Camille Seaman: All My Ancestors

Camille Seaman’s “Looking at the Icebergs Near Franklin Island, The Ross Sea, Antarctica, 2006”
Camille Seaman’s “Looking at the Icebergs Near Franklin Island, The Ross Sea, Antarctica, 2006”

Camille Seaman: All My Ancestors

by Kara Westerman

“What does it mean to be a good ancestor? What does it mean to be a citizen of Earth?,” Camille Seaman, a polar photographer, storm chaser, explorer, writer, mother, and senior TED Fellow often asks herself.

“Growing up as a child of a mixed-race marriage, I did not fit in any of the boxes people seemed to want to place me in. I found the only category I felt comfortable in was as Earthling,” said Ms. Seaman, whose mother is of African-American lineage and whose father is from the Shinnecock Nation. “In the end we are all on this planet together. Our bodies are made of the material of this place.”

It was a little difficult to talk with Ms. Seaman because she is teaching photography seminars on board a Norwegian vessel that has been wending its way north on the powerfully cold Humbolt Current, which runs from The Antarctic through Chile, for the past two months. On the day I spoke with her she had just reached Peru.

From Peru to Ecuador, through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica, on to Miami, where she disembarks, eventually the ship will continue north and make its way back to its home in Svalbard, Norway, in the Arctic.

The reason she can’t talk long today is that she’s on deck watch.

“I have to be up on the bow of the ship watching for…creatures,” Ms. Seaman explains. “Last night I saw hundreds of dolphins and I radioed — We have dolphins at ten o’clock…eleven….twelve — I was like — They’re everywhere!”

Ms. Seaman’s self-portrait
Ms. Seaman’s self-portrait

She was anxious to get back up on deck. Earlier that day, she had seen something unidentifiable. “I just happened to be looking out at the horizon and I saw this…thing come out of the water,” she says. “It looked like it might be a ship, but it was a whale breaching! So, today has been quite a good day!”

In 2011, after spending almost 10 years exploring the two poles for what eventually became her book “Melting Away, A Ten Year Journey Through Our Endangered Polar Regions,” Ms. Seaman decided to stop traveling by ship to reach these far-flung places, because doing so was contributing to the problem of global warming.

But the Norwegian ferry company Hurtigruten, which means “fast route” or “quick way” in Norwegian, has renewed her faith that things might be changing, albeit slowly. They have recently branched out into a tourist expedition model, and have been equipping their ships to be more green. 

“All of the standards on this ship are towards less plastic in the oceans,” she explained.  In 2019 they are set to launch their first hybrid electric/diesel ships.

 “They are very conscientious. Just the fact that this company is building hybrid cruise ships — I think they are the first,” she says. “We give lectures on the ship about our carbon footprint, what it actually took to get us here, how much fuel — we have scientists onboard that educate people. We only have about a hundred people onboard this trip. It’s not a normal cruise ship.  Its what’s considered an expedition cruise ship. Picture a fancy Ikea floating thing!” 

The ship they are traveling on is named Fram, which means “forward” in Norwegian, and was named after explorer Fritjof Nansen’s famous expedition ship, which was a pioneering polar expedition vessel.

Ms. Seaman is always moving, teaching for eight weeks on and eight weeks off, aboard ships, visiting native reservations across the United States, or chasing storms. So it is a wonderful paradox that she also teaches others about listening and stillness. The photographs she creates using portraiture methods contain stillness, even when they are images of ice melting or weather systems traveling hundreds of miles per hour.

In Camille Seaman’s world, everything is connected, and language has incredible power. She points out that most of the vocabulary of photography is very violent — probably because photography has been mostly a male-centric thing. Also, she says, a lot of the people who picked up the first cameras were people who in some ways were hunters.

“There’s some similarity in what a hunter does — stalking, and observing, and being still. Waiting and watching,” she says.

It is of supreme importance that she approach her subjects — human, animal or mineral — as collaborators. She doesn’t just “take”, or “shoot” photographs. She “makes” portraits, and she prefers to think of her subjects, whether they be storms in her new book “The Big Cloud,” or icebergs in her book “Melting Away,” or humans from her native project “We Are Still Here” — she treats them all as ancestors.

