Southwards

Jun. 30th, 2008 10:00 pm
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[personal profile] poletopole



Today is as unlike yesterday as can be imagined — we're traveling south, the fog has vanished, and the air is clear and dry. With the sun so bright it's painful to look out the window without sunglasses, the weather is right for helicopter sightseeing.










The ship is returning south in the path it cut going north. It looks like a train traveling along a track.




The ice, on this bright clear day, is beautiful, but I don't notice many people taking photos of it or even looking at it. They're missing the point. The ice is enthralling: the colors, the textures, the strange lack of scale without referents, the almost-predictable patterns of the pressure ridges and cracks, the rhythm of the wind-shaped snow.










Because an odd number of people have come for the ride in the first group, a seat's available. I'm able to get on the first flight, snap photos, and on landing hurry back to the cabin: with most of the passengers rushing about for flights, it's the best moment for a shower. The hot water surges only once. I step out of the bathroom to find the helicopter hanging outside the window, cruising slowly along the ship's side.




The only sight to see out here is the ship itself, so the helicopter buzzes around, the conditions ideal for some very daring close-in flying by the pilots, who appear to be enjoying themselves. Each successive flight comes closer and closer to the sides and bow, hovering, backing, turning with tight control. The closest it comes might be thirty feet, or less; I can read the logos on the jackets I see on the people inside, see patterns on hats and scarves. It is probably more exhilarating to see this performance from the ship than from inside the helicopter — I'm not sure the passengers realize quite how low they are, how close to the ship and the ice!




After the tourist flights are done, the filmmaker John Murray's charter flights go out. For the first shot, the helicopter flies tightly around the ship, Murray filming from the open door, and also farther away. For the second shot, they land on the ice ahead of the ship, perhaps a kilometer or a bit more away, and Murray and his presenter step out on the ice and film as the ship comes directly toward them, crashing through the heavy, smooth ice chosen for this shot. They do several takes, taking off and landing again, the ship steered toward them. On the first, a crack opens between floes and jags toward them, then goes sideways twenty feet from them. They continue filming.




An amusing minidrama has played out around Murray's charter flights: hoping to defray some of the cost, he offered to share them with a few passengers. He had envisioned perhaps five people going — they could take photographs out the windows while he filmed through the open door and got on with his work with his presenter, Charlie Bird. But a great many men who considered themselves very important jumped up and began waving their wallets as soon as the idea was announced; they wanted to go, and they wanted their wives to go too (rather like Life of Brian, that part), and a list of seventeen passengers wanting places developed frighteningly quickly. The cost per person, after all, was to be about $300 — less than the average bar bill on this ship, probably. I put my name in also, and explained to Murray that I wanted to send someone in my stead: professional freelance nature filmmaker and photographer Sue Flood, who happens to be on the staff of the expedition. I asked Flood and she agreed, and the expedition leader agreed also, very pleased. My intention was that the best of Flood's photos would be made available to everyone on the ship, distributed gratis to all the passengers. She might also be able to take some shots of Murray working, she said, for him to use promoting the film. It seemed like a win-win-win situation. However, on the day the flights were to take place, the Quark marketing person, Prisca Campbell, wanted to spike the plan. Her position was that Sue Flood, as an expedition staff member, couldn't leave the ship. The expedition leader said in fact Flood could go with no inconvenience to anyone, that it was arranged that her shift at the Reception Desk would be covered, and he had no problem with any of it.

Campbell then said that, although Flood's present contract doesn't restrict her photographic activities, she (Campbell) didn't want Flood's pictures from the charter flight showing up on Getty Images, where Flood, as a freelancer, places images she wishes to license. Campbell apparently considers all images taken on the trip to be Quark's property — although no contract exists (yet) giving Quark those rights. Apparently Quark has a new, very unattractive-sounding, contract in the works for its expedition staff, restricting them from making photos for their personal use (in other words, professionals like Flood would be workers-for-hire and would not own any photos they took during a trip they were employed on). However, that contract doesn't exist yet. Thus Campbell, vaguely threatening, wanted to hold someone to the terms of a contract that does not exist and has not been signed. I say "vaguely threatening" because there is obviously the implied threat that if a contractor stands her ground and insists that her present contract has no such restriction, she might not be offered another contract next season. There is, of course, no legal standing whatsoever for this behavior; nothing has been signed, and Flood graciously agreed to let Quark use the photos she shot on the flight, imposed upon.

I was shocked to see a marketing person interfering thus with the expedition leader's judgment, and it brings up a question of who is in charge. One thinks of GAP Adventures and the sinking MV Explorer, whose captain had to get authorization from the Toronto corporate office before giving the orders to evacuate passengers and then to abandon ship — wasting precious time and second-guessing the captain. Finally, of course, one can ask: will Quark, since it's claiming ownership of Flood's images, repay the $300 I've paid for Flood's place in the flight? I'll wait and see, and if I get bored, perhaps I'll start that hare. But in the meantime, I've gotten what I wanted out of this: there will be excellent photos of the ship bashing through the ice available for everyone, not just the few big-wallet boys willing to pay for an exclusive.

This digression into current issues in content and copyright seems like an irrelevant distraction from the glittering Arctic. But it's germane: the freelance staff who accompany a tour like this in any position do so in two capacities, contractor and freelancer. A creative-content freelancer lives off the backlist, the stock of material developed over time and resold or licensed. To take that away without significant compensation is wrong, and it's going to affect the quality of photographer available. Having seen fine photographers at work and how they can enhance the experience, I think that's important to the quality overall of the tourist's trip.

In the afternoon, guide Victoria Salem presents her lecture on Fridtjof Nansen's life, a talk previously twice postponed by other events, and Sue Currie talks about the geology of the Arctic, emphasizing the tectonic movements that have formed it and its ridges and basins. She briefly discusses the uncomfortable, infuriating (to me) subject of "who owns the Arctic?" At the end, she shows a hypothetical projection of current continental movements in which the continents end up clumped together again, approximately as they began, in a new Pangaea formation — 750 million years from now. The idea of crustal plates sloshing and bouncing off one another is appealing, even soothing.

In the evening, a "gala dinner" and dance are held. The courses are delicious, the presentations elegant and the cooking excellent. For a few passengers, it's their first encounter with foie gras, truffles, or lobster. A large table orders bottle after bottle of wine and grows noisier and merrier, toasting their achievement at reaching the North Pole. They jump up and run from one end of the table to the other to clink glasses, clutching chairs for support: all the while, we are moving ahead. The ship enters rougher ice and the glasses dance on the tables, the wine and water vibrate in the glasses, and the Russian waitresses (many named Yelena) imperturbably serve cheese and fetch coffee in high heels and short skirts.




My ears are ringing after dinner, the dining room being small, and I skip the dance — which, being described as "cutting the carpet with your tango" doesn't sound like my kind of thing anyway. E is overwhelmed too, and we go to bed early, enjoying the prospect of a slightly later morning than usual tomorrow. Outside our open cabin windows, the ice creaks and cracks and rumbles like thunder, the water sloshes foamily over it, and the sun streams down on the Arctic summer.
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