Do you know that feeling, when you meet someone really unique? When your DNA is forever changed after just spending some time and drinking coffee with that person, discussing the eternal questions of life?
The reason I’ve got an opportunity to meet and talk to him in person is the opening of his personal exhibition Pure Arctic in The Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography in Moscow which opened 21st of September and will remain open to visitors until 9th of January 2018. A collection of 50 large-scale works taken over the last ten years in expeditions to the polar regions of Norway, Canada, USA, Greenland, the Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic Peninsula is waiting for you to be seen.
And I assure you: it’ll be worth your time.
This time we met in the cafe of the luxurious Balchug Hotel in which he was staying, right across the Red Square. It was a cool and serene Saturday, slightly afternoon, so I haven’t had the time to drink my morning coffee yet. When I was inside, I saw him sitting at the table, talking to his guests. He noticed me and greeted me with a small nod, and I realized, that they needed a little more time. I’ve sat at the table nearby and ordered americano. After some time his guests left, and we finally greeted each other properly. I’ve at his table. We were the only people at the cafe, except for barmaid and a waiter, so I had an apprehension, that we might come up with some interesting topics, seeing that the atmosphere was favourable for frankness.
— So, what are you drinking?
— Oh, with milk? Classic.
— (Sebastian grins)
— Sebastian. I wanted to thank you for what you’re doing, and for meeting me. I was thinking to do it a little bit less formal if you don’t mind.
— Yeah, sure.
— And for the first question today I’m gonna honour my mother’s will to ask you one specific question.
— Okay. Are you recording?
— Yeah. Is it alright?
— Yes, of course, it’s perfectly fine, but is it on?
— Oh, okay, jolly good.
— So. My mother’s asking this: when you think about your parents, your mother and father, what are the most inspirational traits of their characters? What is so very unique and interesting about them for you, when you think about them as individuals, as persons?
— Yeah, that’s easy enough for me. With my mother it’s compassion, you know… And with my father, it’s ethical discipline, and a work ethic as well.
— He’s a conductor…
— A conductor at the orchestra, uh-huh.
— So, did you spend a lot of time with him when you were a kid?
— Actually, no. Not as much as I would’ve liked to. (chuckles) But you know, we made up for it in other ways, but my father was very busy and also my parents separated when I was a child, so I grew up with my mother for the most part, but I mean, you know, I saw my dad as well of course, and now I’m very close to my father.
— What did your mother do?
— She was in advertising.
— So that’s how you got in?
— That’s correct, there was an influence, she was an advertising executive, so…
— Did you have a pet when you were a child? A dog or a cat?
— Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah, always, we had pets.
— Is that why you grew up being so well developed empathetically?
— That’s true. I think that’s a good way to associate it, yeah, absolutely, we had a dog, we had cats, I had a guinea-pigs and rabbits, birds, goldfishes, you know, we had a farm.
— Did that influence somehow what you’re doing now?
— I think so. You know, that’s a very good question, because I have two little girls, a one-year-old and a three-year-old.
— Yeah, I saw the pictures, they are angels.
— Aww, aren’t they. And we have a dog, I have my dog that I’ve had for fourteen years, she’s in a very good shape.
— Fourteen? That’s great!
— Yeah. And you know, my kids love the dogs, they have a complete love affair with the dog. This is one of them.
Sebastian shows me a couple of pictures of his wonderful child and the dog, sleeping side by side.
— And the other one is exactly the same way
— They look like sisters.
— They are exactly that. And that’s a good point that you’re making. I consider my dog to be my child
— Member of a family.
— Absolutely. Equal in most ways. My dog’s life is as important for me as my children’s lives. I can’t separate it, the love I have for her is… she’s been my companion for fourteen years, and before that, I had another one for sixteen years, and you know…
The subject was touching. And being able to heartily talk to someone like that is worth a lot. And I knew how he felt. I had two dogs for fifteen and half years myself. That is some life companionship for you.
— Do you sometimes take them with you in travels?
— Well, no. You know, dogs have to be physically engineered for those environments.
— Right, but I mean like, maybe, in more casual ones, like to Mexico or France or something.
— Oh-yeah-yeah, they’ve travelled. They are very well travelled. They have a lot of flights.
— Another question about your father. Do you keep in touch with him?
— Very much so, yes.
— Do you visit his concerts?
— Yes, I do.
— Wow. By the way, you ever heard about Amon Tobin?
— Of course. I love house music and electronic. I love all kinds of music, but I’m a big house music fan. I deejayed for a while, and you know, yeah, Amon Tobin is great.
