Saturday, March 13, 2010

Today My Camera Died - or - Ukrainian Station Vodka Fun

Today my camera died. And it will not be coming back to life. It is a crushing blow - but it is not the worst thing that could have happened. I tell myself this to get through the pain.

It's strange how we become attached to objects. They have no feelings, one is as good as the other. And yet that one item, after a while, takes on personality. I knew my camera well, and I knew its quirks. You may say that if I buy the same model it will be good as the old, but that's not quite true. This one had a scratch on the back of the LCD – I have no idea where the scratch came from. It just showed up one day, and added to the character. You couldn't change the ISO settings – that button stopped working some time back in Namibia. And a week later the delete button no longer responded. This things that made is a lesser machine added to what made it my machine, and I learned well to work within the limitations.

Today nothing works. When I stepped onto the boat, and tried to check the images I had taken it refused to respond in the same way that my GPS just wouldn't turn on months back in Cambodia. I never thought that the camera would last the year – but I had hoped it would carry me through Antarctica. This is the one place that is so different, and will never be seen again. And yet here is where it died. And this upsets me.

It's not just the camera that has died, but all the future images that will never be taken now. When I land in America – very soon now – I'll buy a new one. But until then... I don't think it's the money that concerns me – although the money will be an issue. And what do I replace it with? The same model? A low-end DSLR, as I've been thinking of upgrading lately? I thought my next camera would be a DSLR – I decided this yesterday. I just didn't think that I would be needing that new camera quite so soon.

I still hope against hope that it will rise from its grave like the hero at the beginning of Altered Beast, but really I know better. I held the same hope for the GPS and other such things that have been lost or broken along the way.

It's just sad is all. And I think I'll mope for an hour or so. Perhaps after dinner I'll be better – and then I can talk about what a fantastic day today was. And believe me, it was!

Alright – mope over. Time to talk about the day.

We started early in the morning coming to rest just off shore from a group of buildings along the shoreline. It's strange to see what might almost resemble a small town if one didn't know better. In a land where the most one ever comes across is a dilapidated wooden hut caving under too many years of too much neglect, seeing modern structures, water towers, and antennas poking up from the snow, is just about as foreign as things come.

We had arrived at Vernadsky Station. Once a British scientific research base, it was sold to the Ukrainians for the large sum of one pound. Of course this sale did come with a few catches. For one, the Ukrainians had to continue to research started by the Brits. They had to continue studying specific aspects of the upper atmosphere. They also had to keep the base manned and well maintained – perhaps not always the easiest and most inexpensive of tasks.

Before entering the station we headed to a neighbouring island which was home to Wordie Hut – a wooden sign proclaiming this area as British Crown Land was left to mark their claim, no longer held. These signs are fleeting, most fallen to the elements, being nothing more than basic wood nailed together, older than most people that will ever come to see it. Here in Antarctica things are different. The elements are different – a desert, rain hardly falls at all – one of the driest places on the planet, all things seem to be well preserved.

The beach and island here seemed to be nothing more than precariously piled stones. Rocks, broken ever smaller over the years, formed a small piles, then a larger one, then a larger one. They crackled and scraped underfoot, shifting with every attempt to reach a higher plateau. From the top an unobstructed view of a sheer wall of ice presented itself, something eternal, powerful, and seemingly unchanging – though that it anything but the truth.

Seal bones, and half discarded flippers are strewn around the island. The predator that tackled these animals can only be guessed at – I would assume a leopard seal, as there are few predators in this part of the world, and fewer still that would venture far inland.

The island on which Vernadsky was stationed was a completely different story. Leopard seals made their home in these areas as well, as penguins knowingly waited on shore, standing all in a line hoping for the waters to become safe once more to slide, waddle, or hop back into. But there were no bones left to cover the stones, no buildings filled with ancient typewriters, ink ribbons, gas masks, and novels from a bygone area. And no ghosts were left to wander hopelessly. Here there were men – living men offering a guided tour of something only dreamed of.

Here in the station our passports were stamped with an official seal, rather than the play stamps that can be arranged for at tourist stations back in the Argentinian mainland. And here there was what passed for a post office – stamps being sold, and canceled, before the postcards made their long journey to whatever destination was decided upon.

In the heated building we were told to remove our boots before being shown around. This required the removal of my rain pants as well, capped with waterproof booties. The relative indoor temperature became far more pleasing with this accomplished. Then in we wandered.

