From living on ice-covered land to snoozing in aromatic wildflowers, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award nominee Martin Greguš Jr. challenges conventional perceptions about polar bears.
When the intimate series depicting the world’s largest terrestrial predators enjoying a flowery summer appeared in the September issue of National Geographic, it instantly became a viral sensation.
“I always wanted to document things that are undocumented,” explains the Canada-based photographer.
“I think in our minds, we have associated polar bears with ice just because people have been filming them in ice. No one filmed them in summertime, so I thought ‘let’s do it!’”
Topping off the list of Martin’s successes is his recent nomination for the 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s People’s Choice Award.
Polar bear in front of the camera
Curiously peeking out of the purple bed of flowers he usually shares with mother, Aurora, a polar bear cub named Beans is enjoying the Manitoban sunshine.
Although the sky above his head appears to be crystal clear, a cloud of mosquitos is persistently hovering around him.
Beans doesn’t seem to care about the lenses patiently observing his every move. By now, he has got used to them, along with the drones that occasionally disrupt his playtime.
Over the years, the crew have learnt to cohabitate with the animal residents of Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world.
Before any photographs can be taken, the bears must adapt to the intruders – this can take from one day to a week or two.
“It’s just a matter of you putting yourself in their environment, they’re getting used to your smells, they’re getting used to the sounds and they’re starting to relax,” explains the 26-year-old artist originally born in Slovakia.
This approach differs from the techniques employed by crews with multimillion dollar budgets, he argues.
“It’s all about me and the people I choose to come along. Suddenly, you are approaching the animals in a very different way.”
This explains why Martin’s work oozes a sense of intimacy, with the bears appearing to be relaxed and carefree.
“There’s just something incredibly humbling about being around an animal that size, an animal that can eat you really quickly, but chooses not to,” explains the award nominee.
People’s Choice Award
Along with 24 other photographs, Beans’ curious gaze has captured the attention of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s jury. These 25 images have been shortlisted from 38,575 entries across 93 countries.
“When you enter such a well-known and prestigious photo contest, you are potentially giving your subject an important voice,” explains Melissa Groo, a member of this year’s jury.
The American photographer believes that wildlife photography plays a crucial role in the conservation and protection of endangered species, such as polar bears.
“The power of images has never been stronger to raise awareness and effect change. Photos can quickly go viral on social media because they can instantly evoke a visceral reaction, especially in a world where people’s attention span is increasingly short,” she adds.
Although the results won’t be released until 2nd February, Martin has a close connection with the competition organised by the Natural History Museum in London.
Man behind the camera
Though he is currently known as the ‘polar bear guy,’ the Bratislava-born photographer didn’t always focus on wildlife.
When his family left Slovakia in 2004 and moved to Canada, he started capturing images of docked cruise ships and grounded planes.
“If you have the eye for it, you can film a bear and get some award-winning pictures, and you can walk down the streets of LA and capture some amazing images,” he explains.
With the British Columbia’s rich natural diversity, it didn’t take young Martin too long to turn the camera to animals. At the time, the inspiration mainly came from long walks in local parks with his mother.
Martin’s personality has also played a role in his continuous retrieval to the wilderness.
“I’m social when it comes to my friends and family, but at the same time, I hate people. That’s why I enjoy living with polar bears, because I feel safer around them than I do around people.”
Having said that, he can hardly imagine his expeditions without the presence of his father, Martin Greguš Snr, who has taught his son everything about photography.
Martin Snr is his son’s companion, collaborator and friend: “When I look at our pictures, they are not mine, they are not his, they are ours,” adds Junior fondly.
Although the Greguš family moved to Canada because of Martin’s father, who had falled in love with it during a visit in the 80s, Junior believes he wouldn’t be where he is had they stayed in Slovakia.
Legacy behind the photographs
By becoming a viral, award-winning artist, Martin’s work can ‘profoundly impact how we forevermore view an animal, and work to protect the landscape so critical to its survival,” according to Melissa.
His unusual depiction of polar bears in summertime changes the deeply entrenched perceptions about the lives of polar bears we hold. It should no longer be just about ice and cold.
“Those flowers didn’t just appear in 2020, those flowers have been there for hundreds of years and that bear has been sitting in that same patch of purple patch since long before we were born,” says Martin.
He is responding to the pushback from those who think his photographs depict the effects of climate change.
Although he always tries to raise awareness centred around global warming, the meaning behind his photograph of Beans and other polar bears is different.
“Instead of thinking ‘oh my god, they’re going to die,’ I want people to see that the bears in my photographs are there amongst the flowers, and that they are happy.”