Qaqortoq in the Evening, South Greenland

After spending several days in Tasermiut Fjord, our plan was to move on to Prince Christian Sound, which involved sailing out across the open ocean. But once again, Greenland had its own ideas for our trip. Shortly before we were due to leave Tasermiut, the captain got a weather alert about a coming storm and decided that it was too dangerous for the yacht to head out into the ocean. Our plans for Prince Christian Sound were scrapped and we spent three more days in Tasermiut.

Town of Qaqortoq in the Evening, South Greenland
Single shot, additional exposures for highlights, additional shot for moon, focal length 45 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 13 seconds, ISO 100, tripod.

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I was disappointed, but it’s hard to be bitter when your surroundings are as beautiful as the fjords of Greenland. On the way back to Narsarsuaq, we made one last stop at the picturesque small town of Qaqortoq. Like many of Greenland’s towns, it’s lined with small, brightly colored homes overlooking the water. It wasn’t what we had planned, but again, it’s hard to be too disappointed when your surroundings are this lovely.

On the way to Qaqortoq, there is a natural pool with thermal water that is consistently 39 degrees Celsius, a welcome change after the bitterly cold temperatures outdoors. On our last night in Greenland, we gathered in the pool under a brilliant starry sky. The temperature outside the pool was a frigid 10 degrees Celsius, but we were warmed by thermal water and a bottle of white wine and the cold seemed very far way. And demonstrating once again how futile it can be to make plans, the Northern Lights put on a spectacular show that night, dancing above a thermal pool full of photographers who were too tired and tipsy to get out and retrieve packed-up camera gear. We didn’t even particularly mind that we were missing incredible shots of the Aurora Borealis; it was enough just to see them.

On our last day in Greenland, we photographed Qaqortoq just at sundown, with a sliver of moon suspended over the town. Greenland was an adventure and now it was time to head for home. My wife and I had packed all of our things and decided to make one last look through our cabin to make sure nothing was left behind. There was something left behind, as it turns out. In one of the cabinets, my wife found a very large and very dead rat, and one which I am certain was not there at the start of the trip. As I had not come to Greenland prepared to dispose of an animal carcass, I asked the captain for help. I suppose piloting a ship in the Arctic makes a person impervious to emergencies both large and small. He was utterly unperturbed and simply said, “An unauthorized passenger on my ship?” With little fanfare, the rat was given a burial at sea and we continued toward home, tired and rodent-free.

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Ulamertorsuaq Mountain in the Morning, South Greenland

Anyone who travels very much learns quickly that things don’t always go as planned. One of the great things about traveling is that it teaches you to think on your feet and to be adaptable. It also teaches you that your plans are often meaningless; you can plan a trip down to the last detail and nature or circumstances can undo those plans in an instant.

Ulamertorsuaq Mountain in the Morning, Tasermiut Fjord, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/2.8, shutter speed 15 seconds, ISO 3200, tripod.

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The trip to Greenland taught me early on that plans weren’t worth much as I lay shivering under layer of clothes and blankets in the cold as the crew worked to get the boat running. And once we made it to Tasermiut Fjord, almost every day was a lesson in humility as we adjusted our plans to weather and circumstances.

One of my greatest wishes for the trip was to see the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. I’ve seen them in countless photographs, but I wanted the chance to photograph them myself. I looked forward to standing at one of the remote ends of the earth with the brilliant, ethereal lights pirouetting in the sky overhead. Early in the trip, the other photographers and I scouted a location that we thought would be perfect should the lights decide to make an appearance. After that, it was just a matter of waiting and hoping.

Several nights into the trip, the captain knocked on our doors and shouted, “It’s shining!” Groggy but excited, we all dressed in the darkness then headed to the Zodiac which would take us to the location we’d already pinpointed. The Northern Lights were bright overhead and just as beautiful as I’d hoped they would be.

But the lights were fickle. By the time we reached our location, they had faded so as to barely be visible. I was disappointed that I didn’t get the chance to capture them in a photograph, but we decided to stay and shoot some nightscapes, which were vivid and lovely even without the Northern Lights. I was grateful simply to have seen them.

Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned.

