Capturing The Ghosts Of The Arctic With Abraham Joffe

Journey with Abraham Joffe, Dom West and Joshua Holko into the frozen tundra of a Svalbard winter, to seek out and document the elusive polar bear.

The stunning passion project “Ghosts of the Arctic” follows wildlife photographer Joshua Holko through the glacial, white expanse of a -20 degree temperate. Joffe recalls the chilling days spent in search of the polar bears, driving “over two hundred kilometres on snowmobiles in very difficult terrain.”

National Geographic talks in depth to Abraham Joffe about the realities of working such climates, his inspirations, fears and how to document the Arctic wildlife.

Why do you choose to film in extreme cold? What do you find so special or unique about it?

I’ve always been drawn to places that are hard to get to or get little visitors. The Polar Regions fit that criteria perhaps like nowhere else. The first time I visited Greenland and saw the ship we were on pass icebergs as long as 5 city blocks - I was hooked. These unique places make you feel like you are on another planet. I think the cold is just something that comes with the experience. It certainly makes the filmmaking much more challenging - but it’s all part of the adventure.

Would you say filming in the Arctic is different to working in other climates, in regards to technique?

The cold certainly pushes your body and your equipment to the extreme. Our bodies are not designed to last very long in these temps, so of course, your clothing has to be up to the job. This means you wear cumbersome tops and bottoms, gloves, and in the winter time like we were in - several layers of headgear and goggles. All this clothing limits your mobility - which makes pulling off dynamic camera moves a challenge. Then you have the effects on your equipment. I don’t think there is any camera manufacturer who rates their products to work in -20C to -30C! We had multiple camera failures whilst filming Ghosts of the Arctic. The Liquid Crystal displays either ghosted or blacked out, batteries would freeze up, and even parts of our cameras actually shattered. We found the best way to mitigate the damage was to tape hand warmers to much of the gear and keep things wrapped up until the moment you needed to use them.

Ghosts of the Arctic

What is the best time to photograph in the Arctic?

While most people do travel there in the Summer months when the access to more of the coastline is possible via ship, we were very much drawn to film there in winter. The freezing temperatures provided us a landscape that was snow covered, and when the fjords were frozen over. This allowed us to embark on huge distance snowmobile runs to find and hopefully photograph the polar bear.

What drew you to the polar bear?

Polar bears are considered a marine mammal which I find really interesting. They are magnificent and powerful animals - the world’s largest land predator. They are simply beautiful and incredible creatures and it’s so special to be able to encounter them in the wild. Some estimates put their numbers today to around 18,000 individuals. This is a small number than the remaining Rhinos in Africa, yet the Polar Bear gets less international attention. My hope is that the work we do can draw more attention to their plight.

Were you at all scared of the polar bears?

We had the help of an experienced local guide, who by law had to be armed during our journey. His experience meant that we never crossed the line in terms of getting too close. There is a safe “flight distance” required when working with any animal in the wild - which means the closest you can be and still retreat safely if the animal decides to rush at you. You see antelope in Africa employ the same survival instincts in Africa. So no, we were never scared, but hugely respectful.

Ghosts of the Arctic

What is, in your eyes, the best shot you have ever taken?

As a wildlife cinematographer, I am always searching for that moment when something truly remarkable occurs. Capturing rare animal behaviour, with the right camera and lens, and in the right light is what any camera man will tell you is the ultimate goal. I’ve been fortunate to have had several occasions when the stars align and everything comes together.  One land-based moment was recently in Kenya when I filmed a cheetah engage in a 7 minute battle with a large male impala. Cheetah kills are often over in a blink of an eye, so when a protracted fight happens it’s pretty unusual. The sequence is out of this world. An underwater such moment happened for me last year whilst filming Humpbacks in Tonga - I dived down and swam through what is known as a “heat run”. This is where up to a dozen or more male whales will be chasing a female across the ocean. This particular heat run was made that much more spectacular as it occurred in very shallow water. It is moments like this when you swim past and look into a whale's’ eye when the whole world seems to stop. It’s like nothing else!

Do you find it easier to work in a team, or work solo?

Filmmaking at its best is a collaborative venture. Sure it’s possible to shoot alone, but when you have the support and skills around you of a small team, the results can be far greater. We have been recently filming a series on the big cats in East Africa where we have 6 camera operators in the field at once. This enables me to have incredible coverage on more than one species of cat at one time. We will also utilize the power of drones, and other mobile cameras which all extra experience to operate. Like many pursuits in life, it’s about surrounding yourself with the right people.

Is a great photo dependant on the quality of the camera or is it the work of the photographer, can the same photo be taken with any kind of camera?

Well, they do say that a camera is only as good as the person holding it! But I think you want both, you want to acquire the skills to produce the best footage you can, whilst operating the highest quality recording device you can afford. I never stop buying new gear!

Abe, you adopted 4k quite early, what would you say is the biggest advantage of 4k?

Higher resolution shooting, whether that be 4K, 6K or even 8K offers a lot of flexibility to a filmmaker. Firstly you can record incredibly sharp images, for example, 8K offers each frame at a 32-megapixel photograph resolution. This high resolution enables adjustment in post-production, to be able to crop, adjust horizons and framing. This was not possible before this level of quality was available. But for me, a great camera is not all about resolution. Dynamic range - ability of the camera to resolve detail between the darkest and brightest part of the image, and Bitrate - the amount of data used to capture the images, is perhaps even more important than resolution. At the end of the day, a filmmaker wants the most visually striking and true images recorded.

Ghosts of the Arctic

And do you, or have you used 360, VR or drones in your work? If so, do you like working with them?

I have dabbled in 360 and VR, but I must say my love lies squarely on the power of drones! I was completely hooked as soon as I saw my first aerial footage taken by a friend using a home-built hexacopter. I since have learnt the skills to be able to fly them myself, and we have never looked back. Drones offer a freedom and visual that we could only dream of a few years ago.

Lastly, in your travels how have you noticed Climate change physically changing the environment?

Having travelled and filmed in over 40 countries, I have been in a position perhaps more than most to see the effects that climate change is having on our planet. From the droughts and famine ravaging East Africa to the retreating glaciers in Greenland, the changes are evident in all corners. I am actually heading back to Greenland this September to document the current ice retreat, which is now being seen rates much worse than scientist predicted. I feel very strongly now to use whatever visual skills I have to help shine a big light on what is happening. People care about what they know, and the first step in knowing - is seeing. We have one very special planet, with “one” being the operative word.

All photography supplied by Abraham Joffe, Dom West and Joshua Holko.

To see more of Abraham's work visit and instagram:@abrahamjoffe

Related Articles

Discuss this article


Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
We use our own and third-party cookies to improve our services, personalise your advertising and remember your preferences. If you continue browsing, or click on the accept button on this banner, we understand that you accept the use of cookies on our website. For more information visit our Cookies Policy AcceptClose cookie policy overlay