'I'm a climate change photographer – there's lots you aren't seeing'

Welcome back to How I Made It, Metro.co.uk’s weekly career journey series.

This week we’re chatting with Esther Horvath, 44, a contributing photographer for National Geographic, a Nikon Ambassador and photographer for the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research.

What that essentially means, is she photographs the Artic and documents climate change visually.

She also focuses on female scientists working in these regions, aiming to raise awareness of the work women are doing.

Esther is currently in the Arctic Ocean on a two-month long scientific expedition on the way to the North Pole – otherwise, she is based in Hamburg, Germany.

It’s a tough job, so here’s how she does it.

Hi Esther, what are your main photography projects?

I see my work as a visual science communicator, using platforms such as talks, exhibitions, publications, and social media to translate this.

This is to raise awareness for these fragile polar environments, educating the people of tomorrow. 

Another one of my main projects is Women in Artic Science – growing up I only saw men venture to the polar regions, never women.

As part of my work, I want to show girls – young adults, kids and women that if you put your mind to something and if you work hard, you can reach your dreams. 

Did you have to do any training to get here?  

In 2012, I moved to New York and attended the International Centre of Photography, graduating in Documentary and Photojournalism.  

In 2015, I was assigned a job in the Arctic, where I soon fell in love with the place, deciding to dedicate my work to the polar regions and to work alongside scientists to raise awareness of the changes happening there. 

For each scientific expedition I go on, I have to undertake several training sessions – especially when heading to the Arctic.

One of the training sessions includes polar bear safety, which is something you have to re-do annually.

I also have to participate in several survival training sessions for different expeditions, such as what to do if you lose the ship.

How do you manage the extreme conditions you work in?

For me, the colder the better! I really love the extreme cold temperatures.

This year I was on an airplane-based expedition called Ice Bird, where we flew from the most northern locations of the planet to the north pole, measuring sea ice thickness. The coldest temperature we had was -48 Degrees Celsius.

While some would be shocked at how I could ever survive, and actually enjoy, these temperatures, I feel at home and in my element. I don’t like the hot weather – anything above 24 Degrees Celsius I really struggle with.  

In terms of coping with the cold, we have specialised outfits that protect us, and great gloves of course. However, for my work I need to feel the camera in my hands – like it’s a part of me – and so sometimes my hands suffer, also as the camera is metal.

Did you ever work in another industry – what was career changing like if so?  

I was born in Hungary and received my Masters in economics from West Hungarian University, and then went on to work in business and logistics in Vienna.

However, I dreamed of becoming a book illustrator, and loved the idea of telling stories in a visual way, which led me to the realisation that I could illustrate stories using a camera.   

From being an economist and with the dream of something more creative, I took a steep turn into photography after I received my very first Nikon compact camera at 25 years old.

But the path to get to that decision was long, so for a while I pursued both careers – juggling my business life and a photographer’s life too.

But after several years trying to balance the two, I’m very happy to have made the leap to becoming a professional photographer full time.  

What’s one of the most shocking things you’ve seen on the job, in terms of climate change? 

One of the places I’ve travelled to during my expeditions is a small town called Ny-Ålesund, in Svalbard, Norway.

I was shocked to discover that that the fjord there had been frozen in the wintertime up until 10 years ago. Every winter, the scientists would cross the fjord by walking, using skis, or snowmobiles. Yet now, it’s all open water – even in the wintertime.

Do you ever have climate anxiety yourself, doing a job like this?

Every time I venture to the Arctic Ocean, I always feel that I am capturing an incredibly significant time in history, photographing a form of nature that in time, will disappear.

Scientists now say that by 2035, we will experience the first year where the Arctic Ocean is ice free during the summer months.

By being travelling to the heart of the Arctic Ocean, I’ve had the opportunity to see with my own eyes just how important the sea ice really is to our planet.

Essentially, it acts like a soil, allowing rich life to grow underneath – from small animals and zooplankton, all essential elements of the food chain.

However, if the sea ice disappears, this will affect the entire ecosystem, right up to the seals and the polar bears.

This is something I find incredibly sad; however, it motivates me even more to push on with my work.

What aren’t the public seeing when it comes to climate change? Are we seeing images that are too sanitised or don’t show the full picture?

This was the same question I asked myself back in 2015, which ultimately fuelled my decision to document climate change and research through my photography.

I always felt that while there was a general awareness rippling across the world with regards to the fact that the Arctic is melting, there was a lack of knowledge around the scientists behind this incredible climate research – they work sometimes away from family for 15 months, missing Christmas day, to continue researching.

This is what really interests and motivates me – to show that behind the groundbreaking data, there are real people, people who have dedicated their entire lives to one scientific aspect.

For me, that is something that is not visible when we talk about climate change, and climate research.

An average day in the working life of Esther Horvath

‘During my current expedition, I wake up at 7am, and first thing I do is get a coffee. I have a cabin-mate, who is lovely, and whoever wakes up first, brings the other person the coffee.

‘I try to check my emails and assess my plan for the day – if and when the Wifi works.

‘Lunchtime is 11:30 am on the ship. After that I continue to follow the scientific work on the sea ice, or on board, or flying on the helicopter with the scientists. When we return, we have dinner.  

‘The work doesn’t stop as after dinner though as I continue to take pictures of the landscape, and life on board. I also update my social media.

‘Usually at 9 or 10pm I finish my day and head to bed. We have 24 hours of daylight in The Arctic and, as a surprise to some, I really enjoy sleeping in the daylight and not closing the curtains.’

What do you love most about your job?  

The thing I love most about my job is being able to work together with scientists.

It’s so amazing to follow their work and learn about their research. I feel incredibly grateful to be invited and accepted into their world.

What do you dislike the most?  

I love to eat fruit, and on expeditions, especially if it’s a longer one like the two-month one I’m currently on, there’s a limited time how long you can store fresh fruit, and there are no shops around to pick up more, so this is a limited luxury. 

Do you have a story to share?

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