WATCH: Q&A with Joe McNally About His Documentary “Watching the Earth Melt Away”

WATCH: Q&A with Joe McNally About His Documentary “Watching the Earth Melt Away”

Last week, award-winning photographer Joe McNally walked us through the creation of his powerful documentary, Watching the Earth Melt Away. After traveling to Cooper Island, Alaska on assignment in 2001, Joe quickly befriended George Divoky, a research scientist who has dedicated his life to studying arctic seabirds in the region.

Joined by a film crew, the two met up again in 2019 to document George’s findings and his eye-witness account of the rapidly changing environment.

In this webinar, Joe talks about some of the most meaningful photos captured during his trips to Cooper Island and what it was like to come back and photograph the same location 18 years later.

Watch to learn about: 

  • Joe’s journey to Cooper Island and a closer look at his photos of research scientist George Divoky.
  • Why editorial and conservation photography are so important
  • The importance of pursuing personal projects

If you’d like to support scientists like George Divoky and help fund research, housing, outreach programs and other important resources for this community, please consider donating to the nonprofit, Friends of Cooper Island.

On-Demand Webinar: Watching the Earth Melt Away with Joe McNally

All your questions answered

Thank you to everyone for submitting questions throughout our conversation with Joe and during the Q&A! Read through some of Joe’s answers below and feel free to tweet any lingering questions @photoshelter.

This Q&A was lightly edited for clarity and length.

How did your camera gear fare with these extreme climates, particularly when it was much, much colder back when you were shooting with film in 2001? How did it fare when you switched over to digital?

JM: The original visit in 2001 was in fact colder. Film is always a problem in cold weather. We all know that when you pull that acetate out in extreme conditions, extreme cold, it can snap really easy. You have to be careful of your film gate – make sure bits and pieces of film don’t get in there. So I was very vigilant about that. I shot both 35 millimeter and two and a quarter. I had Nikon cameras and a two and a quarter rangefinder-style camera. And that did well, no damage to the film. That was all reasonable. Now, of course, flipping forward to the needs of 2019, it’s really pretty amazing. We were a five-person crew and we did a very viable film, very proud of it, over 14 minutes.

The amazing thing that’s happened over time with us as storytellers, is that films had always been associated with big budgets, film crews, Hollywood and all this sort of stuff. The technology we have now to assist us as storytellers is phenomenal. This entire film was shot on Nikon Z6’s, which is, I don’t know, I’m going to speculate here like, $2200 – $2300; a very affordable camera that produces incredibly good quality video. We were shooting the Z6’s mounted on rigs. Jon [Brundage Jr., the Director of Photography] was fantastic at adapting to the DSLR style of video. And we did just a very simple, mostly available light approach to documentary storytelling and the cameras performed incredibly well. It is extreme conditions, a lot of wind, a lot of dust that can get kicked up by really sudden gusts of wind because there are some sandy elements to Cooper, to be sure. And the cameras performed extremely well.

Of course, the onus really got put on George too, because when I went up originally I had mechanical cameras. If my motor drives died, well, I just manually advanced my film. But here with a film crew with cameras, recording devices, hard drives, and computers, etc. We were really stressing the electricity. We needed an electrical supply and George quite ingeniously has constructed solar systems up there and wind generation to create a viable flow of electricity. So that was definitely a worry going up there, because the days of mechanical advance of film and all that sort of stuff, those are long gone. We are utterly dependent on battery life. And across the board, the equipment performed really well.

Photos by Joe McNally

When creating the documentary, did you storyboard? Did you have an idea of how you wanted to tell the story when you knew you were coming back to shoot the film?

JM: Storyboarding? Not really. But an idea, a thread in my head? Yes. We were … ‘winging it’ is maybe too loose a description. I had a beginning, a middle and end in my head because I was the only person on the crew who had the full history up there to draw on the bank of. But thankfully, everybody on the crew had really good instincts. JB and Cali found really good shots. I had the beginning, middle and end in my head. This shot of George on video as I’m shooting him out in the ocean is a very pivotal piece of the documentary. And also, I knew I had to give some context, so sprinkled throughout the video documentary there are anecdotal and historical stills from when we first met back in 2001.

There’s also a bit of Utqiagvik included (which had been named Barrow, but is now referred to by its indigenous name) because that was our jumping-off point. And I had to go out with the crew by boat. At first, I helicoptered out in 2001. George used to go out on a snow machine because the ice was so dependably thick. Then he had to abandon the snow machine and use a helicopter to get out to the island. And now you either helicopter or you go by boat. It is, again, open ocean. So, we had boat drivers, two of them, depart from Utquagvik and head out to Cooper, which is out on the Beaufort Sea.

Could you tell us about the temperatures you experienced on Cooper Island?

JM: The temperatures back in the original picture, my original visit, were obviously freezing. The temperatures up on Cooper this past summer, during even our short three day period, varied pretty widely. There was one day that we started in T-shirts. We were out there … Cali, who used to be our crew chief, actually took his shirt off and he was sunbathing on Cooper Island. It was so warm and the sun was so strong. By the end of that day, we had every stitch of clothing we could manage back on us because the temperature varies so wildly. I’d say on that day, we went from about the 60’s, maybe even upper 60’s, all the way down to the 30’s in one day.

