A red boat sails on cold grey water, with a huge floating iceberg behind it.

In the grasp of nature

At this moment, we are all learning that nature does what nature wants. Canon Ambassador Paolo Verzone has learnt this in his travels to some of the most unforgiving, but beautiful locations in the world. In Greenland his life was entirely at the will of the climate and the power of nature, and the sense of freedom he felt when coming out of the storm is so relevant today and something we all hope to share.

"We had been stuck in a storm in Greenland for two weeks and this image represents the sense of freedom and beauty I felt when we were finally free – it was fantastic. I was on a month-long advertising campaign assignment on an island with a team of 25 people and I was the only photographer on the crew. We were staying at an artic scientific station when a big storm hit and blocked all communication between the mainland and the island. It froze the sea around the island and with no airplanes available, a helicopter was our only possibility [to leave], but they could only fly with enough visibility. So, we were stuck, waiting and hoping for a helicopter to come. Each day we had to be ready just in case, go to the airport, check-in our baggage and wait. Then go home if it didn't arrive: ‘No, you will not fly today’. We had to do this every single day and the previous year a storm like this had lasted for a month, but I had another assignment in 15 days. 

When you're in this situation, you understand very quickly that nature rules. You are stuck in paradise. It's a strange thing. Icebergs are floating and freezing in front of you, creating this mysterious and extremely beautiful landscape. Finally, after 12 or 13 days, a helicopter was able to land, and we were free from the storm.

A red boat sails on cold grey water, with a huge floating iceberg behind it. © Paulo Verzone
“As the boat got closer to the iceberg, I was hit by an unexpected physical sensation – almost like opening a freezer – the closer you got the colder it was.” © Paulo Verzone

On the first day back on the mainland we were in a city known for its icebergs and I had two more days, now in a safe environment, before we were able to finally go home. So, I took advantage of the extra days to explore. The mountain you think you see in the picture is not a mountain – it's a floating iceberg. This is not land. It is floating ice. And it's big, like the size of London. I learned that there were boats to take you to these icebergs, so I went to the port and asked one of the local fishermen if he could take me there for a few hours. As the boat got closer to the iceberg, I was hit by an unexpected physical sensation – almost like opening a freezer – the closer you got the colder it was. If you put a cup in the sea, you can drink the melted water from the iceberg. It has a slight taste of salt, it's incredible, but it was the sensation of freedom I felt after days and days being stuck that took over. This picture, to me, brings back feelings of freedom and relief, along with the strong connection I felt with the elements. 

I learned so many helpful lessons from being in extreme environments (I have been to the Arctic, Greenland and Svalbard), where nature is in control. You can get stuck in a place for three weeks or so and you simply have to be prepared to lose control of your schedule and your movements. It teaches you to adapt, change your priorities and your way of behaving. When there is a storm, it's a real storm – you can't see anything in front of you. You can't drive, as the road is covered in snow, so you travel by foot. Walking slowly together with someone else, one person ahead checking the road, centimetre by centimetre, and the other just behind, otherwise you could fall.

A head and shoulder shot of Paulo Verzone (left) accompanied by the quote “We cannot control nature or the span of time.”

I'm quite drawn to these extreme environments and am doing a long-term project on them. You take in the beauty of the light around you and have to refrain from the temptation to take pictures everywhere straight away. In the first two days everything seems so magical, but you end up getting nothing. It's when you fully start to understand the context that you can begin to take some impactful pictures beyond the beautiful cliché. This is what draws me to photography: there is a sort of mystery in the landscape, but you have to get away from the seductive part of it. When you take a picture, you need the visual component, an emotional component and that bit of mystery. That is the thing that drives me. 

Nature reveals all in front of you, and when you are in the middle of it there is a beauty that takes over you and your senses. This is the moment I realise what I will include in an image. It's such a powerful feeling, like Stendhal Syndrome. The intense emotions that allegedly occur when some individuals are exposed to beautiful objects or phenomena – like a piece of art. I had the same thing when I was in a boat in front of a glacier. I was almost crying and couldn't explain why. It was so powerful and overwhelming. This connection with true beauty in nature is where my passion stems from. I could say: ‘Yes, it's because I love photography', but true passion always goes deeper.

We cannot control nature or the span of time. When you are stuck, there are feelings that you hold on to and energy ready to release, so, when the time comes, you are supercharged and attentive. It's powerful. Looking at the situation we are all in now, I've learned to hold on to the notion that the only thing we can do is to adapt.”

See more of Paulo’s work at his website.

Written by Paolo Verzone and Cecilie Harris

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