Remote Russian islands, humpback whales and an Arctic fox falling asleep in her hand are all in a day’s work for Lucia Griggi. And while savouring the adventure, the National Geographic photographer has increasingly found herself face to face with the disturbing reality of climate change.
How did you get into photography?
Because I started surfing. After I graduated from university in London, I moved down to Cornwall and worked for a surf school. I spent my summers at Watergate Bay teaching and living the beach life, then would save up to go travelling somewhere far off and different each winter.
I picked up my dad’s old Nikon film camera and took that on my travels. The first place I went was New Zealand – I bought a car and travelled around, going between Raglan and Gisborne and living in my car. I really enjoyed photography and used it as a means to give me more purpose with travelling.
Have you had any mentors over the years?
When I first moved to Cornwall there were probably only a handful of female surfers in the water, let alone female surf photographers. It was a very male-dominated industry, and at the time there were only a few established photographers who would really help me out. When I started working on the World Tour in 2007, after two or three years working in the UK scene, I became part of the furniture. Scott Aichner helped me swim Pipe one of my first times. Jason Andrews spent a few weeks in Hawaii with me. There’s also a local photographer called Roger Sharp who helped me in so many ways.
How do you respond to a new environment? Do you step back and take it all in, or do you pick up the camera and start shooting instinctively?
I’d say the latter. It really depends on what you shoot. I just came back from Iceland on a travel shoot. We did a couple of days of aerials, and then we had time down on the beaches and some of the glacier lagoons. When I’m on the road doing travel it’s instant; there’s not really much time to evaluate a shot. I remember when we were driving along in Iceland and the light had gone, but then all of a sudden I noticed one of the huge waterfalls had a light patch reflecting on the top third. That’s what made the shot; and having my camera there on my lap meant I could quickly stop the car and seize the moment.
“I’m always gravitating to the water. That’s where I feel most comfortable. I understand the environments, I understand coastal patterns, I understand swells and waves.”
I’m always gravitating to the water. That’s where I feel most comfortable. I understand the environments, I understand coastal patterns, I understand swells and waves. I don’t really get the same enjoyment being in the middle of a desert. As much as I can work a camera, shoot and potentially get great images, it’ll never be the same as working with the ocean. That’s what I’m good at, and that’s what I have that other people don’t.
How has your work evolved?
It has developed a lot, to doing a lot of travel and wildlife. The kind of shooting that I’m doing now mostly involves coastal areas and going by a vessel. I have moved from action sport into wildlife conservation, and working with oceans in different ways. I’ve gravitated to enjoying remote areas, going to climates like the polar regions and Alaska.
What was behind that transition, going from surf to environmental?
I think it’s quite a natural progression. As surfers, when we look at the ocean we see it in a completely different way. We look at wave formations, we understand swell patterns. It’s important that we help towards preserving that. By going to some of these places that so many people can’t get to, I can definitely bring that to the fore through the power of photography. I enjoy working in remote areas and their cultures, and do what I can to help make more of a difference.
“By going to some of these places that so many people can’t get to, I can definitely bring that to the fore through the power of photography.”
What’s it like being out in those remote locations? How does it affect you?
Over the last couple of years I’ve been really lucky; one of my first experiences was going to the Russian Far East. I boarded a vessel from Seward in Alaska and travelled all the way up the inside passage, through some very remote islands up into the Aleutian Islands, and then over the Bering Sea into the Siberia area and the Sea of Okhotsk, including the Kuril Islands. They’re not easily accessible; a lot of the time they’re covered in mist and you can’t even see these islands, which are mainly calderas [a special type of volcanic crater].
Then I went back down into Japan. It was pretty humbling seeing all the different cultures in between Alaska and Japan. And on the Kuril Islands, seeing lands that were so untouched by man… it really shows you another way of life, completely unaffected by humans, and how that influences the encounters with wildlife. There was an Arctic fox on one island, and I assumed they would be quite scared of seeing a human. But it was the opposite; they were actually quite inquisitive. I remember following an Arctic fox around this caldera with nothing in sight, just grass fields and hillsides. And it just lay down. I went to photograph it, and it came to me and fell asleep on my hand. Seeing and feeling these places, it stays with me.
Are you seeing the effects of climate change everywhere you go?
When I went up to the Arctic recently I didn’t get to the pack ice because it’s retreated to 82 degrees. Last year it was 80 degrees, the year before it was 79 degrees – that’s four or five days’ travel there and back. When you hear these things you take note, but until you actually see them, that’s when it really sinks in.
“When I went up to the Arctic recently I didn’t get to the pack ice because it’s retreated to 82 degrees. Last year it was 80 degrees, the year before it was 79 degrees.”
How’s it been shooting for National Geographic?
I worked a lot in Sri Lanka with leopards, which was really cool; camping out in the jungle, hearing all the sounds at night, and being educated on the circle of life. It’s brilliant being able to shoot the things that Nat Geo are all about, because I love shooting wildlife, travel and adventure.
How important is the relationship between yourself and your subject?
Having the relationship with that surfer and understanding their lifestyle helps get the shot you need. When you travel and shoot, everyone wants to work in a good team; you’re in very close confinement and you’re generally camping or travelling in minimalistic ways. Having a good relationship counts for over 50 percent of what you need.
Does shooting in cold water separate you from the broader surfing world?
I love the feeling of wrapping up in layers and heading out into the cold. The first second when that biting, crisp clean air hits your face. When I was in Antarctica, the moment I stepped outside I felt alive and would always breathe in deeply just to feel my environment. I love cold air. I also love the wildlife in these climates; the blubber of the seals with their clouds of breath, the penguins bouncing around in their winter coats. The rawness of the ocean with the waves breaking so heavy. The feeling when it touches your face for the first time when you duck under the first wave.
I did a road trip from San Diego up to Alaska, living out of a van camping and surfing all the waves I could find. Putting on the 6mm wetsuit and swimming through the thick kelp that sits along the seabed; I love it all. I would take cold water over the tropics anyday.
Any memories that have really stuck?
There was one time with National Geographic in Alaska. We were looking for brown bears, but it was a beautiful evening and when the light gets that good, everybody loses their minds shooting in the ‘golden hour’. I remember sitting in the Zodiac, and at one moment – it was ridiculous – we had bottlenose dolphins swimming on the bow. There were two humpback whales just gliding in front, blowing. And then a bear showed up on the shore. I was thinking, “I can’t handle it. I don’t know what to shoot!”
There was a moment where someone had tied me on as I was basically off the boat at the front with a GoPro – trying to track the dolphins, while my other camera was half out of the Peli case trying to shoot the whales. I was completely drenched, and it was absolute carnage. Normally that doesn’t happen; normally you’re waiting for days.
What’s the most powerful takeaway that photography has given you?
It’s given me a purpose. I feel like we’re all looking, or we all need something that makes us tick and identify ourselves, gives us a place. Photography is the only constant in my life, where I can always be with it, return to it, do it, make a career out of it, live a lifestyle by it, be free by it. I’m pretty lucky really. Having that talent and nurturing it, and working on it every day has paid off. I’m very lucky.
Photographs by Lucia Griggi | View The True North Collection Here