Photo and words by Sam Edmonds
A few years ago, fresh out of art school and with a list of job opportunities commensurate with my field of study (none), I received a phone call from a very honest woman asking if I would like to go to Antarctica.
The gig would be three to four months at sea, she said, on a vessel that’s not particularly suited to travelling in ice. There would be no internet access or communication with the outside world whatsoever, only vegan food would be served on board, and the pay could be described most precisely with the word ‘shit.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
The very honest lady was right about all the caveats she listed over the phone: the trip was far from comfortable, even less profitable, and the vegan food in Antarctica was exactly what you’d expect. But for whatever reason, I’ve since been back to that God-forsaken continent 17 times.
Apart from the odd appearance in a Matthew Reilly novel, an eighties horror movie starring Kurt Russell, or in the briefest of mentions from George Orwell, Antarctica has pretty much existed at the periphery of human thought since we were able to conceive of the place. Having never had an indigenous population of hominids, it’s just about the only plot of land on the face of the Earth completely devoid of human culture and, until very recently, its icy shores were accessed only by the brainiest of brains our species could muster. A fraction of the global population were sent there with their Petri dishes and their test tubes to prod penguins with really long sticks and see what happened.
To me, this is what makes the place so darned interesting and why I’ve kept returning there every year since that first miserable voyage: it’s just plain old bizarre. It’s not uncommon to see inside out penguins, animals that have antifreeze instead of blood, and even just recently, a functioning USB stick in a steaming pile of Antarctic seal shit.
But as per usual, the weird stuff you see going on here is almost always topped by the people. A long list of countries, all vying to stake their claim on the place, have been making their presence known. Japan has been harpooning everything with a blowhole in the Ross Sea for the last few decades, and Chile has been sending droves of pregnant women to the ice to give birth to a generation of ‘Antarctic citizens’.
At the apex of strangeness here is the very young but steadily increasing tourism industry. Any given day in the austral summer will see a bonafide caravan of vessels steaming their way from South America, laden with enough tourists to fill a stadium in Buenos Aires. Opposed to the Arctic (the other end; think polar bears), whose indigenous populations and culture prompt the idea that most people are visitors to the place, the Antarctic is a continent you’re free to transport your own identity to. With only a few seals and a scattering of penguins to deal with, you’re invited to take the cultural basis of your own country of birth and plant it on top of the barren, ice-covered landscape.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not attempting to segue this into an essay about geopolitics and culture. I’m not nearly well educated enough to speak about that topic. In fact, I don’t really have much more to say other than what I’ve been attempting to snow-shovel down your throat this entire time: Antarctica is just a bit bizarre. Whether you take that as inspiration to visit the place—or as a very clear reason to scribble it off your bucket list—is up to you. Hopefully, this series of photographs will help you decide.