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Lonely Iceberg, South Greenland

Most of the people who go to Greenland are drawn there for its stark Artic landscape of icebergs and ice floes. It’s understandable that people — especially photographers — feel the pull of such places. The frozen landscapes at the Earth’s extreme points are breathtaking. There is a shade of blue in glaciers and icebergs that I have seen replicated nowhere else in the world.

Lonely Iceberg in the Morning, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 24 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/250, ISO 200, handheld.

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But having recently come from the glaciers of Patagonia, I wanted something different from Greenland. I wanted to see the part of the island that is often overlooked, the green, tucked-away corner in the south. There are few places left in the world where humanity has not left its unmistakable touch; southern Greenland is one of those places. Exploring its landscapes, it was easy to imagine that ours were the first human eyes to see this place, the first voices to break its deep silences.

But as we sailed along the southernmost edge of the island, we encountered icebergs here and there, and even though I’d spent weeks among them in South America, they still had the capacity to inspire wonder. My plan for Greenland was to photograph the island’s lesser-known landscapes — its waterfalls and green mountain landscapes — but how could I not photograph them? Could any amount of time among them leave me inured to their stark beauty?

So I include among my photographs of southern Greenland an iceberg, perched like a lone sentinel at the edge of the world.

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Tasermiut Fjord in the Evening, South Greenland

As I said in an earlier post, Greenland was a challenge. Getting there was a challenge. Being there — while exhilarating — was also a challenge. But I hadn’t yet seen just how difficult the island could be. On our first couple of days in Greenland, our forays were limited to relatively short hikes away from the water’s edge, on terrain that was devoid of people but posed no serious impediment to our movement. But on our third day there, we encountered our first truly difficult experience on the island. It was also one of the most rewarding.

Tasermiut Fjord in the Evening, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 16 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 6 seconds, ISO 64, tripod.

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Hiking in Greenland is different than hiking anywhere else I’ve ever been. The southern part of the island is almost completely forested and there are no trails or routes for hikers. Hiking in southern Greenland means that you are left to make your way through birches and moss and that the hike you think will take two hours may take twice that long.

As we moved onto steeper elevation, we found ourselves wading through dense birch forests on a sharp incline, all while carrying heavy camera gear in a backpack. My tripod, at least, was a help to me — as the incline became steeper, I used it as a walking stick to help me in my ascent.

After five hours of hiking up difficult terrain, we still had not reached the desired peak. It was tough going at this point — the slope was nearly vertical and making progress required climbing with both hands. I was grateful for the dense moss under my boots; there were places where it seemed the traction provided by the moss was the only thing keeping me from tumbling hundreds of feet to the ground.

The last light of day was beginning to fade and we had not yet reached the very top, but we stopped. After five hours of difficult climbing, we were determined to get photographs over Tasermiut, even if they were not exactly what we planned. With a newfound respect for the hardy people who make a home in Greenland, I set up my tripod and began photographing the fjord as twilight descended.

Back on the yacht, after what was undoubtedly the most difficult hike of my life, I opened two bottles of red wine I’d brought with me from the airport. If there was ever a time that I deserved some celebratory libations, my first real hike in southern Greenland was that time!

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Ketil Mountain in the Morning, South Greenland

Shortly after we arrived, southern Greenland had its first snow of the season. So I arrived there just in time to encounter a landscape dusted with hoarfrost, as if touched by the hands of fairies. Overnight, southern Greenland — magnificent in any condition — was transformed into a landscape of a fantasist’s imaginings.

Ketil Mountain in the Morning, Tasermiut Fjord, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 17 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/4, ISO 64, tripod.

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On my first day in Greenland, I explored places that seemed never to have been inhabited. The second day’s explorations brought us to an even more remote part of the island where there are virtually no people, an area of almost pure wilderness. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what the earliest explorers to Greenland must felt as they stood in awe of a landscape that might have been created by the gods.

But no matter how stunned we were by our surroundings, we had practical matters to consider. For one, we had to find food far from inhabitable villages in Tasermiut Fjord. We brought food with us on the boat, but it was limited, which meant our meals would either be rather meager or would have to be supplemented by whatever could be found in the rivers and damp earth of Greenland. So each day, while the photographers were out shooting, the crew gathered mushrooms and caught salmon in the streams and cod in the fjord.

