Interview with René Robert, PEA photographer
René Robert is 49 years old and comes from a family of mountain guides. He lives in Chamonix and has been specializing in photography since 1987. At the beginning of his career, he contributed to the creation of a specialized magazine for mountaineers and extreme sports. He also took part in many mountaineering expeditions all over the world and is an avid skier.
How did you hear about this project?
I met Alain Hubert in 2000 thanks to a friend we had in common. He was looking for a photographer to take part in an international expedition in Antarctica to open a path on a wonderful granite peak 900 metres high: the Holtana - an amazing vertical nunatak located in the peaks of Fenriskjeften in Queen Maud Land. It was my first trip to Antarctica and the first time I fell in love with the white continent. We stayed for three months. It was an extraordinary experience.
Since then, I have often had the opportunity to follow Alain to the Arctic to take pictures as he departs on his expeditions. It was usually in the winter with temperatures as cold as -52°C (my personal best!). When this station project first started, Alain asked me along to take pictures of the building and I immediately accepted.
What exactly did you do down there?
Most of my job consisted of taking pictures of this big adventure to be used in a book on the building of the Princess Elisabeth Station one day. The first year, I arrived on the Ivan Papanin. We left Cape Town and stayed on the icebreaker for 18 days, including the four days dedicated to offloading the ship at Crown Bay.
During the two last seasons, I continued taking photographs of the station’s construction. I also accompanied scientists working in the field, which is interesting since there appears to be a lot to learn. I learned, for instance, that there is water under the ice on frozen lakes at the foot of Nunataks and that it’s perfectly drinkable. The water has different chemical properties depending on the place; sometimes it’s almost mineral water and it’s delicious. I was surprised to see bugs that have been on the surface of the Earth for 250 million years. This season, with microbiologists, we found microscopic bacteria and the expedition with the Japanese taught us how to look for meteorites.
The scientists that come to us to work in Antarctica are passionate people who love to share their findings and are often good teachers.
These discoveries we made in Antarctica were definitely the most astonishing I’ve experienced and were a true joy. Our job consisted of organizing people’s stay and facilitating their work inside the Princess Elisabeth Station and in the field.
Besides taking photographs and filming, I participated in offloading the ships, shoveling snow and doing all kinds of small jobs I can do. I also had to regularly send pictures to the International Polar Foundation (Brussels) via e-mail for the picture galleries online, which takes up quite some time. Over the course of these three seasons I took more than 100, 000 pictures [which were then to be sorted in Brussels!].
Together with Alain (Hubert), I also placed beacons. The first year, we had placed plastic beacons every three kilometers starting at the coast and this year we were able to measure snow accumulation over the course of one year. We also performed 20 ten-meter drillings to extract snow cores for analysis.
As time went by, I also became a specialist in the beaconing of our temporary airport as you somehow need to materialize the landing strip for a better visibility from the airplane. However, the beaconing of the camp is also very important since you could easily get lost in bad weather without all the security around the station. It is a job I did together with Alain.
While on expedition, I enjoyed taking care of the meals, preparing the gear…I loved cooking for my friends, doing the dishes, etc. - all the little daily tasks that are so important on an expedition. A good meal after a long day of work fixes you up like nothing else!
As you can see, there are always things to be done in Antarctica. We are continuously busy and never lack work. We all have a lot to do, but our stay in Antarctica was limited to a maximum of four months per year.
What was the biggest difference between your “usual” job and your job at the station? Did you organize your work days differently?
The main difference is definitely the size of the project and the pride of being a part of the construction of the first “zero emission” station ever, a model and a message to mankind.
My job as a mountain and sports photographer comes down to fun and leisure. It’s an ice change from the photographic reporting I do for the fashion world, which is a much more superficial atmosphere. I also did several things that were new to me such as driving the Prinoths or taking part in simple construction jobs while taking pictures of all the important moments.
I organized my time so I could help out and scheduled my photographing accordingly. This gave me a lot of freedom, but it is fairly unsettling at the same time since you need to maintain a certain level of activity in Antarctica. There’s no way you can just sit there and watch. We had only a limited amount of time in Antarctica and a lot of work to do. Everybody had to be able to do things that were not his specialty. The key word was “flexibility”!!
What was your biggest challenge in Antarctica?
My biggest challenge was to leave Romane, my 9-year old daughter, behind. Now she’s able to understand what her daddy does, but that was not the case for the first years, when she noticed my absence a lot more. Four months is a long time! I guess what I mean is that now she understands, whereas in other years, the time without her daddy seemed endless. The most difficult thing was to be so far away from her.
What is your fondest memory?
I have many of them, but if I were to pick just one, it would be my birthday when I received wrapped in an innox food tin a wooden Rolex watch with hex nuts on it to give it a “bling bling” feel.
If I say that, it is because the best part for me is the team we were down there, so far away from everything we knew. Human contact was the major drive behind our happiness. Besides, we all worked side by side to reach a common goal.
What made the biggest impression on you?
The isolation. We were far away from everything. Our closest neighbours were the Russians, some 800km away!! And civilization was 4, 000 km away.
The immensity of this white desert and its violence brought us poor humans back to reality and reminded us that we were, in fact, quite meaningless. There was something mystical in there, just like in other vast deserts, which left space for some philosophical reflections and existential questions. Still, the future of the planet is what is at stake, and it lies in the hands of mankind, no matter how small we are. It seems incredible that we are at the point where we are now, able to destroy everything.
Did you have physical problems adapting in the beginning?
No, I had no problem adapting. I actually liked it there. When I first got off the plane at the beginning of the season and felt the snow cracking under my feet, I became overwhelmed with joy. I couldn’t explain why, but I loved this continent which, for me, was genuinely beautiful with a pristine environment.
You have to know that I live in the Alps, in Chamonix, and that the contrast couldn’t be greater. At home, there’s a lot of pollution, and not only the air. Kilometers of ski slopes are carved out of the mountains with bulldozers. Huge highways cut the valleys in half. Over there, mankind is exploiting nature to make maximum profit from it, which is the exact opposite of what’s happening in Antarctica. Antarctica is a protected continent, and I hope it will stay that way.
Did you take part in any traverse to the coast?
I took part in several traverses, and they are real expeditions. It is in these situations that you can experience the immensity of Antarctica with its swiftly-changing weather, the permanent sun and the wind.
During those traverses you also got a chance to actually feel the shape of the glaciers, which were not flat at all, but had giant undulating hills and valleys. I gave names to some of them, such as Dream Valley, the valley where sleepiness catches up to you. We often drive for hours, every one of us taking his turn. But in four hours’ time, you had a fair chance of falling asleep. A couple of seconds are enough to dream a little, but I think we all dozed off now and again. In any case, there wasn’t much danger of leaving the road, was there? Besides, we drove in convoys, which meant that we all looked after each other.
I also did some traverses on a ski-doo, which was even more spectacular. To be honest, though, my favourite location for vacation is still the beach!!!
If you were to describe the experience in a couple of words, what would those be?
The everlasting astonishment in front of this nature still untouched by mankind.
The power of this unforgiving continent where life is only possible with very specific equipment, which underlines our vulnerability as humans in this cold and desert world. I fell in love with this continent and I dream of only one thing: I want to go back there and hope to be a part of the team next year.
Something else very difficult to explain is time. As most of our four-month stay happens during the austral summer, a period during which the sun never sets, the length of our stay seems a lot shorter, as if it were one long day. I can’t explain it, but this year I wish I could have stayed one or two more months.
Picture: René Robert - © René Robert