The cover of Camille Seaman’s book “Melting Away.”
The cover of Camille Seaman’s book “Melting Away.”

“It is not a death when icebergs melt; it is not an end, but a continuation of their path through the cycle of life,” she says. “Some of the ice in the icebergs that I photograph is very young — a couple thousand years old. And some of the ice is over 100,000 years old.”

In one of her TED Talks, she tells the audience that some people feel her presenting icebergs as being “alive” and having “their own unique personality” is absurd. Ice is simply water and water is not alive.

“Humans are seventy percent water,” she replies. “Does that mean we are seventy percent not alive?”

When she disembarks for photo sessions with her students, she doesn’t allow them to put cameras up to their faces before they take in their surroundings, no matter what miraculous things the seals and penguins may be doing. This is not “shock-and-awe, hit and run photography,” she stresses. 

She believes photography can be a tool for developing more awareness and stillness, rather than a distancing device. This is not just a class in photography, but a class in philosophy, in observation, among other things — even in breathing. 

Many of her students on these epic trips to explore Antartica are often on the edge of something, she tells me.

“They are already looking for something to shift in their life. That means they’re open,” she says. “I tell them I’m going to change the way they see for the rest of their lives!”

Camille Seaman's "King Penguins at Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, 2009"
Camille Seaman’s “King Penguins at Fortuna Bay, South Georgia, 2009”

If her students feel self-conscious or intimidated to walk through town and “take” people’s photos, she suggests instead, “You should be ‘making’ a photo with them. You don’t have to speak a word. Your intention is powerful. If you approach someone with your camera visible, and you smile, and hold in your body that — wow — this person is beautiful and I must make a photograph with them, that’s an invitation. And when you’ve made the photograph with them, don’t just walk away! That is the violence! Here you have an opportunity. It wouldn’t kill you to show them the picture you took on the back of your camera. Now it’s a collaboration, and that can start a relationship.”

She teaches her students that everything has a rhythm, a pattern, that if they are patient enough to watch and figure out, they can make images maybe even more beautiful because they are pressing the shutter at just the right moment.

“It’s not luck.”

She thinks this knowledge came from surfing, where she learned to sit and watch the set come in, figure out what the rhythm is, what the pattern is, before she launched herself into the ocean. She thinks it’s why animals allow her to get close, having a different awareness, intention, and approach.

“I got to a point where I had to realize that this thing I do is not about me! It’s not about my feelings. It’s about sharing this moment with the world, if I can. And that’s kind of like a calling. It’s not about me.”

Camille Seaman's "Iceberg In Blood Red Sunset, Lemaire Channel, Antarctica, 2017"
Camille Seaman’s “Iceberg In Blood Red Sunset, Lemaire Channel, Antarctica, 2017”

She gives much of the credit to her Shinnecock grandfather, who explained to her at an early age how the sweat on her body was connected to the clouds in the sky through evaporation. Her parents would drop her off at his home after pre-school, and he would insist that she sit outside for at least one hour a day, no matter what the weather, and observe, and then report back to him him what she had seen. 

“I would say — I saw a spider building a web, and my grandfather would say — Oh, that means no rain this week, or I would tell him about certain clouds, and he would say — That means rain tomorrow.”

She likes to joke that she is always the only real “seaman” aboard ship. Her name is still very popular in the Long Island phone book, and she guesses that it does come from whalers in the old ports of Huntington, Setauket, Sag Harbor, and Amagansett, which were all huge whaling towns in their day.

In her grandfather’s case, the name Seaman was given to him by a step-father who was a member of the Poospatuck tribe, and adopted him. On his mother’s side was her Shinnecock name Karl, which was of Dutch origin. The Poospatuck tribe, which has a reservation in Mastic, is the only other tribe besides the Shinnecock that still has a reservation on Long Island.

She reconnected with her Shinnecock tribe in the past few years, mostly because her teenage daughter decided she wanted moccasins, and was looking on the internet. 

“No child of mine was going to be caught dead in these fake, pseudo moccasins, when I am a moccasin maker!” she said.

She hadn’t been back to the reservation in a long time, but since her daughter had become interested, she told members of the tribe they were coming for the Shinnecock Powwow a couple of years ago, and they set up a portrait booth, so that anyone who wanted to come sit would have a nice photo of themselves.