By the end of my second day in Greenland, I was adjusting to life away from civilization and modernity. The trade-off for leaving modern conveniences behind was worth it; I was largely cut off from the twenty-first century but in exchange for that I had been given a chance to experience a nearly unknown part of the world.

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Ulamertorsuaq Mountain, South Greenland

I was exhausted from travel and a mostly sleepless night in the cold, but as soon as we walked ashore at Tasermiut, I forgot about all of that. It was impossible to think of mundane concerns in the presence of such natural splendor. I’ve seen incredible places around the world, but the fjords of Southern Greenland have to be among the most epic locations I’ve ever photographed.

Ulamertorsuaq Mountain in the Morning, Tasermiut Fjord, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 2.5 seconds, ISO 31, tripod.

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This part of Greenland is considered one of the Ten Wonders of the Arctic, and with good reason. Striking sapphire blue water is surrounded by formidable cliff walls — the “Big Walls” that are a prized destination for climbers. Hiking deeper into the landscape, you eventually reach cascades and waterfalls in a geography that appears untouched by human hands.

Tasermiut reminded me of Patagonia, particularly Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, the astonishing spires I’d photographed on that trip. The landscapes were so similar that I began thinking of Greenland as Northern Patagonia. In Patagonia, I’d imagined that I was seeing the most astounding example of nature’s handiwork, but Greenland proved me wrong.

This first foray into Tasermiut was shortly after dawn. In the early morning, it was a quiet, unpeopled place, and I could almost imagine that we were the first humans to touch this landscape. Getting to the cascades, like reaching Greenland itself, required some effort — we hiked for a half hour or so before we began to hear the rushing water.

Greenland was a challenge; nothing about it was easy. But by the end of my first full day there, none of that mattered. I was enthralled by the unspoiled beauty of Greenland and ready to see more.

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Tasermiut Fjord in the Morning, South Greenland

When I awoke in the morning, the yacht’s engine was repaired and running again and we headed out into open water. That day and the following evening weren’t much more restful than my first night on the boat had been; the sea was rough and the yacht, which wasn’t terribly warm even with the heating working, was cold as it pitched back and forth on the waves.

Tasermiut Fjord and Ketil Mountain in the Morning, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 16 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 0.5 seconds, ISO 64, tripod.

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The boat — designed to withstand Arctic conditions rather than to offer creature comforts — was spartan, with small spaces and very basic bathrooms. But I adjusted quickly — the point of the trip, after all, was to get to Greenland safely, not to relax in comfort on a luxury yacht.

Once we left the open sea and entered Tasermiut Fjord, which cuts a deep blue vein into Greenland’s landscape, our conditions were completely different. The water was calm and it seemed that we were sailing on a perfectly still surface. Remarkably beautiful and surrounded by two long, mountainous peninsulas, the fjord seemed a world away from the ominous waters of the North Atlantic.

Two days of choppy seas and little sleep had taken a toll on me. As we sailed into Tasermiut Fjord, I was weary and lightheaded. But as we boarded the Zodiac — a special rubber boat that would take us from the yacht to the shore — I also felt slivers of anticipation. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip to a place most people will never see, and if I had experienced difficulties in getting there, I knew it would be worth it in the end.

I hadn’t left the yacht and I was already stupefied by the incredible landscape around me.

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Tasersuaq Lake in the Evening, South Greenland

My travels have taken me all over the world, but remarkably, the expedition to Greenland was the first time I’d ever found myself in a boat. As I had spent my entire life with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I had nothing with which to compare the yacht, but my traveling companions — five photographers, including Daniel, and four crew members — assured me that it was a boat like no other. Designed for safety and security in the formidable conditions of the Arctic, the Peter I featured a complete absence of comfort for its passengers.

Tasersuaq Lake and Tasermiut Fjord in the Evening, South Greenland
Focus stack from 2 shots, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/15, ISO 64, tripod.

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I expected adventure on the trip, but I didn’t expect the adventures to begin before the trip commenced. We arrived at the yacht in the afternoon and our journey was to begin that night. As we prepared to set out, however, the crew discovered that the engine would not start. On a boat like this, the crew must be self-sufficient, and it was quite a spectacle, watching them open the floors and work on the engine throughout the night.

