James Balog is a photographer whose work has always revolved around the relationship between humanity and nature. After working on imagery that explored humanity’s interaction with endangered animals, he went in search of providing a visual interpretation of the challenges facing the world with regards to climate change. This he did be finding a hook – an ‘in’ – and that was ice. Jeff Orlowski’s award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice (2012), follows Balog’s enormous undertaking as he aims to let his images do the talking in examining the effects of global warming and convincing remaining sceptics.
Much like his subject, Orlowski also allows his footage to do most of the talking as he traces Balog’s tireless endeavour. In 2007, the photographer founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) after the shock caused by the pace of receding glaciers he saw. The project was set up to record this using time-lapse photography and results are little short of harrowing. Taking hourly snaps in Greenland, Siberia and Alaska, the EIS has provided some highly evocative images of awe-inspiring ice sheets retreating mile upon mile having remained fairly stable for centuries until the last decade or so. Naturally, with Balog’s professional eye as a guide, the visuals captured both by the survey and the documentary are incredible.
These range from beautiful stills to terrifying footage of miles of ice – half the area of Manhattan – ‘calving’ off from the glacier. These provide the film with somewhat more gripping account of events than in the film’s obvious, considerably drier bedfellow An Inconvenient Truth (2006). This is compounded by the star of Orlowski’s show, Balog himself. Since his first hand witnessing of the effects of climate change, he has become one of its most selfless advocates with four knee operations attesting his resolve. He has climbed to daunting peaks, and trekked through perilous conditions to record what is happening, then using his devastating images in an attempt to educate the world.
One criticism might be that Chasing Ice lacks any particular penetration into Balog as a character outside of his work. He’s presented very much with a halo – one wonders what someone like Werner Herzog might have extracted from the situation – but ultimately his indignation and determination are completely justified. Whilst this combination of character profile and call to arms could dilute the vital message, it still works in inspiring righteousness in its viewers. Whilst Chasing Ice may not break the mould as a documentary, it shines a light on the man and issue in a way that will doubtless get people motivated.
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