For Buisse, surviving treacherous mountain terrain is an adventure, and capturing this beauty has escorted him across the globe. Here are some insights.
Photographing in extreme weather conditions — extreme cold — sounds intense. But looking at images — mountains covered in snow, a blanket of pure whiteness — it’s calming, almost meditative.
“I can survive — not only survive but thrive — for a week of skiing in the North Pole and come back with all the pictures the client needs, and then some. Then, I can do pretty much… maybe not anything… but there’s a lot I can do.” Alexandre Buisse is a freelance photographer based in the mountains of Chamonix, France. His love for climbing and capturing beauty has led him to projects for globally recognized brands like Patagonia, Nissan, Microsoft, Scandinavian Airlines, and Adidas, to name a few. His work has also appeared in National Geographic, The Economist, Sports Illustrated, and more. But for Buisse, while work and money are important, so is adventure. So is making sure you love what you do.
Alexandre Buisse on Photographing Extreme Weather Conditions
A Love of Photography and Climbing
I grew up in Lyon, pretty close to the mountains, but wasn’t an outdoorsy kid at all. We would do a little hiking and skiing every year, but it would be very limited. In fact, all I wanted to do was spend my time reading books and coding on computers.
Fittingly, I pursued studies in computer science, which took me to Marseille and Paris, then Scandinavia and the UK. But, I then discovered climbing and photography, and everything changed. Shortly after, I signed up in a climbing club that was near the university and immediately fell in love with it.
Exploring L’Art de la Photographie
I discovered photography roughly the same time [I started climbing]. I had a DSLR as a birthday gift. That was back in 2005. From then on, I would take photos all the time and I really fell in love with the medium as a creative outlet. Especially while studying sciences, it was really good for me to have the creative activity that would balance the more mathematical, analytic part of my day-to-day job.
My love of climbing, especially the Alpines, pushed me into photography. As I was getting frustrated that my images didn’t look anything like what I remembered the experience to have been, in turn, photography pushed me to go climb higher and more demanding mountains.
My influences are rather varied. I look up to the works of Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastia Salgado, Ansel Adams, Don McCullin, and Nick Ut. More contemporary photographers I get inspired by would be Jimmy Chin, Danielle Villasana, Sebastian Rich, David Burnett, Carol Guzy. A lot of them are photojournalists, as you can see. After six years since owning my first DSLR, in 2011, I became a full-time professional photographer.
Though I now have diversified interests, shooting in refugee camps and industrial settings, for instance, adventure photography and the mountains remain my first love and what I am most comfortable shooting.
Shooting an Expedition in the North Pole
We went to the North Pole in 2015. It was an expedition, or a contest (on paper, at least). So, you get dropped by a helicopter at 89 degrees north and you ski to the North Pole itself. That takes about six to eight days, depending on how the ice is drifting and how efficient you are and a number of other things.
We spent about seven days on the ice and to me, really, I was just documenting. That was really an interesting experience on many levels because, well first, I got to go to the North Pole, which is really cold, and I got to really understand the environment by spending so much time in the Arctic. On the ice. And the sun never really goes down. And the temperature varies — the warmest was -18 degrees Celsius and the coldest is probably around -30 to -35 degrees Celsius.
Managing Equipment in Cold Weather Conditions
It was really interesting to see how the equipment would deal with that kind of cold and how I would deal with that kind of cold. Before that, I’d been shooting in a lot of cold environments on mountains mostly, and I had never really had equipment failure because of the cold, but I was curious to see whether that would still be the case on the North Pole. And, it very much was. The equipment performed flawlessly. The cameras are completely fine. The batteries you need to do a little bit of management for, but as soon as you warm them up, they begin to charge. It was confirmation that cold is not that much of an issue. As long as I can stay warm enough to be in a state where I can shoot, the equipment is going to be fine.
And, typically, if you’re shooting in cold environments, you are likely to be shooting in snow. And, for snow, there’s a difference compared to when you’re shooting in the forest or the city. It can be so reflective, so you have to take that into account with your exposure. Color is also super important. You’re typically in a monochromatic environment — it’s only white. Maybe some blue and some black. As much as you can, put contrast with warm colors — whether that’s a sunset or simply somebody with a bright jacket or yellow jacket — that usually makes a much stronger impact than it would in different settings.
Being an Athlete and a Photographer
All in all, that’s seven days on the ice in complete autonomy. It was a time when I really had to apply everything I had learned on how to function, especially as an athlete, because I need to be a full participant in the action. I couldn’t tell people, “I’m sorry I couldn’t pull my sled because I’m busy taking pictures,” or “Sorry I can’t help melt snow for water,” or “I can’t help pitch the tent because I’m always talking pictures.” I had to do those and take pictures on top of it. The other thing is just how extreme and remote of an environment the North Pole is. It’s a place that very, very few people get to go to. And, it gave me confidence that I could do that.
Experiencing More Through My Camera
The adventures and the mountains I get to see every day compel me to create. Even when I try not to carry a camera so I can focus on the trip itself, I end up spending the whole time wishing I had my camera with me.
The 2015 North Pole experience really gave me confidence. If I can survive — not only survive but thrive — for a week of skiing in the North Pole as a member of the expedition and come back with all the pictures the client needs (and then some), then I can do pretty much… maybe not anything… but there’s a lot I can do. And, there are very few environments that will make me turn down an assignment. No matter what you throw at me, I’ll be able to take it and take pictures. Like, you want me to go on a fighter jet, I’ll do that. You want me to go to space? I’ll happily go to space and take pictures.
Being a freelance photographer full-time is amazing because I get to do the things I really love, which is taking pictures and going on adventures. I am my own boss. I get to turn down things that I don’t enjoy or don’t want to do. At the same time, it’s very stressful. It’s exhausting. As soon as I get the job, I’m thinking of the next job.
The Important Elements of Photography
Two of the most important things are (1) continue building a portfolio and (2) be confident enough in your capacity to deliver images consistently for clients. The most important, by far actually, is not how good your photos are, but how good your marketing is. And, how good you are at running a business and all the boring stuff like the taxes and the accounting. These are the things we don’t think about when we think “professional photographer.” There’s a ton of people who can take good photos, but they don’t make it because the other aspects of running a business are not there. So, brush up on the business skills as you do on the photography skills.
It’s definitely challenging. It’s not all rosy. There’s a lot of grind. There’s social media. There’s a lot of marketing and accounting. There’s a lot of managing money and chasing after invoices. All of that is not very glamorous but, at the same time, it allows me to have the job and have the adventures today. To me, it’s really worth it.
Cover image by Alexandre Buisse.
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