What are your tips for photographers who want to pursue their personal projects and actually turn them into, hopefully, revenue-making opportunities?

JM: That’s the two-edged sword, I guess, you could call it, or the conundrum we as “modern photographers” face. The technology has never been better. The consumption of pictures has never been more widespread. More people are shooting pictures and looking at pictures than ever before. The web is our movie theater. We no longer have to wait to view things. Dissemination of information is really immediate. There’s this amazing and beautiful opportunity to have a voice; to create a voice visually that you can put out into the world and make some folks pay attention. That’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get, in this very fast-paced world, somebody to stop, even for a couple of minutes, and pay attention. 

Personal projects are a great way to do that because they are obviously infused with your passion. They’re something that you need to say, or want to say.

I always tell young photographers that being a photographer is not something you do. Being a photographer is something you are. It’s inescapable. And if you get that urge, that visual surge in your head and your heart, well, that’s wonderful. (And also sorry for that because it will never leave you!) It will be this ongoing vexation. It will haunt your dreams – the things that you need to do, the things that you want to do.

One of the things that I would suggest, especially if you’re a younger photographer, is to develop a personal project that’s accessible. There’s a young photographer who’s been sending me images. He lives in a small town in Kansas. His name is Luke Townsend. He’s currently documenting the effects of COVID-19 on this very small town in Kansas and he’s doing a very effective job. 

And while we’re on the topic, a tip of the hat to all those photographers who are out there documenting this epidemic, this pandemic, and documenting the response to it. And to the first responders and the nurses and doctors and medical personnel who are putting themselves at great risk to keep us safe. Photographers are out there documenting this. Those heroes who are out there now deserve the documentation. We must take notice. Again, thanks to the photographers who are out there doing that.

What that small example I just mentioned is, is the idea of something being practical. Something being nearby. Something being affordable. You don’t have to go to the far stretches of the earth to do a personal project. You can find a wonderful personal project among the people you love.

We’re trying to get somebody to stop, even for a couple of minutes, and pay attention.  Personal projects are a great way to do that because they are obviously infused with your passion. They’re something that you need to say, or want to say.

Joe McNally

Can you share a little bit about your editing process? Did you have to do a lot of color casting because of the ice?

JM: Good question. We didn’t have to do much. I’m going to disclaim a depth of knowledge about post-production and video and coloration. We were blessed with a wonderful editor, Tim Sevigny, who took on this project and really sifted through it in a storytelling way. You’ll see there are a couple elements here and there. If you really, carefully and slowly go through the film, there are a couple of shifts here and there that were pretty unavoidable given the meshing of certain old material and then the different environments that we were encountering. But I think overall, the color balance was executed really well.

The important thing to me, in addition to good color, is good resolution. The amount of resolution you can squeeze out of the Z6 is fantastical. It’s amazing. That was all-important to me. But the storyline and how Tim was able to blend the story of Cooper Island, which is part and parcel with George, and then all of a sudden introduce me as this kind of interloper – he did that really artfully and still managed to maintain the storyline focused on George and the birds.

How has your technique changed between 2001 and 2019?

JM: Techniques evolve, right? I’ve had to evolve as a shooter to keep lock step with the technology. It’s not that big a deal, but I shot the first all digital story in the history of National Geographic; the story about aviation back in 2003. And when I shot that, I didn’t know that much about digital, to be honest. I was a newbie and I had to adapt. But for me, as a photographer, the constant element that is the North Star of being a photographer, I believe, is storytelling. And that has not changed at all. I mean, that hasn’t changed since the days of Matthew Brady. Our tools have changed, to be sure. So, yes. I embraced digital cameras. I didn’t care so much about what was happening inside the camera.

All of a sudden, I no longer had film and now I’m shooting to chips and cards and shooting ones and zeroes. All that was fine. I didn’t really want to concentrate on that so much. I wanted to concentrate, as always, on the picture at hand; the emotional response that I could gather through the camera and the lens, the stories that could be told, the beauty that could be potentially captured. For me, I work a lot in the realm of portraiture, so I’m always seeking the beauty of the human face. Those things have remained absolutely constant.

The changes that I’ve experienced are the onslaught of immediacy; delivering to clients really fast. Participation on the web – I’ve had to adapt to that. If you had told me around the early 2000s that I’d be writing a blog I would have said, “What’s a blog?” So it is incumbent, I think, on photographers, and young photographers are especially well-suited to accept this change and embrace it. The tools are there and you can adapt and grow with them, but the basic mission, I’d have to say, remains the same. Tell a good story.

Want to get the answers to all of the questions from the Q&A, including a behind-the-scenes look at Joe’s trips to Cooper Island, Alaska? Watch the on-demand webinar and be sure to check out the documentary on his YouTube channel, too. 

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