The Photographer Who Stared Death in the Eyes for the Ultimate Portrait of a Polar Bear
No still photographer has ever photographed a polar bear while swimming with it, and it’s that challenge that Amos Nachoum assumes in this moving documentary.
Though he wears the wooly red cap that Jacques Cousteau transformed into the emblem of deep sea divers, the figure whom famed oceanic photographer Amos Nachoum most closely resembles in Picture of His Life is fictional: Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab. Possessed by an obsession with a creature of the deep that holds, for him, profound symbolic meaning, Nachoum is a man driven to risk life and limb to capture a picture like no other—and, in doing so, to exorcise the demons that have long plagued him.
Unlike Herman Melville’s legendary protagonist, the Nachoum presented by Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin’s documentary (premiering in virtual cinemas on Friday, June 19 in New York and Los Angeles) isn’t interested in whales, if only because he’s already photographed a wide variety of them, in gasp-inducing close proximity, throughout his career. Rather, the animal that consumes the Israeli shutterbug is the polar bear, the world’s largest land carnivore, and a goliath that can not only swim at twice the speed of a human, but because of climate changes to its environment, now views men and women as potential meals. No still photographer has ever photographed a polar bear while swimming with it, and it’s that challenge that Nachoum assumes in Picture of His Life (executive-produced by Nancy Spielberg), which with impressive formal precision documents that epic quest, as well as illustrates the grand importance it holds for the accomplished artist.
It’s no understatement to describe Nachoum’s aquatic imagery as awe-inspiring. Face-to-face snapshots with great white sharks, sea leopards and killer whales are simply some of the many jaw-dropping sights that comprise Picture of His Life’s early introductory montage. Like the rest of the proceedings, that passage is embellished by audio interviews with colleagues and admirers that provide context for Nachoum’s current mission in the Canadian Arctic, to which he travels alongside Emmy award-winning cinematographer Adam Ravetch. In this remote and harsh land, the duo and the rest of their team are aided by Inuk old-timer Joe Kaludjak, a lifelong resident of the area, and an expert Nachoum believes can put him in the company of a polar bear.
That beast is the sole formidable subject Nachoum has yet to successfully photograph. And given that his prior run-in with a polar bear resulted in a near-fatal attack, scuba diver Howard Rosenstein opines early on that, “I think he does have unfinished business with this animal.” Nachoum’s pursuit serves as the non-fiction focus of Picture of His Life, which follows him as he makes an arduous 3,107-mile journey from San Francisco to Baker Lake, and then spends five days searching for a portrait-compliant polar bear in the water. It’s a task complicated by nasty weather, rugged living conditions, and the shifting nature of the landscape, as polar bears now have less arctic ice from which to hunt, and thus have been forced to seek sources of sustenance in new predatory ways.
Danger abounds for Nachoum in Picture of His Life, and as directors Nir and Menkin gracefully convey, that’s part of what attracts him to his chosen line of work. Via narration from his sisters Ilana Nachoum and Michal Gilboa that’s married to archival prints and film clips, the photographer’s backstory—and guiding motivations—become clear. Traumatized first by a 1950s childhood spent under the thumb of a disapproving and abusive dad, and then by his military service during 1973’s Yom Kippur War, Nachoum is revealed to be a solitary man plagued by demons. Having never attained the love of his father, who even in old age proves a cold and critical man, Nachoum’s hunt for the polar bear takes on the weighty dimension of a quest for the seemingly unattainable. At the same time, in light of his harrowing battlefield experiences, it’s an example of the photographer’s desire to triumphantly stare death in the eyes and wrestle control over a cruel and vicious world.
Nachoum’s interior hang-ups are seamlessly integrated into Picture of His Life, which uses every one of its 74 minutes wisely. There’s refreshing economy to Nir and Menkin’s filmmaking; insights into Nachoum’s psychological and emotional condition emerge naturally from the action at hand, while never overwhelming what is, at heart, a The Old Man and the Sea-esque tale about an adventurer’s perilous expedition to the far reaches of the globe for an unparalleled trophy. As Jean Michel Cousteau states, sharing intimate space with titanic oceanic inhabitants is “almost a religious experience,” and that’s ably imparted here. There’s both terror and wonder in Nachoum’s stills (and in Nir and Ravetch’s gorgeous cinematography), and it’s the former that rears its head when he first enters the water with a polar bear in the Canadian Arctic—a moment that’s so sudden and scary, it’s hard not to catch one’s breath when the screen subsequently cuts to black.
Throughout Picture of His Life, Nachoum largely lets his conduct—and others—do the talking, thereby lending added import to his rare comments. That’s most powerfully true when, while lying on a rock, he briefly speaks about the horror of his wartime ordeal. However, it also pertains to his view of himself as “a soldier of mother nature,” the camera his de facto gun. In a Canadian Arctic that will soon look far different than it does today, Nachoum says, “When you take a picture of mother nature, you capture a piece of it that may never be the same.” Preservation is central to Nachoum’s art, as is a tireless determination to chase one’s goal: “That is the essence of life. Believing in yourself and go all the way for it no matter what obstacle.”
There’s considerable suspense to the conclusion of Picture of His Life, culminating with a race-against-the-clock attempt to nab the prized photograph that has for so long eluded him, and a marine encounter that’s as heart-stoppingly suspenseful as it is, in the end, majestic. Set to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” Nachoum’s ultimate achievement, and the bliss that ensues, is depicted as a victory decades in the making—and one that will forever be wedded to a pain, longing and loss that can never be fully assuaged.