Can the water from an Icelandic melting glacier be turned into an art piece?

I was 12 years old the first time I visited the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC. Right before leaving I made a quick dash to the front desk to ask for the phone number where I could apply to work as a photographer for the magazine. You know, for when I grew up.

I can only assume the receptionists found it endearing and gave me a phone number on a post-it note which I carried in my trusty, velcro-secured wallet until it disintegrated. Seriously, who at that age did not fantasize in embarking on exotic adventures around the world taking photographs and sharing their vision with the world?

Turns out I did not fulfill my childhood dream of working for National Geographic. I ended up studying environmental engineering in Australia, which at least is an adventurous and exotic place. After graduating I got involved in different business ventures until I finally crafted my own version of the dream job: make a living creating visual art pieces around the world.

This backstory is to give you context on why I was so excited to join an expedition last June to take high quality aerial photographs of Icelandic river delta’s formed by glacier meltwater.

The logistics were simple: stay in the south for a week and wait for the weather to be safe enough to fly on a helicopter along the coast and up the glaciers. The execution was not so simple as Icelandic weather can be very dynamic. We monitored it daily and there was a considerable chance we would not be able to fly at all.

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The days we didn’t fly we drove for hours through unpaved roads and river crossings looking for landscapes to photograph. No luck. There were days when we didn't shot a single image as the light was not right.

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This site holds one of Iceland’s most impressive sceneries. But not today. All we got to see was low lying clouds.

I could feel the tension building as the possibility of flying was diminishing with every passing day. The forecast was not in our favor; as the week progressed the weather was getting worse. After several conversations with the helicopter company it came down to either flying and see how far we could go or not flying at all. And so we flew.


We kept the flight plan flexible and modified it as the weather changed. For over eight hours we made our way through the most diverse and picturesque landscapes I have ever seen. It was time to get to work.


In case you you like to know this kind of thing I had a Sony A7RIII camera and a PhaseOne IQ3 medium format camera with me. The latter being the one I used for most of my shots. 

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For those who are not into cameras, PhaseOne is a Danish camera company that sells a handful of cameras a year compared to Nikon and Canon. Albeit they make some of the highest quality and most expensive cameras in the world. Using a PhaseOne camera is like driving a car built for a racetrack: they are difficult to handle and uncomfortable to use. They are also less forgiving to any mistakes you make. But when you do it right, nothing compares in performance. Shooting with a PhaseOne felt to me like an all or nothing experience, you either nail the shot or fail in a miserable way.

If this was not pressure enough, shooting from a moving helicopter has its own set of challenges including very limited room to maneuver while hanging from the side door, to finding the right composition while you are moving, to avoiding the engine's vibration mess up your images.

Luckily the Norse god Odin seemed to smile upon our efforts that day and the images captured are as mesmerizing as the place itself. 

We flew through valleys and plains of the South coast of Iceland. We flew over black sand beaches as they got hammered by an agitated North Atlantic ocean, leaving a tapestry of white foam to fade after each wave.

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Right as we were on this part of the journey rain started pounding on our helicopter, adding another degree of drama to the experience.

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With fortune on our side, the rain cleared and we pushed through until we made it to the river deltas that feed from the meltwater off Vatnajökull glacier.

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The combination of crystal clear water running over rich colored sand and ash created a spectacle difficult to describe. Even some of the images I took need an explanation as they look more like abstract expressionist paintings than photographs. The clouds opened up every once in a while, allowing the sun to come through and making the colors to pop out. Those were the few ideal moments to capture strong images.

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We flew over ice sheets that have black ash lines running across. As these followed the uneven movement of the ice through time they created patterns that seemed too beautiful to be created by chance.

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On our way back we flew over glaciers, mountains, waterfalls and all those postcard-perfect landscapes that define Iceland.

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Arriving at the hotel tired yet excited to see the images, we decided to leave the editing process for the next morning as it had been a long day. That’s when we learnt that all-time temperature records were shattered that day as a result of a heatwave that swept across Europe. Let me say that again. The very day we photographed melted ice from Europe’s largest glacier was the hottest day ever recorded in many parts of the continent.

It was at that moment that this body of work took on a different dimension.

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It turns out temperature records were not only broken in places like France, Belgium and Germany, but it was Iceland’s warmest July ever recorded. In mid August Icelanders held a funeral for Ok, their first glacier lost to climate change. It was a move to raise awareness about the effects our changing climate is having on the island nation.

Source: iFLscience.com

Source: iFLscience.com

In Ok's place, a somber commemorative plaque acknowledges its loss and gives a dire warning for the remaining glaciers. It also includes the current carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is one of the primary indicators of climate change.

The reason I made this trip was to capture strong, compelling images and craft them into art pieces. These artworks are a testament to the times we live in and will make great decorative pieces. They tell the story of the biggest environmental challenge we face as a generation in an aestetically powerful way. I imagine the proud owner sharing what the art represents and get excited about the possibilities in those conversations. If you'd like to see an example of the art pieces I created with images from this trip you can find one here.

In a future post I will write about the role of art in the environmental crisis. The conversation needs to include a reflection on the carbon footprint of projects like this one and weigh the benefits vs the costs. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and future blogposts so feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading.

Luis Fernando3 Comments