Interview by Wired about the ongoing arctic project 'I Can Hear The Waves'

14 January 2016

Written by Laura Mallonee
MORE THAN 400 years ago, the intrepid Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz set off on an expedition to find a northeast passage to Asia. Instead, he found the frozen archipelago of Svalbard, a place now inhabited by a small community of scientists who share his vision and pluck.

Niels Stomps photographed their remote and fascinating world for his series I Can Hear the Waves. Set against a barren yet beautiful backdrop, his images show researchers busily launching weather balloons, taking ice cores and checking on their experiments. They live in a brutal place, but are undaunted. “The scientists are more or less modern-day explorers,” Stomps says. “They want adventure, and they are so curious that they are not afraid.”

Svalbard is an archipelago of eight small islands. The largest, Spitsbergen, is midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole and hospitable enough for human habitation. It is an ideal outpost for Arctic research, which explains why some 20 countries have research centers there, studying everything from Arctic wildlife to shrinking glaciers. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds more than 800,000 seed samples from 5,100 plant species, and the Kjell Henriksen Observatory is among the best places to view Northern Lights.

Stomps is fascinated by science and research, so Svalbard was an obvious destination. “One of the main reasons for this project is that I want to be a scientist too,” he says, “and I kind of feel that way in a photographic sense.”

The Dutch photographer first visited the archipelago for a week-long trip in February, 2009. At that time of year, snow blanketed the ground and the nights were just four hours long. He was struck by how crisp, dry, and clean the air felt, so clear that everything look enhanced. “The shapes are so sharp it’s like someone used too much sharpening in Photoshop,” he says.

He’s since made six trips to Svalbard. Stomps photographed in Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s largest village home to around 2,000 scientists, students and workers. He also visited the desolate mining towns of Pyramiden, now abandoned and Barentsburg, which Russia has recently begun to market to tourists.

Some locations were less accessible than others, and some required special permission to visit. It took him more than a year to photograph Ny-Alesund, a tiny scientific settlement reached only by sea or air. Once a launching point for explorers headed to the North Pole, today it hosts roughly 35 scientists from 10 countries. Stomps met many of them in the mess hall, where they chatted over meals. “They were so fascinated by [their experiments] that they could talk about [them] all day, every day,” Stomps says.

Many of the scientists he met in Svalbard were happy to have him tag along as they went into the field. He found keeping his gear working challenging. Temperatures often dip below zero, so the photographer worked with a digital Hasselblad and kept the batteries tucked in his clothes, against his chest. Still, he often found the camera needed a few seconds to respond when he tripped the shutter. Stomps also had to be keenly aware while out on the tundra, as locals warned of polar bears who often get curious and hungry.

It’s not always clear at first glance what’s happening in each image, but that sense of mystery pushes Stomp’s project into poetic territory. The photos aren’t a documentation of the science, but a celebration of the optimism and adventure that drives the scientists. “We always want to go further, to explore,” Stomps says. “It puts us in danger. It makes us vulnerable. But in the end it’s what makes us human.”

Wired
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