Shooting to save the polar bears

Kansas City lawyer John Rollins' evocative, emotional wildlife photography has won major awards and appeared in National Geographic and other publications. But "sometimes, capturing the moment is just about cuteness," he said of this arctic fox shot.
Kansas City lawyer John Rollins' evocative, emotional wildlife photography has won major awards and appeared in National Geographic and other publications. But "sometimes, capturing the moment is just about cuteness," he said of this arctic fox shot.

It took acclaimed wildlife photographer John Rollins a few tries to find his ideal art medium.

Today, his photographs have won awards and appeared in respected publications such as National Geographic. He's used them to promote conservation and protection of endangered species. But a few decades ago, he told the audience Wednesday at Westminster College during the Hancock Symposium, he was dabbling.

"In college, I wanted to be a rock star," he said. "Here's the problem: I don't play an instrument."

Rollins graduated from Westminster College in 1987 and ended up pursuing a career as a lawyer. By the time Rollins was in his 40s, he was working as a malpractice lawyer in Kansas City.

"I'd realized the rock and roll dream passed me by," he said.

Then everything changed.

"It's so sappy, but this is the way this story begins: I met a girl, Stephanie Porter," he said.

This girl - now his wife - had traveled the world.

"She told me about these amazing things I'd never seen," Rollins recalled.

He decided he wanted to see them for himself. With a low-quality, point-and-shoot digital camera in tow, Rollins and Porter set off to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. He took pictures of Machu Picchu, of giant otters hunting for piranha.

"I got home, and I was full of excitement and wonder at these things I'd never known existed," he said. "But it turns out, I wasn't a very good storyteller."

His photos didn't quite convey the sights, either. Rollins decided he wanted to lean to tell stories and convey wonder through his photographs.

"That was going to require a lot of travel and an upgrade in equipment," he said.

One of his first major trips ended up defining his photography career for years. In 2012, he and a number of other photographers set off on an icebreaker to travel north along the coast of Canada and east to Greenland in search of polar bears.

"What many people don't realize is that polar bears are aquatic mammals," he said. "They spend most of their life on the sea ice. They hunt ring seals, primarily, by staking out the seals' breathing holes."

But instead of the thick pack ice the expedition expected, they saw only scattered icebergs. It was the first time Rollins had encountered the affects of global warming up close.

By the trip's end, the ship was as far north as it had ever been.

"The entire trip, we saw one polar bear, and it's not doing what a polar bear is supposed to do," Rollins said.

Desperate for food, the bear had scrambled up a steep cliff above crashing waves to hunt sea bird nestlings. His shots of the scruffy-looking bear balanced perilously on slick rocks made him feel a deep empathy for the creature's plight.

"I realized what the art of photography is," he said. "It's not just about picture-taking, it's about telling a story. It's about making someone feel something based on a single frame."

Across the next several years, Rollins continued seeking out endangered creatures to tell their stories. He followed troupes of mountain gorillas six times, made three trips to Africa to find African wild dogs and looked for pumas in South America.

But he was haunted by polar bears.

"I decided I wanted to see moms and cubs interacting," he said.

Rollins ended up making three more trips to the frigid Arctic in search of that perfect shot.

The first trip, to Hudson Bay, netted only lone males migrating. He then spent eight days staking out a polar bear den at Wapusk National Park in Canada.

"It was the coldest place I've ever been, about -50 degrees, and brutally windy," he said. "I devised a method to stay warm: I'd march in place, and every 1,000 steps, I'd step forward and take a test shot."

His fellow photographers had long given up by the eighth day of the trip, but shortly before the light faded, "this little guy popped his head out."

Rollins still tears up at the memory.

But something was wrong: Mom didn't even fully emerge from the den, and there was no second cub. Polar bears almost always have twins, if not triplets. Rollins speculates the mother hadn't been able to eat enough to sustain both pregnancies or produce enough milk for both cubs. It's another sign of an unhealthy environment, he said.

The next year, Rollins made one more trip, this time to Baffin Island. Despite breaking several ribs after tripping early on in the expedition - right before spending eight days on a rigid sled - it was his most successful trip yet. Shortly after his birthday, he and his fellow photographers spotted a mother and her young napping atop an iceberg, frozen in place among the pack ice.

Rollins had a friend snap a picture of him in his Royals hat, standing in front of the berg. The balanced bears, with snow trickling down below him, reminded him of the fragility of the polar bears' condition.

"Then I realized, this is the story I've been telling all along," he said.

He took the shot.

Photography tips

Rollins said there are five components to making a shot compelling.

First, connection - both between the photographer and subject, and the subject and audience. Rollins said eye contact is one of his favorite ways to convey connection.

Second, capturing a moment. That moment could be a candid one, or convey a particular mood.

Third, give a sense of place. While a close-up shot might be technically impressive, a picture including more of the subject's surroundings might convey the story more clearly.

Fourth, capture the action. Techniques like allowing a bit of blur might convey motion more clearly than a perfectly crisp image does; a spray of water or dirt can indicate how fast the subject is moving.

Finally, capture an interaction. Rollins loves photographing the interaction between mothers and their young, and he said such pictures can evoke strong emotions in the viewer.