“You cannot exist in a hurry in here” – interview with Esther Horvath
25 • 05 • 20Edit Barta
Held in mid-April, the World Press Photo Awards conferred its first prize in the Environment category to Hungarian photographer Esther Horvath. The photographer, who currently lives in Bremen, has been documenting the environmental changes in the Arctic region and participated in numerous research expeditions over the last five years. She is genuinely concerned with the issues of climate change and nature conservation, and also, importantly, she is the first Hungarian woman to get a prize at the World Press Photo Awards.
You are the official photographer of the Mosaic Expedition created by a German institute to investigate changes in the polar ice cap in the Arctic. How did you get into this research program?
The first expedition I took part in was in 2015. I was doing a job for the American Audubon magazine. Soon after, I heard about the Mosaic Expedition, and I immediately knew that I wanted to participate in the program. I have been working at the Alfred Wegener Institut, conductor the Mosaic Expedition, since 2018. I was able to join the expedition thanks to my profession.
How did the polar region catch you so much that you have dedicated your last 5 years to it?
When I was out on the first trip in 2015, I felt two things really strong. The first thing was the enchanting beauty and fragility of the land. I remember standing on the ship's bridge every night from 1 to 4 a.m. during the two-week journey, watching the ice moving and the changing colors of the water, the sky, and the ice. I was fascinated by the transitional nature of this landscape, as it was evolving from second to second, in constant change. What you see today, will not be there tomorrow as ice always keeps flowing on. The second thing is that it’s the Arctic that undergoes the greatest environmental change in the world due to global warming. For these two reasons, I felt that I wanted to dedicate my photographic work to this land.
How has the current epidemic affected your work?
Originally, I would be finishing my eighth week on the German research ship by now, but the turmoil in the world delayed our crew's departure because Norway, from where we would have set off, shut down its borders. There are still many uncertainties now. It is sure though that the expedition will start on 18 May, but I am not joining them, because, if things go as currently planned, I will be a crew member on another Mosaic-related expedition, this time to Greenland, in late summer.
What are you doing with all your free time now?
After the World Press Awards, many people contacted me, and lot of new opportunities came in during recent weeks, and at the same time, I am still working on a book about the Mosaic Expedition, which is to be published in German and English by Prestel in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the USA, and the UK this October. This is going to be a big album, and I don’t even know how I could have found time to do it if the epidemic had not given it to me.
You graduated in Documentary and Photojournalism in the International Center of Photography (IPC) in New York. How did you choose this program?
Exactly ten years ago, in 2010, I was on vacation in New York, and that was when I stumbled upon this school and museum center. Back then, I already felt a call. And I decided to go for it and see what this call was about. Six months later, I went back to America and completed a documentary photography workshop at the ICP. I had to know if that was what I wanted to do. When I came home from the workshop, I had no doubts anymore.
The application itself was quite a long procedure, it required a portfolio, recommendations, a special language exam – the whole process took nearly a year. Meanwhile, I was living in Vienna where I worked for an international freight forwarding company, and traveled the world a lot; I was responsible for training at the company. I had a job I always loved. When I got admitted, I was 32 years old, and traveled to New York with two suitcases. I thought that I was going to do it then or regret it for the rest of my life.
You cannot exist in a hurry in here, we have to consider every move, because there are dangers wherever you go.
I think only people who like to take pictures of people can enjoy such a trip. Whoever gets here they are here because they want to be here.
What did your family say when they heard your decision?
They were surprised. I only told them when I was officially admitted. I was planning to come home after a year, I even had the flight ticket home, but in the end, one year turned into six.
How long did the program take at ICP?
The documentary photography program consists of three semesters and lasts one calendar year.
You photographed the everyday life of the firefighters at the Special Operations Command in New York for your thesis. Are you attracted to extreme situations and big challenges?
I'd say I'm very attracted to people and stories. The fact that these stories happened to be extreme was just a plus. I've always been interested in working with people, especially groups.
Have you thought about going to the Arctic region before?
Now that we're talking, a memory of my six-year-old self popped into my mind about the intro sequence of the Hungarian scientific TV show Delta in which Japanese researchers were walking on ski at the South Pole. I remember that this picture captured me deeply; I was always waiting for that part. I wondered what it could be like to live there, and who those people might be. But it was so distant; I never thought I'd get there one day. When I got the job from the American magazine in 2015, it was a big milestone and a huge gift. Like I said, I've already decided that moment, on that trip that this was what I wanted to work with.
