'United Nations of the world'
Simion captures Antarctica's international flavor in new book
Posted April 4, 2008
Most freelance journalists tackle a different topic nearly every week. A lucky few may engage an assignment for several months. Lucia Simion has made Antarctica her own personal beat for the better part of a decade.
The Italian-French photojournalist has written innumerable articles about the seventh continent since 1999, when she first read about the improbable construction of a new research station by the polar programs of her two homelands.
“Antarctica is my passion,” says Simion, in her soft-spoken, accented English. Thick, dark, curly hair frames her eager face, as she talks about her years of work documenting the construction of Antarctica’s only jointly run base on Dome C, one of several areas of high elevation on the Antarctic plateau.
Her dedication and passion culminated in a recently published book, “Antarctica, White Heart of Our Planet.” The book of stunning photographs and interviews is part of the International Polar Year (IPY) Books collection, a project to produce and promote books about IPY, a two-year science campaign by some 60 nations to study the polar regions.
The 224-page homage to Antarctic aesthetics and science features not only Simion’s photos but also those of many other well-known photographers who have made their own pilgrimages to the white continent. The photographers include names like Norbert Wu and George Steinmetz, both of whom visited Antarctica under a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Artists and Writers program.
The interviews range across nations and professions, from volcanologist Phil Kyle to Sean Loutitt, a Twin Otter pilot who has participated in mid-winter medical rescues at the South Pole, to So Kawaguchi, a Japanese krill ecologist with the Australian Antarctic Division. “I think it’s one of the most interesting parts of the book,” she says of the profiles.
“I didn’t want to make a book on the Italian or French polar program,” Simion explains during an interview in Denver, where she has stopped en route to Lincoln, Neb., headquarters of the geologic drilling program called ANDRILL. “We are in the International Polar Year, so I wanted an international group of people.”
You would expect a cosmopolitan attitude from someone who grew up in both France and Italy, and now makes her home in Paris. A medical doctor by training, Simion funneled her science background and love of travel and photography into a career that has taken her diving off the Micronesian island of Palau, photographing hippos in freshwater springs in Kenya, and exploring the submerged flora of the Mediterranean.
“The day I graduated I knew I wanted to do something else. I also always wanted to write,” she says. “I knew I wanted to go into that career, to be a science journalist.”
The Antarctic connection goes back much further, to Simion’s childhood, when she lived in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a Parisian suburb. Nearby was the house of Commander Jean-Baptiste Charcot, a French polar explorer and scientist, which first stirred her interest. Later, at university, reading about Shackleton’s amazing exploits further kindled her curiosity. Then, in 1999, she learned about the joint venture by Italy and France to build Concordia Station.
Amazingly, there wasn’t much interest by the European media in the project at the time, and Simion received a warm reception to her idea of documenting the construction of the new station. In all, she’s made eight trips to the Antarctic, including three summers at Concordia.
“What I like most about Antarctica is the international population,” she says. “Antarctica is really the United Nations of the world.”
Though Simion has devoted much of her career to the prosaic explanation of science in its many forms, she sees Antarctica with a poet’s soul. “When you write, you have to tell your feelings of what you see, and so you have to concentrate and be calm, to be receptive to the environment and be in the moment,” she says.
Take, for example, her reflections published on the IPY Web site (www.ipy.org ) after a brief visit to the completed Concordia station last November:
“Dome C doesn’t feel like an awful place,” she writes, referencing the famous words by Capt. Robert F. Scott, as he reached the South Pole only to learn he had been beaten by rival Roald Amundsen.
“At least not to me," she continues. "And I am not the only one, since many other people, women and men, researchers and technicians, are under the spell of this lonely place at the end of the world. The air sparkles with millions of tiny snow crystals and — except for the snow that cracks under your thick Sorel boots — there is a huge, fantastic silence.
“The atmosphere is serene and calm. Although there is little to see on the surface (other than Concordia), a fantastic landscape is hidden under the 3,300-meter-thick ice cap. There are valleys and hills and mountains and fourteen freshwater lakes, including the second largest subglacial lake after Vostok.”
Simion is in the United States to research another book on Antarctica, meeting with polar researchers like John Behrendt, a distinguished geophysicist who made his first trip to Antarctica in 1956 as a graduate student, and David Harwood, the principal investigator for ANDRILL, a multinational program to study Antarctica’s geological past through sediment cores. As an Italian national, Simion had deployed to the Ice last November to join the project, and said she plans to do a photo exhibit about ANDRILL in October.
At the moment, the book is still germinating, a seed that needs nourishment.
“Everything is still in my head, and I’m here to meet people,” Simion says. “When you meet people and talk to people, previous ideas change and you can discover something new. … It’s from people you get ideas, and you can go deeper into your ideas.”
One idea is very clear in her mind: “My passion is Antarctica, and I want to continue to go back.”
Editor’s Note: Lucia Simion’s book “Antarctica, White Heart of Our Planet” is currently only available in Italian and French, but she is working on an English translation. For more information on the book, go to http://antarcticawhiteheart.blogspot.com/ .