Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty: An Interview with Michael Kienitz

Vanishing glaciers have been a topic of discussion for quite some time. One effective way of communicating this serious issue is through photographs, which may better represent the implications behind scientific figures and graphs.

One of Kienitz’s photographs from his book titled “Small Arms: Children of Conflicts” (Source: Michael Kienitz).

Michael Kienitz, a photojournalist based in Wisconsin, is sharing his experience with vanishing glaciers in an exhibition coming September 13th to the Chazen Art Museum at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This exhibition, entitled “Iceland’s Vanishing Beauty,” is a culmination of Kienitz’s five-year work collecting images from southeast Iceland and captures some of the ice caves and glacial formations in the region’s glacial tongues.

Svinafellsjokul glacial tongue, southeast. Image taken with a drone (Source: Michael Kienitz).

Kienitz started his formal training in photography in college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has been a photographer ever since, for over 40 years. As a college student, he witnessed firsthand how the local media failed to portray the full picture of the Vietnam peace protests on campus. This motivated him to start documenting the scene with his own camera. Thus began a professional career as a war photographer. His award-winning photography has been featured in various publications including Life, Time, and Newsweek.

While Kienitz’s works have been recognized for their various themes, he says his life-long pursuit focuses on one specific topic: Icelandic glaciers, the subject of the exhibition. The glaciers of Iceland cover approximately 11 percent of the country’s landscape, with a total area of 100,000 km2. These are temperate and low-altitude glaciers, meaning they retreat dramatically with temperature increase, unlike high altitude polar glaciers. In 2014, for example, Okjökull, a glacier in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, lost too much of its mass to be considered a glacier, no longer capable of moving under its own weight.

After spending time in southeast Iceland, Kienitz witnessed the retreat of Icelandic glaciers. In the following interview, he explains the process of documenting the photos and videos for his upcoming exhibition.

 
Seals relaxing near open water at Jokulsarlon, Iceland. Image captured with a drone. (Source: Michael Kienitz)
GlacierHub: Is it difficult to photograph in settings like Iceland?

Michael Kienitz: Having endured winters in Wisconsin, I was able to adapt quite easily to the moderate winters in the southeast Coast of Iceland.  I did most of my work then because the ice is the most blue at that time of year, and there are fewer tourists. I’ve been fortunate enough the last two years to have been able to stay in a house along the the sea just 15 minutes from Jokulsarlon, which is owned by the Iceland Writers Union. While doing my work, I’ve also produced videos and photography for local guides and a local museum. I’ve also been fortunate to have met and climbed the glaciers with some of Iceland’s best guides who have shown me places only few people have ever been to. I was a war photographer for ten years, so I’m quite used to difficult environments.

GH: What are the opportunities and challenges of using drones to photograph glaciers? 

MK: I was one of the first photographers to fly drones in Iceland for photography and video. When I started going there five years ago, almost no one had ever seen a drone, much less flown one. Drones are perfect tools to immerse the viewer into the Icelandic landscape from unique perspectives. They also allow us to take photographs and videos of landscapes that are dangerous to be documenting on site. In the beginning I had to carry around fairly large drones, but the technology has improved immensely, and I can now easily carry my camera gear as well as a drone and several batteries.

Ice cave visitor examining a moulon at Vatnajokull National Park southeast Iceland (Souce: Michael Kienitz).

For my upcoming exhibition at the Chazen Art Museum, I will be using drone footage to show wide dramatic shots of the terrain, so that the viewer can more easily understand the context of the ice caves and glacial tongues which will also appear in my still images.

Drones are now much more highly regulated in Iceland, and to fly in the national parks you must have a permit. I was fortunate to have been given a two month permit this year to fly drones in the national parks. I plan on giving some of my works to the national park of Iceland for their courtesy.

Ice cave climber near Falljokull Glacial tongue (Source: Michael Kienitz).

GH: What do you like best about Iceland, and what surprised you most?

MK: Iceland, particularly where I went to take pictures of the glaciers, is pristine, but also visually dynamic, as it continually changes. A lot of the glaciers that I take photographs of can dramatically change in weeks and sometimes vanish completely in months. One of the most surprising things I’ve experienced is the incredible changes due to the rising sea-level and increasing temperatures in southeast Iceland, particularly in the Jokulsarlon area of Vatnajokull National Park.