What kind of tasks do you have to perform on the Mosaic Expedition? What does your work consist in?
I had two duties. On the one hand, I was photographing during the day. Throughout the expedition, I was outside on the ice for at least seven hours each day, but it was up to my creativity how I wanted to approach the subject. And in the evening, I was documenting the daily life and work of the crew on the ship. The expedition is still ongoing to this day, and you can see a new blog post every day on its website containing a photo and a story, which was also my duty to write. When I was approached by any magazine with specific topics, I photographed those for them. Actually, all visual content that came into the ship went through me because I was both the photographer and the communications manager.
Which one is closer to you, documenting everyday life or photographing research?
Both equally, I couldn't choose between the two, because these are all about people.
How can you separate what you do for the institute and what you do for yourself?
The institute actually expects me to give myself in the pictures, to do what I am. I'm trying to cover the whole spectrum. I take pictures that show rigorous research procedures, like measuring or sample collection, but my photos tend to focus on people and on the beauty of this work. Many researchers make photographs, too, although their pictures are more technical. I bring my own style.
What skills do you need to participate in the expeditions?
In addition to the photography skills, human qualities are also very important. Last time, we lived in pitch-black for three and a half months, at 45 degrees Celsius below zero, no phone, no TV, no radio, isolated from the world. This in itself is a challenging situation. It requires dedication and love for the land. In addition, it is very important to be open to other people on such a journey, to focus on people. A photographer who mostly works alone – a nature photographer or a landscape photographer, for example – might not want to be locked up in these conditions with 100 people for months. I think only people who like to take pictures of people can enjoy such a trip. Whoever gets here they are here because they want to be here.
Does the rhythm of life slow down during the expeditions?
Since we are isolated from the world, evening programs and activities are different; people come together more and get closer to each other. And since we are constantly working in extreme conditions, everything gets slower and more difficult. You cannot exist in a hurry in here; we have to consider every move, because there are dangers wherever you go. And, of course, the weather also makes life slower than in urban environments. The cold is a main factor – when you are heavily dressed, your agility and mobility are reduced.
How can you take photos in this extreme cold weather?
The cold doesn't annoy me at all; the only problem is that my hands keep freezing. But on my last trip, I came up with a solution that now I’m happy to present. While photographing, I used to wear thin single-layer gloves with a pair of ski gloves on top. Unfortunately, at 45 degrees below zero this wasn’t enough, as the freezing cold immediately passed through from the metal frame of the camera. So instead, I came up with another idea – I started using huge mittens but first I had to learn how to operate the camera in those. I developed a technique for this – I attached an extension to the shutter button so I could press it. I usually work with a fixed focal length (24 or 35 mm) and autofocus. But I still wear the huge mittens with thin gloves and hand warmers underneath. In fact, I only started using this method in the last three weeks of the expedition. It took me a lot of time and experience to get this far, I have been on 11 trips so far and I froze my hands off on all 11 trips by the time I found out this.
What is your favorite picture from this period?
I really like snapshots from daily life, but also the ones taken when we got into the pitch-black period and light got very scant.
What special skills did the job require of you?
We went through very serious training courses; there was survival training, firefighting training, and polar bear safety training. They prepared us for any eventuality, with simulating total darkness and a storm with big waves in a special pool in order that we learn how we can survive a shipwreck. But almost all the expeditions I took part in required some special preparation, too.
Tell us about your award-winning picture. What's the story?
Right at the beginning of that expedition, a polar bear mama and her cub visited us. It was after dinner and everyone got already on the Polarstern boat. I went onto the board, ran forward to the bow from where they were about 20-30 meters away. They could be seen very nicely in the light shed by the ship. They sniffed through and examined everything; and they were not afraid of us at all.
You are a member of the iLCP (The International League of Conservation Photographers ) How could you explain what conservation photographer means?
I'd paraphrase it as nature conservation photographer or environmental photographer. They are photographers who deal with environmental issues, and who focus on environmental issues in their work.
Were you involved in any other environmental project?
Yes, I was. I followed the rescue of sea turtles for four years. This is my most published work to date. The pictures were included in many newspapers and magazines like National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
What criteria do you apply when sorting out your photos?
For each picture, the point is to tell a story. That’s also how I take the pictures – there must be a story behind photo. I think of little stories within each project that together will tell a bigger story. What end up in the “very best of” always relate a very specific story.