A LAND OF SNOW & ICE // what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica

 

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(all images copyright of Kira Morris and reproduced with her permission)

Kira Morris is an award-winning photographer currently spending her fourth winter living and working in Antartica.

A contractor for the South Pole’s U.S. research base, McMurdo Station, Kira experiences temperature as low as -45º celsius, with a wind chill of -65º celsius. Luckily for her, winter temperatures usually sit around the much-more acceptable depths of -23º, with a wind chill of -29º.

Her South Pole adventures mean she is one of the tiny number of people who can boast to having lived on ‘The Frozen Continent’; if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica, grab yourself a cuppa and read on…

what it's like to live and work in Antarctica - penguin shot

what it's like to live and work in Antarctica - seal poking out of ice hole

How did you get into photography?

With the accessibility of cameras now it seems like everyone is a photographer of some kind. So, like most people, I started out capturing memories on a phone. It’s when I finally landed the opportunity to work in Antarctica that I decided to get a little more serious and bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D7000. It was by no means a high-end camera, but I worked with it until it could no longer meet my expectations, until I really understood why I needed to upgrade. I currently shoot with a D750.

Where had you worked before heading to Antarctica? 

After graduating from college, I very quickly realised that I wanted to see more of the world. I accepted a contract to work for the Department of Defence as a contractor in Germany, which allowed me to travel a lot in Europe. In so many ways, the contracting world is very small, and it was while I was working in Germany that a friend told me about McMurdo Station, Antarctica. An application and an interview later, I was packing my bags for some long flights south.

 

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A post shared by Kira Morris (@kiramorris.photo) on

 

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A post shared by Kira Morris (@kiramorris.photo) on

What kind of photography do you carry out there? 

When I first got here years ago, I shot many of the same things that other Antarctic photographers do: wildlife, landscape, and astrophotography. But now, I’m focused on editorial and documentary shooting. I’m telling visual stories of interesting people, and you find a lot of them down here. So now I shoot a lot of environmental portraiture, trying to capture the spirit of this place, trying to capture people in their element, both at work and at play. This shift in focus has led to some interesting connections and I believe I’m capturing a side of Antarctica that’s sometimes overlooked—call it “Antarctica beyond the penguins” (but, of course, if I see a penguin, I’m shooting that, too!).

What did you know about the Antarctic before travelling there and did you have any reservations? 

I knew that it was cold, that there were penguins, and some people I’d met said it was a cool place to work – that’s really about it. Before my first time down I was 24 and feeling adventurous, I didn’t really need to hear much more to make my decision!

How did you prepare for Antarctica beforehand?

Like most people, I went to an outdoor outfitter and bought some gear: wool socks, base layers, and other appropriate clothing. But the real preparation was making sure that I could capture some images with more than just my phone. I called a few photographer friends for gear recommendations, and bought a starter camera. And that’s how things got going for me.

Tell us what it’s like to live and work in Antarctica – what were your first impressions when you arrived? 

Everyone has different initial impressions of this place. The station dates back to the 1950s, and many of the buildings are old and run down. It’s actually really amazing to realise that a research base at the end of the world is held together by a crew of hard-working folks with various jobs. My initial impression, though, was a pretty common one: ‘Where the heck am I?!?’

 

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Can you give me some examples of how that extreme cold affects you

Everyone here has had the frozen eyelash experience, for sure (when your tears freeze into icicles on your eyelashes)! Honestly, though, the safety culture here is very strong. If weather conditions are too adverse, people stay indoors. Otherwise, people dress appropriately for their work, whether indoors or outdoors. And yes, there are people who work outdoors, almost every day.

What were you totally unprepared for?

One of the oddest things is when the air is so cold you get an ice-cream headache while just breathing! Otherwise, the typical problems are frozen camera batteries and the fact that while working with metal gear outside, you have to be very careful to avoid getting frostnip/frostbite. I’ve given myself frostnip (the painful but less dangerous precursor to frostbite) a few times trying to shoot long after my camera and my fingers were telling me it was time to warm up.

What kind of temperatures are you actually dealing with?!

The weather here varies wildly. Most of the time I’ve spent here has been during the austral winter, where temperatures can dip down to -50F ambient, -85F with wind chill. During storms it sometimes warms up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. But those are extremes. I’d say -10 ambient with -20 wind chills is something like a typical winter day.

What does a typical day look like for you?

This is a science research base, and the reason we are here is to support that mission. Most people work nine hours a day, six days a week. It’s our limited off-time that allows those of us with artistic ambitions to work. In the evenings and on my days off, I find time to shoot and edit, maybe play some cards with friends, or even throw a dance party!

What kind of wildlife have you seen while there?

There actually isn’t a wide variety of wildlife here. We see Weddell seals, Adelie and Emperor penguins, and the south polar skua. During the summer, when the sea ice breaks out, we also sometimes see whales. Generally, though, the Emperors are the stars of the show here. We don’t see them too often, but when we do, people get pretty excited!

what it's like to live and work in Antarctica - Emperor Penguin

 

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What have been some of your highlights?

Seeing auroras is certainly magical. And the few encounters I’ve had with Emperor penguins count among my favourite experiences, especially the one that resulted in a photo published in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic. I think the big highlights, though, have been the people. Some incredible people make their way down here; I met my husband here and have made some lifelong friends along the way.

What brings you back there each year? Do you miss it when you’re back home? 

My husband and I worked for three consecutive winter contracts between 2013 and 2015, and then took a break until this year. In the meantime, I honed my photography skills stateside working as the photography director for a small design firm. I upgraded my gear and improved a lot and knew I wanted to eventually return to create a ‘People of Antarctica’ documentary style series. So when the opportunity for deployment came up this year, I had to take it. Both my husband and I missed it – especially the people – and we’re glad we came back.

Kira Morris Photography; Instagram

what it's like to live and work in Antarctica B&W shot of Kira

More about Kira:

An avid traveler and adventurer, Kira has done everything from running with the bulls in Spain, to spending the night sleeping in a self-dug snow cave, to riding a bike across America. Specialising in portrait and documentary photography, she captures and preserves these experiences with her stunning images. 

She recently placed fourth in one of Nikon’s N-Magazine “Photographers of the Year 2018” competitions. She is signed with Getty Images and her work has been featured in international news and photography publications including National Geographic, CNN, The Washington Post, The Independent, Business Insider, BBC Travel, Digital Photo Pro Magazine, and Digital Photography Review among many others.

She has been awarded an IAAP (International Association of Art Photographers) Gold Medal, IES-PSS (Photographic Society of Singapore) Merit Award, and an ISF (Image Sans Frontier) Bronze Medal. Additionally, her photography has been exhibited in over nine countries across five continents and was chosen to be displayed at the United Nations COP22 Climate Change Summit.

• Also read: Wandering the World with Two Little Ones in Tow (tales of a jet-setting family)

 

1 Comment

  1. Wow, Kira is living life to the full. So fascinating reading about her work in Antarctica. When we were in Finland and experienced -14 we honestly didn’t feel it. Not sure I’d cope with -45 or frozen eyelashes. Breathtaking photos. Thanks for this x

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