How a world-renowned wildlife photographer snapped the picture of his life
No still photographer has ever swam with a polar bear – until now. A new documentary tracks his thrilling mission.
Amos Nachoum doesn't work in a cubicle. His office is underwater. And his colleagues are the giants of the ocean. For more than three decades, the Israeli wildlife photographer has been swimming with sharks and crocodiles, with anacondas and killer whales. He often does this without the safety of a cage, opting instead to hold his camera as he floats face to face with no protection. Some people bring a briefcase to work; Nachoum takes scuba gear.
"Of course I have fear in me," Nachoum told From The Grapevine during an interview. "But to deal with it, I have to take the fear out of my heart to continue to focus on the mission. Fear comes after the event when I think, 'What the f**k did I just do?'"
Adam Ravetch, a close friend and cinematographer who has worked with National Geographic, summed up Nachoum like this: "I think that he is really probably the best – if not the best – underwater still photographer in the world. He comes back with images that no one can get."
Nachoum may lack an internal panic button, but one of the world's most fearsome creatures has consistently eluded him. The polar bear, the world's largest land carnivore, spends most of its life at sea. It can swim twice as fast as any human. And no still photographer has ever photographed a polar bear while swimming with it. Nachoum's mission: to become the first. So how did a guy who grew up in the balmy climate of the Mediterranean become obsessed with polar bears? That unlikely story and his quest for this perfect photo is told in the new documentary "Picture of His Life."
Choosing a career
Nachoum was born 69 years ago near Tel Aviv, the son of Libyan immigrants, and he grew up playing soccer and riding horses. At the age of 12, he discovered a box in the attic that his father had saved after serving in World War II. Inside was a vintage Agfa camera, and once he picked it up, he was hooked. His father, a carpenter, wanted Amos to become a tradesman, to find a wife and have kids. He wanted Amos to put down roots and have stability. Instead, perhaps out of rebellion or artistic longing, Nachoum chose an itinerant life. After serving in the special forces in the military, he moved to the United States in the late 1970s and started driving a taxi around Manhattan. He became an assistant to a fashion photographer. Eventually, he went out on his own and made a name for himself with wildlife photography.
His work has appeared in National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler and the New York Times among a myriad of other publications. By 1983, he was appearing on the "Today Show" with Bryant Gumbel to talk about his underwater work. A profile of him appeared in People Magazine.
There's a poignant scene in the new documentary when Nachoum returns to Israel to visit his ailing 90-year-old father. Even after all the success he's found as one of the best nature photographers on the planet, Nachoum's dad is still not impressed. "He made a fool of himself," the dad says matter-of-factly. The sorrow that appears across Nachoum's face is palpable.
"My father never approved of what I did," Nachoum told us. "I did not have support from anybody else. I had to push myself out from the environment that I grew up in with my father and still pursue my own vision and my own dream and my own heart. The inspiration for every person is to deal with his own demon or his own fear and limitation and to believe in your own personal power, to be able to be the best you can."
For Nachoum, that lack of support fortified a stubbornness in him, that he would succeed in spite of his upbringing. Where other photographers saw fear, Nachoum saw opportunity. Every year, there are news stories of people getting attacked by polar bears. Humans are part of their food chain. "He thrives on danger," said shark expert Avi Klepfer. "He needs that adrenaline rush. It's an addiction."
Filming the mission
To photograph a polar bear while swimming with it is about as easy it sounds. Which is to say, it's not. Nachoum traveled to the Canadian Arctic, to some of the most brutal conditions on Earth. Israeli filmmakers Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir were drawn to tell the story of their fellow countryman's extraordinary life, and a movie about him was in gestation for more than a decade. To have a documentary film crew tag along on the expedition would be a herculean effort, not to mention an expensive one. "We had to raise a lot of money," Menkin told us. "That's why it took so long." Nancy Spielberg, the sister of the famed director, signed on as an executive producer and help shepherd the film across the finish line.
In the end, due to fierce weather conditions, the whole mission would come down to just five days in the Arctic. The movie opens with the camera crew boarding a tiny rickety plane en route to their destination. "It almost couldn't land," Menkin said of the harsh weather. "I don't know if you would take this guy as your Uber driver. So I was really surprised by the conditions, that this place exists on Earth. To be there on the bare land was an experience that I will probably take with me for the rest of my life."
The movie is an elegy to nature, and showcases the impact of climate change on the plight of polar bears. Due to the ice melt and rise in oceans, the animals are forced to swim farther to find food. Scientists estimate that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone by 2050. This is why Nachoum wants to take photos of polar bears underwater. "When you take a picture of mother nature, you capture a piece of it that may never be the same," he said.
Added Menkin: "Part of the message that he wants to show is that man and nature can live in harmony."
'After what Spielberg did with 'Jaws,' I wanted to take it one step higher and instead of creating fear with the most ferocious animal, I wanted to create peace to show that we can be in harmony,' said Amos Nachoum. (Photo: Courtesy Hey Jude Productions)
As the five-day journey draws to a close, Nachoum and the crew have bonded over salmon and shared experience, but a swim with a polar bear has remained evasive. That is until the final day, just hours before sunset, with only moments left on their trip. That's when they spot a polar bear mother with her two cubs swimming in the water. Without giving away the ending, let's just say it'll bring both tears and a smile to your face. "The beautiful thing about documentaries is the fact that sometimes you cannot script magical moments like that," said Menkin.
Despite barely speaking to his father for decades, the film poignantly ends with Nachoum going back to Israel. He places a framed copy of one of his favorite wildlife photos on his father's gravestone, as "Anthem" by Leonard Cohen plays in the background. The songs lyrics serve as mantra to film: "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
Writing the next chapter
The movie was the opening night film at a Tel Aviv documentary film festival and is now being shown to select audiences in the U.S. and Canada. It is expected to be widely available later this year. Menkin, known to audiences for his inspiring 2016 film "On the Map" about the underdog Israeli team that won the 1977 European Basketball Championship, has plans to turn the polar bear documentary into a feature film. When asked who should play Nachoum, he's quick with an answer: George Clooney.
As for Nachoum, energized by the Arctic expedition, he is not showing any signs of slowing down. Never married and with no children, he is the consummate nomad. He's based in northern California. Last month he was visiting family in Israel. Last week he was in New York City to give a talk at the esteemed Explorers Club. "He's married to the ocean," said fellow underwater photographer Javier Mendoza.
Through his website at BigAnimals.com, Nachoum leads private tours around the globe where people can sign up to go diving with whales in Argentina or to get up close to crocodiles in Botswana. A trip back to the Canadian Arctic to swim with polar bears is planned for this August. "My career is not over," he told us. "On the contrary, it is expanding to a level that it's never been before. Even at this age, it's not time to hang up."
Up next for Nachoum is a March expedition to Asia to photograph the clouded leopard, a species in perilous decline. He's also launched a nonprofit called Ocean Giant Legacy whose mission is to create a photographic monument of the world's 35 biggest marine animals. "We can protect them for future generations if we will do the right things now," he said. "Extinction is forever. Conservation is inspiring, and I want to show that there is hope."
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