowmobile or a dog sled, this technique also gives me rapid access to my camera.

Another important rule of thumb when photographing in the cold is to prevent my camera from condensation when I go indoors. I usually carry multiple plastic bags, and before entering a warm area, I quickly wrap my cold camera and lenses in plastic bags. I leave plenty of air in them so that the gear warms up gradually and no moisture forms inside.

Ok, switching gears a bit here to another extreme. What was it like to grow up in Southern Kazakhstan? From what I’ve read it can get pretty hot and is extremely remote. Does that impact your photography or what you choose to photograph there? What stories do you feel need to be told and why?

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Kazakhstan. It’s a diverse and beautiful country with fantastic nature: mountains with glaciers, lakes, deserts, steppes, canyons. And it’s the 9th largest country in the world, which means that the opportunities for discovering beautiful nature spots are endless.

Another aspect that I truly love is the mix of cultures. I grew up in a bustling city of Almaty where people of over 120 nationalities peacefully live together, and almost everyone speaks multiple languages; where you can find any cuisine you desire, where ski slopes, lakes, rivers and forests are all 30 minutes drive away from the city center. All over Kazakhstan, the architecture covers everything from Soviet-style apartment buildings to glass skyscrapers.

Of course, the climate can be rather harsh, -30C in winter and 45C in summer. But to me, that makes it even more attractive, as it allows me to capture so many varied landscapes in a short period.

I left Kazakhstan at the beginning of my career as a photographer. Sometimes I feel that I know the Arctic better than my own home country. But I am planning on fixing that. Soon, I’ll be making an extended journey through Kazakhstan during which I want to visit multiple National Parks and remote regions. Kazakhstan’s nature has so much to offer to tourists but unfortunately, the infrastructure is far from satisfactory. I’m hoping that this trip will give me plenty of material to help promote my homeland’s nature and hopefully encourage people to visit it and local authorities and businesses to develop better conditions for tourism.

Why is the environment important for you to document? 

Traveling constantly, I continuously see the effect of human activity on our environment. For instance, in Svalbard, every winter now starts later and later, and the snowstorms become more severe than ever. Last year, we had to delay a dog sledding expedition because a valley that usually freezes at the end of December was still partly covered with water in February.

Through my photography, I aim to spread this information. On my website and my Instagram, viewers can find captions that talk about science, climate research and the changing life of people in the Northern regions that I find so important.

Are you doing anything special for Earth Day this year? If not, do you have general environment-focused work on the horizon?

Together, my husband and I just finished preparing a new joint exhibition that focuses on the Arctic region. When we organize exhibitions, we always accompany them with talks and workshops that focus not only on photography but also on life in the Arctic, its climate and changing environment. We also aim to encourage discussion about sustainable tourism and what choices people can make as travelers to minimize their impact.

We’re talking to multiple venues, and by the end of this year, we hope to present the exhibition in various locations all over the world.

Photographers have a unique ability to tell the story of our ever-changing environment. We’re celebrating this entire week leading up to Earth Day on our Instagram with stories about increasingly violent storms, a look at breathtaking landscapes and images highlighting the impact of the environment on the animal kingdom. Be sure to follow along.

You can find more of Maria’s work on her website and by following her travels on Instagram.

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