Martin Hartley has an impressive expedition CV. He’s a superb photographer too. I caught up with him to chat about his life.
Alastair: You’ve just taken the FA Cup to the South Pole. How on earth did that come about?
Martin: I’d been speaking to the FA about a photography commission to showcase “the adventure of the Cup”. I happened to be heading to the South Pole the next week. I had a genius idea: “how about I take the FA Cup to the South Pole?”….
Alastair: And they said yes?! How did you get one of Britain’s most valuable things to the South Pole?
Martin: It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done, being in charge of a national treasure like that. Quite an experience though!
Alastair: Right – down to business! What interests me about what you do is you started out by going to college to train to be a photographer. Meanwhile you were just climbing for fun separately to that. How did you go from someone who’s just aspiring to be a photographer to someone who’s been on a million impressive polar expeditions?
Martin: Crikey. Well it all happened by complete accident, I didn’t plan any of it. I just seemed to get on this road and just kept on it. I entered an outdoors writing competition. The prize was to win a trek to Everest Base Camp in the company of a team that was attempting to climb the mountain. I was too late to post my entry [those who know Martin will not be surprised!] so I cycled around to the given address to hand it in. I expected some old biddy man to open the door. And this skinny kid called Paul Deegan opened the door and he invited me in for a cup of tea. I was subsequently invited to the expedition HQ for an interview and it was only years later that Paul told me that my essay was poor but that he had suggested to the expedition leader that the team needed a photographer and that I was a good bloke who could take pictures. That’s how I got on to my first expedition. I sold all my photo developing equipment to pay for my flights to be on the trip.
Alastair: So you had a chunk of luck meeting Paul. And then you took the risk of selling all your work stuff and taking a big punt in going on it. It’s not just luck is it?
Martin: No, it’s not. I then went to see Nigel Winser, who was then the deputy director of the Royal Geographic Society, to ask his advice. “I want to work for National Geographic. How do I go about that?” He said, “Well, first of all you need to get your work published. Go away and get your work published. That’s the first thing you need to do.” It was helpful advice.
So that was the next phase: I was hell bent on getting stuff published. At the time I wasn’t really confident that I was good enough to take pictures that could be published, but anyway, lo and behold I did. And then it became a more conscious stream of coming up with ideas, going to places with a writer and documenting our journeys and then selling them to magazines.
Alastair: Is that still possible this days?
Martin: In order to break even you need to sell the stories four or five times just to get your cost back. But then you get your work published and if it looks great then that’s a good calling card to get other stuff commissioned rather than self-funded stuff.
Alastair: One of those early trips, you’ve described as the best you ever did? Why is that?
Martin: Because we were traveling with locals along this frozen river for 150 miles. And we became part of their little community and when we arrived at the end of the river, at their village, we stayed for ten days and just hung out with the local people. They invited us into their homes. It was one of the richest travel experiences I have ever had.
I went to a festival before the expedition started. Everyone was in traditional costume, there was food there and I just went mental with my photography. I was shooting film back then. Before we started climbing I thought, “I had better just check how many rolls of film I’ve got left.” I had really made a big mistake. I’d shot so much at the festival that I only had six frames a day for the rest of the expedition! So obviously, I had to think hard about each picture. And as a result I came up with one of the best collections of pictures I’ve ever got from an expedition.
Alastair: I wondered if you enjoyed that trip so much because it wasn’t quite your job then? Has making your career out of this spoiled your love of what you do?
Martin: That is a good question. No, not really. I’m still as obsessed with taking pictures as I was back then and it is an obsession. What has become more diluted is the excitement of arriving in a new place, new smells, new clothes, new food.
Alastair: You’ve described yourself as “a life obsessively collecting adventure experiences”. You just used the word obsessive now to do with your photography. Do you find adventure is like a drug for you that you’re going to struggle to let go of, or maybe you don’t want to let go of? For example, can you still deal with the mental suffering of a North Pole trip knowing you’ve done it lots of times and you haven’t got anything to prove to yourself or anyone else?
Martin: Yeah, that is a lot easier, because you know what to expect. But I found the last trip quite boring because there was nothing new really about it, it was just the same stuff repeated again. So part of that excitement, the amazing sense of adventure is gone because I know exactly what to expect. It sounds very tragic though to say that it was just a job!
Alastair: Maybe you need to start photographing totally different things?
Martin: Yes I think you’re right. I do.