The base has been male only since the first expedition which saw four women out on the ice. But no longer are they within these walls. The ladies washroom seems strangely out of place, often unused. It is the word often that I question silently, without voice.

If you'll look to your right, you'll see the men's bathroom. I would remember this for later, and then on your right the weight room – walls plastered with pictures ripped from magazines, and posters special delivered, of women in all sorts of lurid poses. Once more the male dominated aspect of the base becomes apparent. Back on the left a scientist is working in his lab, really a small office with a laptop and a microscope more than anything else, and back to the right more office space. Desks are covered with photographs of wives, children, and loved ones not seen for more than a year at a time. Without doubt internet allows for communication that would be all but unthinkable to those that came before, but that's when the wind is blowing the right way, the rain has stopped falling, and the ice isn't covering the transmitters. Which is to say, the internet works when it feels like it. And not a moment before.

In the main assembly room, where we took off our boots, a flat screen monitor hangs over the exit door displaying current weather conditions, and a duty roster complete with pictures of all the staff making ridiculous faces. Nearer still is a white board that is used to record every instance a worker steps outside into the cold, where they are headed, and how long they will remain outside for.

In the darker months the weather can change in an instant spelling disaster for all those unlucky enough to be caught in the cold. The bottoms of peoples feet have been known to fall off in these terrible conditions – their soles calcifying, and finally detaching leaving nothing but sticky raw flesh underneath. In times like these explorers have been known to glue, and tie, the dead skin back to the new, allowing for more miles to be covered lest they fall prey to the elements.

Should something terrible go wrong here there is one zodiac tied to the dock, bouncing against the shore with every wave. The sense of abandonment and loneliness must be overwhelming at times. The passing ships that send landing parties to visit, such as ourselves, during the warmer months – they must work wonders for morale. But then when the ice freezes, once more the inhabitants of this land must find themselves very much alone.

It is not impossible to picture a most distressing horror tale transpiring here, where faded messages seeking help play out in looped recording over the broadcast radio, while lights flicker inside, generators falling silent, and the last e-mails sent from the work stations seeming disheveled at best. The one link to the outside, the zodiac, would be raging against the shore, partially untied, or perhaps missing – found beached on an island miles away. The only thing still working would be the warm lights, and repeating album, playing in the well stocked bar. An eerie sign of civilization when so much else has gone wrong.

Which brings me to the next stop in our tour – Faraday Bar. Perhaps the Southernmost bar in the world. Tantalizing bras hang from model ships, while another – donated by a passing German woman – takes up an entire wall panel just off to the size. The size of that can only be guessed at with comedic gestures. Jumping halfway into the alphabet might get you close to the truth.

The vodka sold there has all been brewed in house, and after so many months abandoned by the world, they've got quite good at perfecting their craft. This was either the smoothest vodka I have ever had, being swallowed without so much as the slightest tint of burning aftertaste, or it has been watered down. The truth is impossible to guess at. Had I had this vodka anywhere else in the world, I would not have hesitated for a moment to assume it was cut half and half – but after all, these are Ukrainians, lovers of vodka, and all vodka related products. Perhaps here, in Antarctica, I really did have the best shot I'll ever have in my life.

It can now be said that I've drank in six of the world's seven continents. (It should be noted that some people on board are confused when they hear this, as they'd been taught there were five continents – north and south American simply being one continent, America – and Antarctica, which stands somewhere off to the side.) More importantly, as I made my way down to the washroom on the lower level, I have also used the toilet in six of the world's seven continents. When I make my way to Australia, and complete this circuit, I will feel quite proud of myself, quite proud indeed.

And let me tell you, they have some inappropriate reading material stashed away in their toilets. Once more – male dominated, alone for over a year. One makes due with the limited supplies one has, I'd assume.

Morning became afternoon became late afternoon. The winds picked up, the sky began to let loose a torrential rain, and the waves began to swell. For one of the driest places on Earth, we must have hit well over fifty percent of the annual precipitation.

