In the beginning, de la Lez’s photography was all done on film using Nikon F5 bodies. While she tested a number of digital cameras at the start of the project, none stood up to the quality of the F5 and traditional film. The release of the D2X triggered her switch to digital, and now she shoots mainly with that camera, while still sometimes using the F6.
Patience played a critical role in how Mireille de la Lez was able to capture such intimate photographs of animals living in the high Arctic. There for six to 10 months at a time over a period of six years, she and partner Fredrik Granath went to great lengths to melt into their surroundings. They tried to get as close to the polar bears, seals and birds as they could without disturbing them, a challenging feat given the extreme conditions of this climate and the erratic nature of these creatures.
When de la Lez and Granath ventured off to a new location from their base camp, they didn’t take the full load of equipment, but they would easily travel with some 400 pounds of gear or more hauled on the back of snowmobiles or in sledges on skis. Before even laying a hand on the camera gear, they would strap on 40 pounds of clothing, boots, battery packs and safety equipment. Then came time for the camera bodies, 500mm and 600mm lenses, and tripods.
"It’s hell week everyday," de la Lez says. "You have to like challenges to work up there. Just managing to get through an entire day in one piece and take a couple of pictures is success."
A key part of documenting this world successfully meant creating some kind of connection with the subject, whether it was a polar bear mother taking her cubs out to hunt or the majesty of this rapidly changing terrain. To do that, they tried to get as close as possible without disturbing the environment.
Granath and de la Lez say that photographing the polar bears made for some of the project's most rewarding, yet sobering moments. Working through the challenges of photographing the unpredictable bears, while watching them struggle to hunt, mate and raise their young because of the warmer climate was difficult. Living among the bears was important to Granath and de la Lez because it allowed them to portray these creatures in their natural environment, giving outsiders a rare peek into their world
De la Lez spent a lot of time thinking about and crafting her dream shots. Even if it meant laying on her belly for six hours on pack ice, figuring out how to position herself in a way that brought her to an animal’s level was critical to getting the right shot. That planning paid off when the weeks they spent waiting to shoot became just seconds to actually get the picture.
"The miracles will happen if you’re there," de la Lez says. "On the spot, you will find those miracle moments. But if you just go out on a short trip, or hop from here to there and rush, you will miss the essence. Just working with a fox family or a polar bear takes a lot of patience. It can take months to get the right lighting or the right position just to have an encounter with a polar bear."
The struggles of the polar bear are well documented. Year after year, de la Lez and Granath saw the conditions worsen, with the bears losing more of the precious sea ice they depend on for hunting. To learn more about how to interact with and get closer to the bears and other wildlife, they worked closely with scientists who have devoted years to living among these animals and studying their behavior.
Since their first close encounter with a polar bear on the first night of their initial winter expedition, de la Lez and Granath have come across hundreds more. The experience of getting to know these creatures, along with overcoming the challenges of photographing them, counts for many of the project’s most memorable and satisfying moments.
"Just to be out there with a bear on the pack ice where it really is the ruler of the world is amazing," de la Lez says. "And then finding the solutions to overcome these very big challenges, to actually get the pictures after working for 14 hours. It’s quite rewarding to be there and succeed. It’s like climbing a mountaintop each day, and you never know how high up it is or where it will end."