Alastair: Does this mean that, even though you’ve been to both Poles this year, that you are actually doing what many normal people in their normal lives do – living complacently in their comfort zone rather than doing something difficult and challenging and exciting with your life?
Martin: Well that’s a good question. Crikey. Well, I would like to do something more meaningful in my photography rather than just blokes with big ice beards. For sure. So that phase is approaching, I think.
Alastair: What’s the longest trip you’ve ever done?
Martin: I can’t remember if it was 86 days or 99 days on the Arctic Ocean, crossing from Russia to Canada with 19 Canadian Inuit dogs. That was amazing. Without the dogs everyone would have killed each other for sure. That was the worst, the worst expedition experience from a team is perspective I have had by a long, long way.
Alastair: Different personalities…
Martin: Well, despite the fact we had a very clear objective to get from A to B via the North Pole. Despite that, everyone seemed to have a different agenda. There wasn’t that glue that holds an expedition together. And there was a wide range of experience from zero to very experienced. That caused lots of friction. The dogs were always happy and they loved working, and they just exude happiness when they are working so that kept us together, I think.
Alastair: Dogs inspiring things to think of on trips. Because they do all the things I’m rubbish at in life living in the moment, being happy with the moment, not wishing they were somewhere else, just getting on with one thing, licking their balls…
Alastair: So what should you do on an expedition’s end to ensure a commonality of objectives, because I think that’s really important, isn’t it?
Martin: It is, if everyone had stated their agenda right from the beginning, what they wanted to get out of the trip then everyone would have known. It’s simple, it sounds really boring but it’s simple communication. Everything should be just black and white. There’s no real room for emotional complexity at all because that’s when things all part.
Alastair: What’s it like when the plane flies off and dumps you out on the ice and leaves you there for a couple of months?
Martin: You get really excited by the whole preparation for the trip, but then when it actually comes to getting onto the plane you are desperately hoping there is going to be a bad weather delay so you don’t have to get on the plane! And then you get on the plane and it takes off, and you are hoping, “I really hope the weather is bad and we can’t find a place to land and we have to come back. I just want one more warm night in a bed.” And when the plane does land you think, “Shit! I’m here again. Oh my god.” The plane door opens, freezing air comes in, the pilot always says, “Welcome to the middle of nowhere.” And then there is a bit of panic, everyone piles off the plane, hauls all the kit out. And then when the plane leaves, everyone just stands still without speaking and watches it, watches it and watches it and then the plane disappears and you can still hear it and you are still looking in the sky for it and then the sound goes.
Once the sound is gone, that’s probably the best part of the expedition because then that’s when the adventure begins. And everything is open and that’s the best part of the expedition by a long shot.
The other thing that happens, and it happens pretty consistently, is if you’re on a trip and you know it is going to be out on the ice for 60 days or 70 days, the first ten days are really exciting because you are getting to be experts in adventure and after 10 days have gone then you start to think, “Damn. I’ve got another 30, 40, 50 days of this. Oh my god.”
And then when you get to day 50, or 60 and then you are counting down the days that you have got left and you are hoping there is going to be bad weather delays so that the plane can’t come in because you don’t want the plane to come and get you. And then when it does get you, the second you’re back in civilisation you start thinking about going back out there again. It’s freakish psychological behaviour that doesn’t make any sense.
Alastair: Do you not have a phase of being excited about getting back for a shower and nice food?
Martin: No, not at all. It doesn’t matter how dirty you are or smelly you are, you just don’t care, it doesn’t matter, it’s not important.
Alastair: You said that arriving at the North Pole is an anticlimax because the journey is over. Is the anticipation of these trips better than the actual reality of them?
Martin: That’s a good question. I think by the nature of being a journey, they are emotional roller coasters. The anticlimax comes, god, it’s strange. When I got to the North Pole with Ann Daniels and Charlie Paton in 2010, the tent went up, they go inside and go to sleep, and I take my sledge out for some bizarre reason, clean it, polish it, pack everything nicely while they were sleeping. And there was no thigh slapping celebration. We’re at the North Pole. Well done. That was it.
Alastair: Was that because you had all been there before, or because of the nature of the place because it’s just an anti-climax anyway?
Martin: Well it’s not like getting to the top of a mountain where you can see you’re at the top. It’s just another step. You have to build this mental picture in your mind that you are at the top of the world. That’s a nice thing, but there is no high-fiving for sure.