Down in the mudroom we all made ready to board our zodiacs for an unforgettable cruise around icebergs, and islands. I made sure to step back to the end of the line, allowing me to board the boat with our NatGeo photographer, Jason. He had given a brief lecture about photography, and so much of what I had forgotten as I slipped into the digital age, where single frames no longer seemed important, as the mass-produced bulk images would often allow for one or two solid images, came flooding back to me. I wanted to see how he worked, hoping to allow myself to return to such styles of shooting sometime in the future. Perhaps, I thought, an DSLR would help me to focus. Yes, I could shoot that way with what I have now, but my camera still felt more of a toy than a full on tool. In the year to come, I thought I might want to upgrade.

Ten minutes on the water was enough for me to give up on capturing any decent frames. Ten minutes and my lens was smudged with the rain, and placed within a plastic bag, tucked away under my rain jacket, trying to protect it from the elements. I would not fight the weather for potential shots that would never turn out. I would simply enjoy the experience of bouncing over the rough seas, the rain pelting my face – tiny stinging pinpricks as we pushed ever forward.

While some drivers turned back early, we stayed out as Jason had a shoot to complete, and some images demanded being shot. He held his cameras into the wind, and rain, and salt water pounding over the sides – daring the weather to ruin his sensitive electronics. His assistant Anna shot the same. Two other photographers followed suit, especially when a friendly and curious leopard seal approached the boat, just as we began to pass a large archway of ice – cracked and threatening to collapse at any moment.

While they were busy trying to dry their lenses, finding all papers and cloths and clothes saturated within brief moments, I simply enjoyed the presence of the animal. It had been so long since I'd tried to see the world without a lens stuck between it and myself, that I had forgotten just how wonderful it could be.

The seal came close to us, dove under, and popped up again. For ten minutes we watched as it played near us, rushing forward, and escaping back. Kneeling in the bottom of the zodiac I rested my head on the inflated pontoon. A moment later when the seal popper up, its head no more than a foot from my own, its eyes locked with mine, I knew that I would trade this moment for nothing else. The rain still bled down from above, and with desperation the photographers tried to ready their gear to take one or two shots of this experience, but as for myself? For that instance I was in a world all my own.

And then it was gone.

Bounding across the sea, we made way back to the ship, the dark skies creating an ominous sense of things to come, realizations that were still nearly half an hour away. Boarding the ship at the gangway, waiting for the swell to lift you half on board, before the inflated craft was removed from underfoot by the sea slipping ever lower, was an effort in patience, and dexterity. But once completed, safe in the mudroom, people could hardly resist describing their experience. It had been cold, it had been rough, it had been painful. It was the perfect weather, and the perfect experience for such a treacherous and dangerous continent. This was not the Antarctica shot in so many magazines, and pictorials – blue skies and sunny days. This was Antarctica as it is embodied by those who had to trek across it over the past hundred and fifty years.

And then back in my room, when I tried to review the pictures on my camera, disaster struck. It would not turn back on.

My camera was dead.

Wandering the halls and talking about the experience, it was mentioned to Jason by another passenger, that my camera had met an untimely fate. Apparently I was not alone. He had some minor problems with a lens on the excursion, Anna lost a body, another passenger in our zodiac lost a body, and yet another lost a lens. Our trip was cursed from the start. And yet all of us agreed that whatever the price, it had been worth it for the experience.

Few things could ever capture what those moments had offered.

It must be said that Jason is one of the most genuine people I've come across. He's kind, and passionate about his work. He will spend time looking at everyones work, and offering to help them improve their pieces. In anyone, this is rare; in a photographer this is almost unheard of. Ego is a big part of the business, and for many there is a constant struggle to one up the others. Jason is, though he would never say it, one of the best photographers in the world – highly regarded as being in the top running for all Australians. Of all the photographers that have contributed to the National Geographic Archive, he ranks number two in those with the most images.

And yet, once more, he is a genuinely nice person. It seems almost impossible. When he heard of my plight, without hesitating he called me to his room and lent me one of his 12MP point and shoots, waterproof this time. While I may not have my 500mm equivalent lens, or my manual settings, this camera would let me keep shooting, keep recording, and keep my head on straight until the end of the journey. And, you know, maybe my camera will have returned to life by then? I've been told that sometimes the inner workings can take nearly a week to dry. Now I'll hold off on false hope for seven days, rather than just the night. I give it a 1/100 chance of returning. I don't think any salt should have got inside, as my camera was in a plastic bag, and under my raincoat. Here's hoping. But – either way, I had something to shoot with.

