Shooting from the Soul: With humility and chutzpah, one man makes his mark

He arrived on the coldest day of the year, in one of the coldest places on Earth. Just perfect, as it turned out.

For while Subhankar Banerjee did not yet know what his project in the Arctic was to become — a book that would catapult him from an unpublished, inexperienced photographer to international fame — Banerjee knew in the first feral howls of that whiteout blizzard that this was what he'd come for.

It started with panic.

"The wind picked up, it's 80, 90 below zero," says Banerjee, a native of Calcutta, remembering his first snowmobile ride.

"My camera froze instantly. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, this is a panic situation. I have to get out of here.' It was so harsh, it can't even be explained in words. When it blows, life takes on a different form."

Which was exactly the idea for Banerjee, who cashed in his 401-k and walked away from a career in science, his car, his Bellevue apartment, his health insurance — all of it, for this.

"I was looking for a place where I could meet nature in its wildest form, a place not impacted by human development, and to go there without any agenda. Bringing back photographs, that was secondary. I wanted a place that would inspire me."

The result was "Seasons of Life and Land," published by The Mountaineers Books, the first comprehensive photographic essay to explore the native peoples and landscapes of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Banerjee and the book became instantly famous in March 2003, when a U.S. senator offered the book on the floor of the Senate as evidence of the fragile and matchless beauty at stake during the height of the congressional debate on whether to allow oil drilling in the refuge.

When a month later the Smithsonian Institution moved its show of Banerjee's work from a primo display venue to a secondary hallway and cut most of the content from its captions, a national media outcry alleging censorship sealed the book and Banerjee's fame.

Suddenly, Banerjee's art was Exhibit A in a national political debate. He had become the accidental leader of a cause he never imagined, let alone set out to pursue when he chucked first his research job at Boeing, then a $1,500-a-day computer-consulting job undertaken to save money for the trip.

"At that point, I didn't know what the project was," Banerjee says. "It hadn't taken form. Even I did not know exactly what I was looking for."

What he had been looking for ever since childhood was the chance to be an artist, a seed planted by a great uncle in India who taught him to paint. Raised in a middle-class family, Banerjee had put art aside to get a "real" job, but he'd never forgotten his love of it. And he loved wild nature, a taste cultivated with backpacking trips in New Mexico, then nurtured with his move to Seattle in 1996, primarily, he says, for the landscape.

But the book; the controversy; his international celebrity; solo exhibits of his work at major museums across the country; a year-long, 25-city speaking tour; a $500,000 grant; representation as a fine artist at one of the most exclusive galleries in the country — none of that was anything that Banerjee, at only 36, had even dreamt of.

He would have to get cold first. Very cold.

•   •   •

BANERJEE WAS NOT the first photographer to work in the Arctic refuge. But he was the first to stick around.

"All the others will make a little trip here for a week in the nicest time of the year," says Robert Thompson, Banerjee's Inupiat Eskimo guide based in Kaktovik, Alaska.

"He was willing to get up here and get pictures year 'round. Everyone had caribou photos, but no one had taken pictures of musk ox in the winter, and polar bears. I think that is where his work is well-accepted. Because it is so different."

The serenity of the pictures and decidedly un-macho delicacy of many of the subjects, from the filigree of lichen on a rock to the tracery of ptarmigan tracks in the snow, belie the two-weeks-without-a-bath reality of what it took to get them.

All told, Thompson and Banerjee traveled about 4,000 miles of the refuge, by bush plane, river raft, foot, skis, kayak and snowmobile over the course of 14 months in 2001 and 2002.

Banerjee arrived very much a guy from the city, worried about the cold and delicately cutting the fat off his camp steaks.

"Non-natives, they are preoccupied with the temperature," Thompson says blandly of the minus-40- to minus-100-degree cold and 60-mile-an-hour winds. "And he had this idea, I don't know where he got this from, that if you don't eat fat you live longer. Up here you burn a lot of calories just from the cold. I'd be eating muktuk and seal oil and he wouldn't put butter on his pancakes."

Not a big guy to begin with, Banerjee lost 30 pounds and rethought what he called his Seattle eating habits. Before long, he was relishing the roaring thrill of blizzards ("I knew by then I would not die!") and was an avid connoisseur of Dall sheep, moose, caribou and muktuk — whale blubber. Butter? "I would eat an entire cube with one pancake."

The two would stay out for a week or two at a time, then come back to native villages to resupply — and bathe. They carried a satellite phone and a cell phone, and remained in radio contact as they traveled on separate snowmobiles.

"I think he had a concern that he would be left behind," Thompson says. "I shouldn't tell how it is, or I'll scare away my potential clients.