But it was disheartening when she showed the photographs to people and they said  they didn’t think they looked Indian.

“Well, you know, our tribe had contact a full two hundred years before Plains Indians had even looked at a white person! Of course we’re mixed!” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not native. Unless you believe in this racist idea, this blood quantum thing.”

“If you’re Irish and you marry a German person — is that child any less Irish? It’s ridiculous! I also heard some very, very sad statistics that apparently a huge majority of second-graders when asked if Native Americans still existed, said — No they don’t.” 

That’s partly why she started her project, called “We Are Still Here,” in 2016, because she feels it is more important than ever to tell their own stories.

At the Shinnecock reservation, she is in touch with the group that is working to bring back Shinnecock language to the schools, with the help of the Mashpee Wampanoag in Massachusetts, who have also revived their language.

They are very similar to the Shinnecock in that they were wampum makers, and were a culture of the clam, the sea and the wigwam, she told me.

“My grandfather didn’t speak the language. He taught me words, but we didn’t have sentences. I would love to learn Shinnecock. Words have such power and really can alter your perspective,” she says.

It was in their travels for the “We Are Still Here” project that Camille Seaman and her daughter ended up at the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota in 2016, and heard about the protests against an oil pipeline happening at Standing Rock. For the first time in her life, she said, she felt she absolutely had to do something. 

“I was so close! But I was out of money and out of time. I had to get my daughter back to high school in San Francisco,” she says. “When I got back home in California it was the strangest sensation! I had never felt that I absolutely had to be a part of anything in my entire life, until that moment.”

She sat down and wrote her GoFundMe campaign —‘ I need this. This is what I’m doing. Can you help me?’

Camille Seaman's “Family at Oceti Sakowin camp, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota, 2016."
Camille Seaman’s “Family at Oceti Sakowin camp, Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota, 2016.”

Twenty-four hours later, she had $6,000.

“And I wept. I felt like these people were saying — You go sister! We’ve got your back!”

Although her publishers have asked her if she would like to publish a book of the photos she took during her stay at the Standing Rock protests, she told me she does not feel qualified. 

“I was only there a month. I felt so humbled being there. Honestly that was life-changing,” she says.

There was a moment at Standing Rock she told me she will never forget. After they had been there a few weeks, an elder from the reservation was walking through the camps and came upon a bunch of them around a teepee and a drum, and he said, “Tell me, how does it feel to be free for the first time in your life?”

”I felt it! I felt what he meant! I wasn’t thinking about bills or what I should do with my career. I was there with people for a common cause, making something beautiful, I hoped,” she says. “Getting up with the sunrise and going to bed when it was dark. It was so powerful to fall into the rhythm of the planet again.”

Every day at the camp, a young golden eagle would circle the whole thing, “and the women would start the whooping sounds of their calls, and the men would be doing these war cries. It was so powerful,” she told me, “this wave of sound moving around the entire camp.” 

“And, do you know, that one day that young golden eagle came down and landed on a fencepost and let people touch it?” she whispered. “It let people touch it! Almost every day there were amazing things like that — Holy cow! What’s happening here?!”

Ms. Seaman feels lucky that so much makes itself available to her and for her. After  a recent TED Talk in Brazil, representatives from a film production company asked if she would consider making a film, and for the entire year of 2017 she was taken under their wing to learn everything she needed to know about filmmaking. 

“They asked me what I wanted my movie to be about and I said I had better sit down and write it, so they got me a cottage on the coast of Ireland for a month, but as I was sending pages back, they told me it was so beautiful it could be a book! I said — wait, am I writing a book or a movie? And they said — why don’t you do both? So I have to go finish my novel. We will adapt it into a screenplay, and hopefully in 2019 I’ll direct my first film!”

You can see more of Camile Seaman’s images at www.camilleseaman.com, including her project “We Are Still Here.” Her books “Melting Away,” and “The Big Cloud” are available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, and the from publisher, Princeton Architectural Press: papress.com.


Kara Westerman

Kara Westerman is a fiction author, teacher, oral history facilitator and writing workshop leader. She received her fiction MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and produces and hosts the podcast Phantom Hampton: Stories From Where The Rest of Us Live.

East End Beacon

The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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