And for an hour in the afternoon, I stood on the bow deck taking pictures as we went through a small channel, no more than a mile wide. Icebergs floated between the shores, requiring pinpoint accuracy by the captain as we made our way from one side to the other. At times we seemed to miss the floating ice by no more than two meters.

On either side the peeks rose up around us. The clouds wrapped around the points, while the snow tried to settle, hanging in midair, not yet turned into an avalanche by sheer force of will.

I stood in my pants, a long sleeved shirt, and sandals. Everyone else was bundled for the cold. For an hour I stood as one by one people left the deck, heading for the heated cabins within. One girl, wearing a yellow Fruits Basket hat, stayed for most of the trial. We discussed anime, and manga, and Tokyo. And once more I felt a sense of home, within a geeky subculture. At the end of the Earth, it's good to find common ground.

During the same year, though her in mid high school, while I was in first year University, we both powered through Neon Genesis Evangelion is a terrible marathon that left us both asking ourselves, What the [expletive?!]

And then she too was gone. It was Jason and myself standing on the bow, hail throwing itself against us. As he worked to take a shot of me with his 10mm fish eye lens, I tried my best to keep my eyes open – I love hail hitting me right in the eye. It's awesome!

But the shot? Not all that terrible if I say so myself, even with the low light conditions. The effect of a 10mm can be quite spectacular.

And after some time, talking with him about his job, and his recent shoot highlighting the bush meat trade, I realized that such a job was not for me – and never would be. Yes it was adventurous, and glamorous, but to be away so long, and to face dangerous beyond anything I had ever anticipated as a child, flipping through that yellow bordered magazine, which was always held with such respect – the only magazine that could never be torn apart or cut up for school projects. Next time I look through the shoots contained within I'll not be able to view them without questioning just how they were taken, what lengths the photographers went to to obtain them, and just how spectacular they truly were.

Earlier Jason had shown an image of a kangaroo Joey snapped within its mothers pouch. Seeing it I just though, well of course that picture exists, a good photographer can take pictures of anything. Not for a second did I anticipate all that had to come into balance for such a shot. Jason showed up at a gas station in Australia at the same time as a researched who had worked with a specific kangaroo years past pulled in to fill up. That specific kangaroo just happened to be passing the area at the same time, and was noticed to have a Joey on board. After some quick conversation, it was decided that perhaps Jason could get close enough to take the shot. Crawling on his belly, while the researcher worked the animal Jason got close. He attached a ring flash to his lens, and guessed the distance from the end of his lens, to the baby within the pouch – there would be only one shot at this. Slowly the researcher eased open the pouch, and Jason slipped the camera inside: Bang! Bang! Bang! Three shots were hammered out, the lens was removed the pouch was closed, and the kangaroo bounded off back across the desert.

The result? Beautiful, eerie, spectacular. And the result of an almost impossible succession of events. Next time I see view the works of great photographers I'll not just see the image and judge whether I like it or not. No, now I will be aware of the whole store, the one that happens out of frame, beyond where even the widest lens can shoot. I'll view the story of the person behind the glass.

When I went inside, leaving Jason alone on the bow, no doubt reenacting the scene from Titanic, I was met with stifled laughter and chuckles as I headed into the forward lounge, where all the passengers were watching the daily recap. Apparently I looked quite cold, quite wet, and quite humorous.

At dinner I heard tales of at least two other cameras meeting a terrible fate through the course of the day. Others, surely, had come to a tragic end as well.

And after dinner there was a round of “Guess my Antarctic Bluff” where a word was given, and three definitions were displayed. It was up to each team (from 2 – 6 people) to guess the correct definition to the word. Our meager team of three worked to the best of our ability – getting the first word wrong, but then nailing the next six. If you've ever wondered what a FUD was, I think you should do the research and discover the truth behind that acronym. It's a goody. When we missed the final word, number eight, I was crushed. And slightly annoyed. Still – when all was tallied it seemed our team had won. Not only had we won, but with six correct answers we might have been the best team to have ever played. I still felt bad about missing number 8, but the bottle of wine we received helped smooth everything over.

It would be saved for next night's dinner. For now I was off to sleep, camera beside me on the floor. I began to read Exit Wounds – an Inspector Rebus novel – by Ian Rankin for a few moments. The foggy world of underground Edinburgh was enrapturing, but I could only keep open my eyes for so long, and then I was asleep.

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