Alastair: You’ve done quite a few trips when you’re doing the expeditions, but you’ve also been out documenting other people on their trips? What are the differences?
Martin: There is a lot more pressure, a lot more pressure, on the photographer to create an archive that the media and the sponsors can dip into to simulate what it will be like when they’re on the expedition. There is never enough time because you might go there for two weeks and only end up shooting for two hours and you have to get everything in that time. So from a photographic point of view there is always a lot more pressure. And a lot of wishing that I was going on the trip itself. And then you get on the plane to come home. It’s quite sad actually.
Alastair: Is that just a job, then?
Martin: Yeah, it’s just a job. Yeah but it’s better than photographing someone flipping burgers.
Alastair: Right, I’ve got a few short questions now. What was the greatest Polar trip ever?
Martin: That’s a good question. It’s got to be, without question, Wally Herbert’s Trans Arctic Crossing because that will never be repeated ever again and that was an amazing, amazing journey. No gadgets, no GPS, old gear, and doing science as well on the way. It was a real expedition.
Alastair: Did you ever meet him?
Martin: I did, yeah. God, I’m so lucky. To meet a real explorer was amazing.
Alastair: What is the best Polar photo in history?
Martin: The best polar photo in history, has to be the selfie that Captain Scott and his men did. I mean, the fact that they bothered to get a camera out after such an epic disappointment, get a camera out, set it up, take a picture and have the will to do that under those circumstances. Oh my god. I wouldn’t have bothered.
Alastair: That’s so heart breaking isn’t it?
Martin: And you can see it’s written all over their faces as well.
Alastair: Where do you prefer beginning Arctic journeys – Nunavut or Siberia?
Martin: Photographically, Siberia wins hands down, because it’s just a lot weirder. There’s less new stuff around and a lot more character and also it seems to be – although it’s probably not true – that there is a lot more colour in Siberia than there is in Canada.
Alastair: What do you prefer, places with mountains and stuff versus the emptiness of the Arctic Ocean?
Martin: Arctic ocean, nothing on earth can touch it. It’s like a frozen version of a lava flow, that is probably the best way to describe it.
Alastair: Does the North Pole beat the South Pole in your mind, even if you bear in mind the history of the expeditions in those places as well?
Martin: The Americans have successfully destroyed any sense of remoteness of the South Pole. It’s just an industrial site, really. If they’d built the South Pole base over the horizon, three or four miles away, you could still stand at the South Pole and wonder what Scott was thinking, or Amundsen, when they were there. But you can’t have those thoughts now, because there’s a great stupid building there. But I think Antarctica has a lot more romance associated with expeditions than the Arctic. When you go to Antarctica you have feelings of nostalgia, when you go to the Arctic you have… you’re just cold.
Alastair: Cold and scared.
Martin: Yeah, yeah. Wet too.
Alastair: What are some tips for good adventure photography? Nowadays everyone has got a good camera, and everyone goes to amazing places. How do you make your pictures stand out?
Martin: What you have to do, go onto Pinterest and collect pictures of wherever it is you want to go. And then in your head, before you leave the comfort of your home, build a shopping list of shots in your head. Write them down, the kind of shots that you want to get, just five or six, ten at the most. Just keep that shopping list in your head the entire time there and look to get those pictures rather than just aimlessly reacting to things happening. You should be looking for specific shots that you want to get.
Alastair: I know that kit is quite low-down in the list of important things for getting good pictures, but what’s an ideal kit for an adventure travel photographer to head out with?
Martin: Well, ideally you need a camera that you can change lenses on. Zoom lenses are great but unreliable in the cold or in dusty places. So definitely a camera that has a manual function, that you can change lenses on. And one you can drop a few times and it still works. You can do anything on a 24 millimetre lens. You can do landscapes and portraits. That would be one lens I would always carry in case everything failed. A 35 millimetre lens is a classic reportage lens and then a long lens just so you can shoot things from far away, even portraits. Nosy, voyeuristic shots of people!
Alastair: My final question is if I was to give you £1000 to go do an adventure what would you go and do?
Martin: A pub crawl. No, actually do you know what I realise I would do? Go and rent a cabin in the woods or in the mountain somewhere and just lock myself away for a week with nothing. Don’t do anything, particularly, just be cut off for a bit in a nice place.
Alastair: With a camera or without?
Martin: Always with a camera. Too much psychological trauma, not having a camera!
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