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A travel photographers journey to the end of the earth

A travel photographers journey to the end of the earth - Life, death, water and ice four words which when written do not sound all that exciting. But when you look at Cold, a book by Thijs Heslenfeld and you think about those four simple words they suddenly take on a whole new meaning.

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Category : Professional Interviewed
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Thijis Heslenfeld Thijs Heslenfeld is a travel photographer whose work takes him around the globe for six months of the year but even though he has been privileged enough to see some of the greatest places on earth that isn't where his love for photography is.

"Everybody knows The Great Wall is great and the Grand Canyon is grand. There is no point in repeating that. To me it's the little things that make the best images."

With this in mind you can understand why when Thijs visited Antarctica he didn't want to go on a shiny, safe tourist cruise-ship instead he opted for a true picture on board the Dutch Barque Europa.

The ship was first built in 1911 and like on all the tall ships, when you sail them you work them, you are part of the crew.

Sailing a ship, tough seas and extreme cold would be enough to put most photographers off but not Thijs, he has travelled to the Antarctica before and was eager to get back there.

"I've been there twice, one trip was for three weeks it went from Argentina to the peninsular and back, the kind of trip everyone does who visits the Antarctica. Then I thought ok there's a book in this and so I started planning the second trip, the big trip and that's basically how it began."

View of the deck His pictures of Antarctica are a beautiful collection of images that really are a great tribute to one of the last untouched places on earth. In fact all of his work is a great tribute to places humans haven't changed. He favours places such as Antarctica and the jungle: areas that are not developed, where you have to rough it a bit. Most of the photography Thijs does is rather adventurous, it isn't something you would expect a normal travel photographer to do.

With such drive and passion to document places out of reach you would be under the impression that photography and being a photographer is something that has always been part of Thijs's life but surprisingly it hasn't. He did start taking pictures when he was about fourteen but the work he produced wasn't that great so a career in photography wasn't at the top of his list.

"I wanted to be a police detective and then a radio officer on a ship, that's a profession that doesn't exist any more so I'm glad I didn't do that. So I studied and worked as a journalist for a couple of years, then quite and studied law. I finished that and became a copy writer, then I became a travel writer and then from that I finally became a travel photographer."

With his love for places just out of reach, the Antarctica landscape seems like the perfect destination for this unusual travel photographer.

"I really like to be away from our hectic busy society. No cars, nothing for 2 months, that's great. I like to be out there and this trip was that. It was spectacular actually knowing you can still do that on our planet."

So Thijs sold his trip to the magazines to get sponsorship and off he went on his two month voyage with fourteen professional crew members and forty-eight guests to a place where the cold and even with sixty-two people the loneliness can creep up very quickly.

Crew member "The social aspect wasn't always easy for me,"he said. " On the 2nd trip I found it hard with the people on board, your with a big group of people that you haven't chosen yourself and there is no where to go and it sometimes gets a hold of you."

As well as making you lonely the Antarctic also makes you cold. Your skin can become chapped, your batteries don't last as long and the salt in the sea constantly attacks everything. Surprisingly though Thijs said it wasn't that cold, in fact he said he has been in colder places on skiing trips than the Antarctic was. As the boat sails in summer temperatures only reach around -10, cold but not a temperature you can't work in.

"It's not really that cold. People have this impression that its -30 all of the time but it was summer there and if you look on the map the peninsular is along way from the south pole, if you compare it with the north pole it is like we stopped halfway, Norway."

Going all the way to the south pole for a book may seem a little extreme but Thijs noticed people really liked to see pictures of icebergs and of course like any artist he really wanted to produce a book.

"I wanted to show my photography the way I do my thing," said Thijs "Producing a book isn't easy to do, I wanted to have a real story that makes sense. You can see the whole journey, start to finish, life to death. This meant I had to use a few images that were not really favourites but I wanted to show every part so that was that."

Many of the images in the book are not what would sell commercially, some of the photographs show cut off limbs, bones and one image, which looks quite innocent, is actually an image of a penguin waiting to die.

"I always photograph death as I think its a really important part of life but most of the time people just don't want to look at it. I knew it wouldn't be commercial but I wanted to follow my heart, I would still be a lawyer if it was all about making the most money."

Blind penguinThijs thrived on the creative freedom producing a book gave him. He could finally market the images he wanted to take, he didn't have to work within the creative restraints of a magazine, where most of what he has taken would never be published.