"In whiteouts, blowing snow, you can't hardly see 50 feet, the snow is white, the sky is white, and it is dark a lot. There is no road, and sometimes you can't even follow a trail. I told him I would be looking back once in a while."

Banerjee had no idea where to go, and Thompson had no experience with photography. So they traveled the river drainages to see whatever they would see.

"I never had any doubts about myself because I had no agenda," Banerjee says. "Even if I came up with zero photographs, or photographs no one would care about, I will never lose the experience of being in this place. My No. 1 criterion was to have the experience."

Which led to remarkable photographs.

Banerjee captured an uncommon show of pink northern lights, the first in the area Thompson could remember since 1958.

He was able to sit, snapping away, among normally skittish Dall sheep.

Banerjee documented a male and female loon swapping places on their nest to share the duty of tending the eggs. It was a rare moment that took another photographer, a friend of Banerjee's who showed him the nest, six seasons to finally see.

But it wasn't all kumbaya and shoo-ins.

Banerjee had to wear willow branches stuffed in his collar to deflect dive-bombing gyrfalcons determined to drill his skull in die-hard defense of their nest.

The mosquitoes were "worse than blizzards!" Banerjee exclaims, his eyes still wide with the memory. "You cannot imagine. Clothing just black with them. They were even in the camera. The worst is inhaling them."

Awakening one morning in the tent to what he thought was pouring rain, Banerjee realized he was hearing swarms of mosquitoes hurling themselves at the tent walls, mad with bloodlust.

Photographing the northern lights in minus-50-degree cold cost him frostbite on his nose and three fingers; exposed flesh, he learned, freezes in about 30 seconds.

Hoping for a second look at some polar bears, the two camped in a tent for 29 days with one break to resupply. The wind gusted to 60 miles an hour and the temperature, with wind chill, bottomed out at minus 100. Under the weight of the driving snow, the tent ceiling would be six inches from their faces, the wind slapping the tent continuously, loud as a banging shutter. Day, after day. Unable to cook, they lived on military Meals Ready to Eat, while talking about gourmet food.

For Banerjee, it's a good memory:

"There is nothing we can do, we can't leave, these are moments when life becomes incredibly simple because there can't be something else. We are just telling stories, thinking about things, camped right by the Arctic Ocean."

They never saw the bears again.

Another blizzard nearly entombed their tent, a drift burying the door except for a four-inch slot at the top. Not a good memory: "We could have been buried alive."

All the way along, his work was evolving. Julian Sayers, The Mountaineers Photography Club leader who helped process and edit the film Banerjee was sending back, says at first he was so underwhelmed he told Banerjee to get back to Seattle and take a photography class.

"He was kind of struggling to dial it in," Sayers says.

But in time, Banerjee found his style: spare, understated, deliberately avoiding the spectacular Arctic light to let the landscape take center stage. "I wanted the land to speak for itself."

In 2001, Seattle's Blue Earth Alliance, a nonprofit that supports photographic projects on threatened cultures and environments, decided to sponsor Banerjee's work. That spurred his next goal: to create a book.

•   •   •

HELEN CHERULLO REMEMBERS just how she planned to get rid of this guy, back in Seattle from his first months in the Arctic, eager to show her pictures from his trip. Publisher of The Mountaineers Books, she was not seeking new, money-losing conservation titles. "I was intending to meet with him for half an hour and politely look at his work and go back to work."

But Cherullo, a 25-year veteran of publishing, found herself looking at one picture, then another in Banerjee's unpublished portfolio, maybe 20 images, printed on a simple laser printer.

"Nothing fancy," Cherullo says. "But he had a story to tell about each one of those images, and we talked for three hours.

"When I looked at his work there was just something that spoke to me, it was very simple, direct and honest, it wasn't overly aesthetic.

"I just knew that we had something that was going to tell the story of this remarkable region in a way that had never been told before. And I also knew that I had someone here with a tremendous amount of dedication and charisma. I said, 'We are going to publish your book, let's get going.' "

It was a pattern that would be repeated.

While many major Northwest foundations rejected Banerjee's proposals for funding, others were won over by his unique combination of sincerity, humility, seriousness of purpose and sheer chutzpah.

"A lot of foundations wouldn't touch it. How do you do due diligence on a guy you've never heard of — he is a Boeing engineer from India, for God's sake," says Martha Kongsgaard of the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation, which backed Banerjee early on.

"It is such a lovely power-of-one kind of story, a very hopeful story, almost cornball hopeful. The nerve of the guy — going up there and making a difference by sleeping in a tent for two years.

