Photographer and artist Osceola Refetoff has traveled from the Antarctic to the Arctic in search of images that will help to save the world.
The Los Angeles-based artist left Oct. 2 for a 15-day expedition to the Arctic Circle. He’s one of 21 artists and scientists selected to explore the waters off the international territory of Svalbard.
The Arctic archipelago, which is just 10 degrees latitude from the North Pole, has many unusual rules, Refetoff said.
“I will not make it to the North Pole, which is in the middle of water, but I’ll be very close,” Refetoff said.
“I start in a place called Svalbard — the northernmost archipelago, the northernmost cinema, the northernmost grocery store, the northernmost everything there. I think there is about 3,000 people, and apparently up to 3,000 polar bears.”
The overwhelming number of bears means that no one is allowed to leave town without a gun or, in the case of the people on the expedition, an armed guard. He’s learned some unusual facts about the place.
“You’re not allowed to have a baby there or be buried there,” Refetoff said. “You’re not allowed to own a cat. They’re all for some very practical reasons, one of which is that it’s not really a country. If you had a baby there, the baby wouldn’t have any citizenship.”
As for the cats, they are too much of a predator and threaten the birds and other nonpolar bear-sized wildlife.
From Svalbard, they’ll board the Antigua, a traditionally rigged Barquentine tall ship equipped with workspaces for each participant as well as collaborative common spaces where they can cross pollinate their projects.
“This is like a three-masted boat with square rigging,” Refetoff said. “I like to tell people it’s a cross between a pirate ship and a schooner. The whole thing has a steel hull to make it able to travel amongst all this floating ice.”
Refetoff described himself as an outdoor person who enjoys the cold, something that makes this trip a good fit.
His message on this trip is to encourage people to seek out plant-based alternatives to Omega-3 dietary supplements because fish oil pills are harmful.
“It’s no longer enough to simply draw attention to environmental issues — everyone knows the glaciers are melting,” Refetoff said.
“I plan to identify explicit measures that can be taken by individuals to address specific problems related to the region where my work is created — in this case, the large-scale commercial overfishing of tiny crustaceans that are the basis for the arctic food chains. Recent interest in Omega-3 dietary supplements has fueled an international industry for harvesting krill and other arctic crustaceans.
“Many consumers are unaware of the environmental cost of their purchases and that plant-derived Omega-3 supplements are widely available.”
It’s an environment he said is under a lot of pressure from the humans who don’t live there.
“That’s where my artistic practice and my environmental photojournalism merge when I do a trip like this,” Refetoff said. “I pick one discrete environmental message that is specifically actionable. There are a lot of things we can do — have fewer kids and drive smaller cars. But I think it gets frustrating with these messages about the ice pack melting because people leave an exhibition feeling bad, but not knowing what to do.”
He said, as an artist and an environmental journalist, he can inform audiences. Refetoff, whose work has been displayed around the world (most recently in France), plans to add photos from this trip to his extensive archive.
Refetoff’s recent work that was exhibited in Santa Monica last year, “It’s a Mess Without You,” was made up of color photographs taken through the windows of abandoned buildings in the California desert. They were works that were single-frame exposures without digital manipulations. It’s a work that has a through line to the Arctic expedition.
“The Arctic is a desert,” Refetoff points out of the ocean-covered land in which there is little to no fresh water. “I’m making interesting pieces for people, but also leaving them with a message that the deserts are worth preserving, even if they are never going to visit them themselves.”
The Arctic is classified as a desert because it gets a small amount of rain. He said that without fire, you’d die of thirst. He hopes to engage people’s imagination about a place that is worth preserving, one that is vital to the survival of the planet. He wants his photographs to counteract the misconception that the Arctic is a wasteland or an empty place.
“My primary approach to photography is to capture not only the way places look, but how it feels, to capture the essence of what a place is,” Refetoff said.
He prepared heavily for the expedition. The 2020 trip was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the intervening years, he’s read extensively about the Arctic, its environment and wildlife.
He developed new skills to use while on the trip. His camera is a 100-megapixel system. He’s learned how to stitch five or six of those images to create an enormous image with fine detail.
He learned to fly a drone, earning both an FAA drone certification and the Norwegian civilian aviation authority’s proof of pilot competence so he can legally fly it in the Arctic. Learning to fly a drone safely was just the first step.
“Then learning how to use it as a platform for photography — there’s going to be all kinds of environmental challenges up there flying off a boat, which isn’t going to be in the same place when the drone wants to come home,” Refetoff said.
Lastly, he’s expanded his knowledge of infrared photography from exclusively black and white to color. He explained that with color infrared photography, the sensor on the camera can see things on the spectrum that is invisible to the eye.
“The reason infrared is really attractive is because it cuts through dust better than the visual spectrum,” Refetoff said. “You can really see beyond clouds and into the structure of clouds much further and sharper than you would otherwise. What I’m interested in exploring with color infrared photography is mixing that with the visual spectrum using a variety of filters from the film that were designed for black-and-white portrait photography or other types of photography. They do weird, unexpected things. That’s the experimental part for me.”
For this trip, he’s leaving himself open to discovery.
“One of the great things in photography is when preparation meets with fortuitous happenstance,” Refetoff said. “Having an element that you’re not in control of can be a very powerful, artistic device.”
Refetoff said that while the world is saturated with photographic images, most of them are consumer focused. Artists, on the other hand, are working toward a noncommercial goal, he said. It’s why this trip pairs artists and scientists.
“The artistic process is very similar to the scientific process in that both artists and scientists are exploring things that are unknown,” said Refetoff, the son of a scientist. “So much of what I do involves failure. What will this filter look like? Oh, it looks crappy. Now I know not to use it. Those questions are part of my process.”
The Antigua is hosting 21 artists, scientists and educators and five crew. They represent a wide spectrum of interests and specialties.
Refetoff said that in the forum created for them to communicate before the trip, he learned that people are exploring interactive online experiences, immersive theater, contemporary dance, sound technology, multidisciplinary art, visual art, documentary filmmaking and kinetic sculpture.
Once he returns home, he expects it will take months and even years to process and develop everything and figure out interesting ways to display them. While he has exhibitions scheduled as far into the future as 2025, he is eager to share what he’s learned both before and during the trip. He hopes that through his work, he can help inch the planet’s inhabitants toward more environmentally friendly practices.