There's no real surprise that his best selling image is the one featured towards the back of the book of the ship through an Arch of ice. It's typical of the images you see from the Antarctic but it isn't Thijs favourite picture from the trip.

"I like the one on page 118, the lonely blind penguin that was waiting to die. That's the stuff that really touches me and here I recorded something most people completely miss. I was out there with a whole group of people but they were focused on the huge colony of penguins instead of him."

As well as having unusual images Cold is a book with hardly any words, only a few sections from the Captins log are inserted into the occasional page. It feels like Thijs wanted the images to speak for themselves and because of the way he approaches photography they certainly do. Thijs felt it wasn't important to know what type of seal it was, you can find that out in any nature book, what he shot was all about the true picture and atmosphere of the continent.

Thijs likes reality. He likes things to be pure, real and most importantly natural. His photography is genuine, he alters hardly anything in photoshop and hates the idea of styling a scene to make it right.

"It surprises me that all the way through life, even if I look out of my window on to the street, people seem to not be satisfied with the way it is. Like make-up on women, to me it's a strange thing, it is much more beautiful without, women the way they are, nature the way it is."

The boat sailing through an arch of iceThe idea of saying cheese for a photograph almost disgusts this travel photographer who likes to photograph things exactly how they are.

"Thats why I like the Antarctic, jungle and the outback, places where man hasn't started its clean-up yet."

His love for nature can also be seen in his equipment as Thijs doesn't use flash, he doesn't even own one and if it's dark he just doesn't take a picture, thats just the type of photographer he is. He hates styling and doesn't change anything, in-fact the only picture in the entire book that he styled his friends and family spotted straight away.

"I moved the penguin foot onto some rocks as I thought it would look better but they knew straight away."

Penguins foot His documenting takes place on Nikon bodies, 200's when he visited Antarctica and now the 300 he also uses Tokina ATX Pro lenses because of their rugged nature and also they are well constructed, something his equiptment needs to be.

"I have always used Tokina lenses, they sponsor me now but I used them before that. My equipment has a tough life with me hitting things and condensation."

Thijs also uses a Gittzo carbon tripod and a Lowepro Dryzone 200 backpack as it ensures his equipment wont get wet. "You can drop it in the sea and everything will still work which is good on a trip like this because you cant get any new equipment," said Thijs.

His camera may stay dry but condensation that forms from going into the cold of the outside and back indoors again is something his rucksack can't solve.

"Condensation is a big problem," said Thijs "When you know you're heading back inside put your equipment under a blanket and leave it there for an hour to avoid condensation."

As well as a water proof backpack you might want to take some protection for your camera to stop it getting wet. Gloves with the fingers missing are good too, your hands stay warm but you can still take pictures.

His pictures have allowed him to sell 4,000 copies of the book so far and he puts the success down to the interest surrounding the Antarctic and his hard work and enthusiasm for the book.

Penguins with the boat in the background"I could give it more energy than a publisher ever could who has several titles to look after. The publisher I spoke to just didn't seem to believe in it and I needed someone who would."

Of course, without the internet the book may never have happened. The internet opens doors to people and places you just can't find any where else and it allows you to access them quicker than ever before.

"When I started 10 years ago and I wanted to show something to a magazine in Australia it would take 2 months and a lot of money to send my slides over the ocean, but now it is so much easier."

The digital age has also helped Thijs by making the industry more accessible. 30 years ago he would not have been able to do what he does because of costs of equipment and trips. But the digital age also has its downside as Thijs feels it has allowed the industry to become so open that we seem to have lost the ability to distinguish between something special and when someone just clicks a button. He feels that people, in a way, think photography is no longer a profession you need talent or skill for.

"But I can't really complain that much can I," said Thijs.

His success comes through passion, determination and of course friends. Fine art photographer Jimmy Nelson is someone Thijs has travelled with on a couple of occasions and is someone who has taught him to be fearless. He showed Thijs that you can take pictures of anyone if you are Penguins feetopen and out going. Another friend Peter Bogers is a consultant and without his advice the book would not exist today.

"When I had to decide to publish myself most people around me said don't do it but Peter said just do it and I'm sure you will make it and that's something I am grateful for. If you really think you can do something special then I think you should just do it."

To buy the book or to just view more of Thijs's work visit his website.

 

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