"There is a lot of talk of leadership, and it is easy to be confused about what it means. That you are outgoing and forthright, don't mind talking in front of people? That's different from, you have a notion and it is about something that's more than just you and your speech, and you have a strategy and a work ethic. He has that quiet persuasion that makes you say, 'Of course.'

"I would call him a great leader because he has gathered people around him without more than believing in what he believes and having a strategy, which is mighty powerful."

Natalie Fobes, a freelance Seattle-based photographer of national renown, also found herself helping "this guy whose name I couldn't pronounce, who came out of the blue.

"I put up obstacles for him, 'I don't have time, send me an e-mail, call me first, I'll think about it.' He cleared every one of them. He was doing his research. Following through. I knew he was committed."

Fobes, a veteran of field photography, advised Banerjee about gear and working in severe weather. She also encouraged the Blue Earth Alliance, on whose board she sits, to adopt his project. That gave the project crucial credibility — and enabled others to make tax-deductible donations.

Fobes said she was impressed Banerjee was willing to give up all the things that can keep people tied to jobs instead of pursuing dreams — the velvet handcuffs, she called them — health insurance, a place to call home, a weekly paycheck.

"His idealism and passion were incredible."

Tom Campion, a Seattle entrepreneur and avid environmentalist who became one of Banerjee's major early contributors, says that mostly he liked Banerjee's willingness to take a risk. "I am a risk-taker, too. I respect that."

In the end, Banerjee would convince many of the biggest names in conservation, from Peter Matthiessen to Jane Goodall, to contribute essays or publicity blurbs for the book. There were many rejections along the way, "but I never took it personally," Banerjee says. "I knew I just needed to inspire them."

That, Cherullo says, was Banerjee's great gift: making the $250,000 project a cause for everyone involved in it. "It was never 'my book,' but 'our book.' "

For those who already knew him, none of this came as a surprise.

"That focus that you see today, once he takes on a subject, that is always the way it is," says M. Srikant, who met Banerjee at New Mexico State University where Banerjee earned master's degrees in physics and computer science.

"He has this absolute boldness and courage, to take on a route not knowing what would happen at the end of it, and leaving behind safe ground. He can survive in uncertainty and chaos, not only in a blizzard, but broadly speaking."

His parents were unfazed when he threw over his career in science for photography. "His life is not a straight line, God knows," says his father, Debdas Banerjee, speaking from the family home in India. "But I am not worried. He was designed from the first to take this adventure. Right from his very infancy, he had the courage to know everything and anything."

•   •   •

BACK IN SEATTLE, Banerjee was $100,000 in debt and living on a friend's couch when, in November 2003, he received word his work had been selected for a half-million-dollar grant from the Lannan Foundation.

The grant gave Banerjee $100,000 to contemplate, reflect, write and study — no strings attached. The other $400,000 went to the California Academy of Sciences and The Mountaineers Foundation to raise awareness about the Arctic refuge ecosystem and its indigenous cultures through Banerjee's photos and lectures.

One of Banerjee's first investments: a small, rented apartment in Bellevue, where he, a stack of books, one good chair and a computer keep company. He's already reading up for his next project, based in India, which will look at the social and environmental effects of globalization.

Banerjee works hard at keeping his life stripped to the basics. He has no wife, no partner, no kids, no pets, no plants. Nothing on the walls, not even one of his own photographs.

"I don't want the distraction."

He and Cherullo met recently to plan a 25-city lecture tour where he will show his work. Thompson, or other indigenous people from the region, will be at every venue.

Even Banerjee is in awe of how it all turned out, some of it so startlingly well he didn't even know what he had received: a Fed-Exed proposal from the Gerald Peters Gallery, one of the most prestigious in the country, offering to provide exclusive representation of his work, sat unopened for three months. Banerjee had never heard of the gallery.

When Vanity Fair, one of the nation's leading chroniclers of modern culture, called wanting to do a major piece on his work, staff at The Mountaineers Books had to talk him into it. "I thought it was a fashion magazine."

He hopes the book, and subsequent lecture tour and exhibits, will lead to a groundswell of opposition to drilling in the refuge and maybe inspire other photographers to take risks.

While humble in some ways, he doesn't hesitate to criticize much of American photography today, which he says is caught up in materialism.

"Too often we are trying to shoot for what would sell, and what would show up in the magazine on the cover, and not what our soul wants to portray about the land, or life, or whatever we are doing. To just keep working and never look for any fruit that the work might bring.

"It is very hard for a new artist to pursue such a route; you would be starving, but you might be doing ground-breaking work. Most of the people are trying for commercial success and not really shooting from the heart.

"Forget about whether anyone will publish your work. Shoot what your soul wants."

Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine writer.