Camille Seaman: Following Your Own Path
by Richard Whittaker, Mar 21, 2013
Finding the work of Camille Seaman was a happy accident. Well, maybe not entirely an accident. It’s like Camille says, “When a door appears, I tend to go through it.” It was something her Native American mother taught her about being open to life. And the thing I’ve noticed is that doors don’t always look like doors. Sometimes a door is like noticing a sound or something glimpsed in a moment. Or, it might be, as Camille told me, as simple as taking an airline’s offer of a free round trip ticket if you give up your seat on an overbooked flight. It was Alaska Airlines, and she decided to fly to the northernmost point they served. In the winter. She landed in minus 300 weather and soon discovered her suitcase with her warm clothes had not arrived with her. She was in the airport alone, with no friends or connections. “But soon some Inuit people came to my aid,” she told me. They outfitted her in their native garb. And even knowing this artist for a short time makes this story a lot less surprising than it might have been otherwise.
So thus prepared, the next morning she set out alone on foot across the snow for the Bering Strait. “I didn’t think I could get across to Russia, but I wanted to get to land’s end and just look across to Russia.” In case I might think it was an odd thing to do, she added that, of course, she had an interest in the migration story of how her ancestors had crossed from Asia and populated the Americas in the first place. “The sound of each step in the snow in such deep cold was amazing,” she told me. The ice crystals being compressed squeaked and grated underfoot. “It was noisy.”
From time to time a snowmobile would pass by. But otherwise there was nothing but snow in all directions. The little town became smaller and smaller in the distance. Later two snowmobiles came by. “Where are you going?” the drivers asked. She told them she wanted to walk to the edge of the land. “That’s twenty-two miles away,” they told her.
As I listened to this tale, already having heard others that were, to my ear, equally exotic, I wondered what would come next. Twenty-two miles. It was too far, she told me. I was glad to hear this. It meant we were still somewhere in the realm of a reality I could recognize, at least a little. But she decided to accept a lift on a snowmobile for a few miles, anyway. “They go fast,” she said. After a while she realized, wait a minute, “How far have we gone already?” She asked to be dropped off and watched as the snowmobiles disappeared in the white distance.
“I took a photo of them as just little dots,” she said. Then she turned around to get her bearings by re-sighting the village. But she’d already gone too far to see it. In that moment she realized no one in the world knew where she was. In that moment certain childhood teachings from her Native American grandfather suddenly became real. It was one of those pivotal moments when something deep becomes palpably real and true. What she told me had to do with realizing she was a creature of the earth. You can’t really tell others about such a moment.
“One thing my grandfather taught me is that we are all connected,” she said. “One time when I was just a kid, he took me out for a walk. Then we sat down together. No one was around. It was a hot day. We sat there for a long time. Sweat was pouring off my face. Then after a while a little cloud began to form in the sky above us.” She and her grandfather looked up at it. “See that cloud?” her grandfather asked. “That’s forming from the sweat that is evaporating from us and rising into the air.”
We sat together at her computer looking at her photographs of icebergs, so many beautiful images and then looking at other photos she’d made: photos of the penguins, the edges of glaciers where they meet the sea, close-ups, long shots, hundreds of photos.
“I hear that the penguins aren’t afraid,” I said.
“No. They’ll come over and even lay down on your feet.”
Then we watched some of her video footage, footage from the prow of an icebreaker riding up over the ice, breaking it, moving through the floating ice masses. And here was some polar bear footage, several polar bears, polar bears on the sides of steep rock hillsides, polar bears swimming in the arctic sea and clambering up onto ice floes.
“There’s a mother and her cub. It’s almost big enough to leave and go on its own.” The two white bears had been filmed in the setting sun and were golden in its light. “They’d probably never seen a human,” she said. They had come to the edge of an ice floe and were looking directly into the camera. For a few seconds, the mother and her cub were standing, heads together at exactly matching angles peering at us, it seemed. Then the mother was lowering and raising her head in an attempt to get a better reading on what she was looking at—a ship with people standing at the railing looking at her.
A friend, Camille told me, had taken a ship almost all the way to the North Pole. The ice had retreated that much. Sitting next to her suddenly something shifted in me. Suddenly I felt a great sadness. —rw
To learn more about Camille Seaman you can visit http://www.camilleseaman.com/