“I remember it so clearly. It was a truly life changing experience. We saw fresh footprints in the snow. I was super excited. But also really scared – they were so big. I’d wanted to see a polar bear since I was a child and seeing Helen – we called her Helen later – was one of the best moments of my life. I’ve seen lots of polar bears since then, but that one is still the most beautiful.”
Our lives are made up of a series of moments. Some are bigger and more momentous than others. Sometimes these moments define us; they lead us to where we are now, and to the places we will go. For Fredrik Granath and Melissa Schäfer these moments are easy to define.
The duo documents the lives of Svalbard’s polar bears. They capture what they see; they shine a light on intimate mother-cub relationships; they reveal the search and struggle for food; they show the playfulness, the beauty, the rawness and the power of lives that are complex, rich and moving.
Fredrik’s and Melissa’s lives exist on two plains. “We’re either in Svalbard or we’re not. It’s like two parallel lives. When I’m not there I sometimes forget it was me that took those pictures and that really saw all that,” says Melissa. “It’s surreal. If someone had told me five years ago that this is what I’d be doing now, I’d have laughed in their face.”
Fredrik has been highlighting the lives of Svalbard’s polar bears for a decade, Melissa, on the other hand, joined Fredrik for the first time just a few years ago. Their meeting was one of chance – Melissa saw Fredrik’s pictures on Instagram and decided to get in touch – but it has led to lives with mission.
After first stepping foot on Svalbard on a very wet, dark New Year’s Day in 2015 Melissa and Fredrik have been telling a story – of their lives together and of the wildlife they encounter – ever since. From that first meeting with “Helen” they’ve zoomed their lenses on the micro-moments to help us zoom out and see the bigger picture.
Climate change is real. There may be seasonal fluctuations, but the long-term trend is a crystal clear as the chilling waters around Svalbard. The Arctic is warming.
“10 years ago all the fjords around Svalbard were solid with sea ice during winter. These days they are often open water year-round. It’s scary to see such massive change in a short period of time. If you look specifically at polar bears, the Svalbard population will likely be the first to disappear. We’ve reached a tipping point with the sea ice. Without it polar bears can’t hunt. They go hungry, get desperate, stave and cannot breed. And when the sea ice has completely gone, that’s the end – no more polar bears on Svalbard.”
The picture Fredrik paints is bleak, but not exaggerated. During 2018 Fredrik and Melissa, along with National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, documented a severely underweight young male polar bear struggle up a cliff. He was hunting for birds – not normally a mainstay in a polar bear’s diet. Polar bears eat seals, predominantly. They hunt on the ice, grabbing young seals unawares, as they come up for air at their breathing holes. Without the ice, polar bears are forced into the sea or onto cliffs. The knock-on effects of climate change are rolling out faster than the polar bears can adapt.
“People have lost their connection to nature. All they hear about climate change is words and numbers. They read them and move on. But behind all this is the reality,” says Fredrik. “That reality is harsh. Words and numbers alone can’t explain it. We want to try, with photos and personal stories, to help people reconnect to what’s important.”
By shining a light on the beauty, the stories of Helen and her kin, not only the stories of the struggling polar bear, Fredrik and Melissa want people to feel something – to start caring.
“It’s not like we’re searching for dying polar bears to shock people. I actually never want to see that,” says Melissa. “But we document what we see. We want to show the beauty of it. You don’t need to know the latest information about climate change. I just want people to care; to be inspired to find out more.”
“If you show a catastrophic future scenario or a dead bear or skinny bear, I’m not sure that really has the effect you’re looking for,” continues Fredrik. “We think that showing the magical beauty of everything is the way to make people care about it.”
Fredrik and Melissa will be returning to Svalbard in the spring, but for now they’re busy adding the final touches to their book, a book about all these moments, the good and the bad and everything in between. The moments that make up life. And the lives of Svalbard’s polar bears.
Text: Sarah Benton
Images: Melissa Schäfer