Calls were made to St. Petersburg and eventually someone from another yacht in Narssarssuaq was brought in to help with repairs. The crew worked through the night, and while they worked, the photographers slept — or tried to. We quickly learned that as long as the engine was not working, neither was the heating. And if you ever find yourself in a boat in the Arctic with no working heat, I assure you that it gets very cold!

I put on all the clothes I brought for the trip, then wrapped myself in two blankets and attempted to sleep. It was a mostly sleepless night, but at some point in the early morning hours, I drifted off into an uneasy rest.

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South of Greenland

In my career as a photographer, I’ve visited some places that are definitely off the beaten path. I’ve been fortunate to get to some remote locations, including some that required more than the usual amount of planning and effort. I’ve manhandled valuable camera equipment up winding mountain trails and found myself so deep in the Kalahari Desert that it seemed I was the last person on earth. And I’ve never been disappointed by any of these adventures.

Tasersuaq Lake and Tasermiut Fjord in the Evening, South Greenland
Single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/13, ISO 64, tripod.

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But Greenland had long seemed out of reach, even for a seasoned travel photographer. It was a place I had dreamed of seeing for years, but it seemed impossibly remote, so far removed from the well-trod tourist path that only the most intrepid of travelers would ever see it.

In 2017, however, I had the chance to join an expedition with acclaimed Russian photographer Daniel Kordan. The expedition would not only give me the chance to learn from someone whose work I hold in high esteem, but it would take me to a place I’d feared I might never get to see — Greenland.

There’s an element of Greenland’s history that not many people know. According to Norse legend, Erik the Red gave it the name “Greenland,” in spite of the fact that the majority of its landscape is covered in ice. It’s believed that he wanted to attract other settlers to his newfound home, and in the process became a very early example of false advertising.

But Southern Greenland, an area that many tourists skip in favor of the island’s icy expanses, lives up to its name. Here, at the very tip of the island, is a landscape of sheep farms and green pastures punctuated by dramatic fjords. The expedition would take us here, to this imposing sliver of Greenland, where we would cut though icy waters on the Peter I, a yacht designed especially for Arctic travel. When I arrived in Narssarssuaq to board the yacht, I had the distinct feeling that Greenland would be one of the greatest adventures of my life.

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U Bein Bridge in the Morning, Myanmar

On my last day in Myanmar, I again arranged for a taxi to take me back to Taung Tha Man Lake. I made no special effort to get there before daylight or just at sunset; I wanted to see the U Bein Bridge as it was meant to be — traversed by Myanmaris simply going about their day. Many of my photographs involve careful planning to capture a place when it is devoid of people so that the viewer isn’t distracted by human activity. In this instance, human activity was the very thing I wanted to preserve.

People Walking on U Bein Bridge in the Morning, Taung Tha Man Lake, Mandalay, Myanmar
Composite from 15 shots taken during 30 minutes, focal length 160 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/640, ISO 800, tripod.

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My travels in Myanmar were among the most meaningful of my career. I went there hoping only to photograph its temples, shrines, and other religious art. I would leave the country with a profound affection for its people, who were among the kindest and most welcoming people I’d encountered anywhere. It was a country that was largely closed to outsiders until the very recent past, and yet I found Myanmaris unfailingly gracious and warm – hearted, patiently answering my questions or guiding me to a tucked-away pagoda not mentioned in the guidebooks. I was saddened at the thought of leaving.

But as I watched locals crossing the U Bein Bridge as they have done for nearly two centuries, it occurred to me that this is life: a series of beginnings and endings, leaving one place for another, rising each new day to begin again. Buddhism teaches that Samsara is the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, but another way of understanding the idea is through the literal meaning of the word: “wandering on.” The Buddhist monk and teacher Thanissaro Bhikku describes Samsara as the process of continually creating worlds and moving into them. Each of us, through the countless decisions we make each day, move through this process. Some of those decisions are momentous but most are ordinary and inconsequential, altering our lives in silent, infinitesimal ways.

The people on the bridge were going about their daily tasks, the minutiae that make up most of our waking hours. They were creating their worlds and it was time to create mine: I would board a flight for Russia and in days or weeks there would be other travels to new places. I would photograph new people, perhaps on another bridge over a distant lake.

I won’t be entirely reborn, however; part of my heart will be here, in Myanmar.

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