GH: What is your next idea for photography?

MK: My work in Iceland may be a lifelong pursuit. Some models indicate that Iceland will no longer have glaciers in 2080. I’m documenting the astounding beauty of them and their anatomy like ice caves while they still exist, and printing them on archival aluminum, so that future generations can see for themselves the majesty of glaciers and the timeline of its continual changes and disappearance. For example, an extremely deep ice cave, which went from a beautiful ice arch to nothing but stones and gravels over a period of 18 months.

 

 

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Icelandic Richard Branson touts pure water, but at a cost

Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)
Icelandic Glacial bottled water founder Jón Ólafsson. (credit: vb.is)

Icelandic businessman Jón Ólafsson has some bottled water he wants you to try that’s as clear as can be.

In 2003, when Ólafsson owned 85 percent of all the music recorded in Iceland, he decided to call it quits from his telecom and media empire and try something new. Providing what might be one of the only links between music and bottled water, Ólafsson started Icelandic Glacial, a premium brand of mineral water that has found an audience in Hollywood and caught the eye of Christian Dior, all of which earned him the nickname the “Icelandic Richard Branson.”

Bottles of Icelandic Glacier water have found their way into TV shows like “Dexter” and the “Big Bang Theory“. In 2012, the bottled water company partnered with Christian Dior to include the water in a line of skin-lightening Diorsnow beauty products available in Asia. Earlier this year, Whole Foods announced the brand could now be found in its supermarkets.

Icelandic Glacial water doesn't come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)
Icelandic Glacial water doesn’t come from a glacier, but the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland. (source: icelandicglacial.com)

Of course, part of the challenge of selling bottled water is you are trying to get people to buy something they can get practically for free. Icelandic Glacier’s marketing revolves around its purported purity; the water comes from the Ölfus Spring in southern Iceland that is made up of snow and rainwater that, according to Ólafsson, “goes through lava and takes between 400 and 600 years to reach the river.” In other words, not from a glacier at all, though this is hardly surprising. Some bottled water companies simply use water from municipal supplies.

In an interview with Bloomberg, he said Icelandic Glacier water is “the purest, best, cleanest water there is.” These words show an understanding of different ideas about water. Though scientists can document that distilled water is purer than water from other sources, the strong association of water with nature causes water from remote settings to seem better. And what could be more natural than a glacier from an island like Iceland? The company’s website describes the country as “magical and remarkably pristine.”  Ólafsson may have had some assistance in selecting these adjectives. “Our distinguished partners at Team One captured the essence of Iceland and we’re confident it will be embraced by consumers around the globe,” he said, referring to the advertising group he worked with, a branch of the global advertising giant Saatchi and Sattchi.

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Ólafsson has said in interviews that his water contains a pH of 8.4, which helps the body balance out acidic, low pH drinks like coffee and alcohol. While the alkaline diet has been touted as a way to combat disease and promote health, there have been limited scientific studies to test the validity of these claims.

The company’s website states “We take great pride in running a completely sustainable operation, fueled entirely by geothermal and hydroelectric power.” And it received a “CarbonNeutral” certification from the CarbonNeutral Company, a UK-based consulting group that helps businesses cut carbon emissions through the use of carbon offsets. Offsets themselves are not necessarily reductions in greenhouse gases themselves, but “credits” that can be purchased in projects that reduce such gasses. Nonetheless, the company’s operations pose direct threats to sustainability by encouraging the use of plastic bottles and by promoting long-distance shipping.

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Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial shipped 42 tons of bottled water to aid in the relief effort. (photo: Icelandnaturally.com

Of course, Ólafsson’s company is hardly the first to use the cachet of a remote island setting to promote the claim of purity and naturalness in order to market water. Fiji Water bottles its water in the tiny South Pacific nation and ships it all over the world. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Icelandic Glacial water shipped 42 tons of its water to the country. Again the water’s purity and “green energy” were touted as solutions to Haiti’s humanitarian crisis. One wonders if shipping tiny plastic bottles a distance of 4000 miles to Haiti was an effective way to address the problem of providing clean water after that emergency.

You can read here about a Canadian company that does use actual glacier ice in its vodka.

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