Bingo! Thing is, I consider Amon Tobin amongst greatest and most innovative musicians and artist of our time, and he influenced me a lot. So refreshing to talk to somebody who gets you in that regard or, for that matter, even knows who Amon Tobin actually is.
— Did you ever meet him in person?
— No, I haven’t, but I’ve been to his concerts, I mean, I’ve been in environments that he’s played in. I went to the Burning Man the number of different times and Amon Tobin was at Burning Man.
— What do you think about Burning Man? Is it a thing that will prove to be healthy for the planet? Is it gonna change the way people think about our environment? Maybe from the artistic point of view?
— I think it certainly won’t hurt. I think it goes in the right direction, it has a philosophy of leaving no trace behind, and I think that it has an incidence in culture, for those who are privileged enough to attend it. And so in that respect, I guess, I didn’t think in terms of «can it help the planet» because it seems like a very-very ambitious goal for a festival in a desert, but at the same token, it would be unfair not to say…
— But it sure seems that they have a lot of influence.
— Yeah, I mean, Sergey Brin who is, you know, one of your, hmm, is/was Russian, and Larry Page, they both have religiously gone to Burning Man, and considering that they’re at the head of, you know, one of the most powerful companies in the world, and that their policies for as company culture, reflect a lot of, well, some of the ethos, anyhow, that Burning Man claims. I guess that is an influence on the society. And same with Erich Schmidt, who is the chairman of Google, who got the job partly because on his resume that said he’d gone to Burning Man, and Page and Brin both saw that, and they thought that was cool. So it’s interesting from that perspective.
The topic was somewhat suspended in the air, and I’ve felt that we needed a little pause. We both took a sip of our drinks. He – of his tea with milk, and me – of my black coffee. Damn fine cup of coffee, I must say.
— Do you like coffee as well?
— Mostly tea.
— Why? Why is that? Just because you’re British?
— It’s a British tradition, yeah.
(cheerfully clink our cups)
— Alright. I had a couple questions that, I think, I’ve already forgotten… Oh yeah. The travels you do across Antarctica and Arctica or Greenland – they often… are very extreme in nature, people have always been dying during their earliest expeditions in 19’th-20’th centuries. Is it possible, in the nearest future, to organize a somewhat more sustainable ways to get and stay there? Maybe some new types of vehicles or… you know, to get more easy access.
— Yeah. That’s already happening. In Antarctica anyhow, there already vehicles there, you know, people. The roads from the coasts to the South Pole station are fairly well travelled, especially by vehicles, of course, but they provide supplies.
— Did you take a part in that?
— Me personally? No, no. I have no desire to be in the car in Antarctica, personally.
— But, I mean, what you’ve done, the research, and the routes you’ve travelled through, they must’ve provided some info, I guess, haven’t they?
— You know, in terms of the exploration of Antarctica, for the most part, it’s, although it has many elevation points, but when you’re on the continent itself, for the most part, it’s just this one endless stretch of white ice, there’s not all that much that you can bring in terms of visual accounts of what you see because, honestly, you can, I mean, I bring accounts to the scientists about the condition of the ice, which have to do with the dominance of certain winds and…
— Do you take probes of some kind when you’re there?
— Not probes, no, ’cause that equipment would be too heavy for me, but I film and photograph in specific areas, and measure the size of the shapes that are created by the winds on Antarctica. But in terms of, you know, for the routes, for the vehicles and all that; once you climb up the glacier and you’re on the plateau of Antarctica, there generally no more crevasses and the terrain is fairly well understood and I don’t necessarily provide any intel other than «hey, I just linked this place to this place now, and that’s a new route», things like that.
— Are routes keep changing fast? Could people still use the routes you’ve used?
— So they stable.
— There are two parties who followed my Antarctica trip since I’ve taken it. The nice thing about that is that every time they take a trip, they say that this trip was first opened by my expedition, you always get that credit. Ultimately it’s getting harder and harder in this world to find new places to go, to create new narratives. This is the world that shrinking in many ways, we’re travelling farther and farther, there are many fewer places that have not been travelled to. You know, it’s hard to get a place where nobody has set foot before.
The images of cosmos exploration expeditions started floating in front of my inner eyes, and it was an enchanting show. But in order to do that, human civilization needs to unite into one whole, a constantly evolving organism which acts in its own best interest. Time for weighty issues was nigh.
— How do you see the way to organize the world as one government? Do you see that happening in XXI century?
— One global government, you mean?
— No, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, in my lifetime or any of my children’s lifetime.
— Is it totally utopian or someday possible?
— No, it’s totally utopian, I would think. I think that the nature of human is — and not actually human, it’s an animal instinct – is to compartmentalize. And you can not have purview over extended territories because then you can’t control it, and the very nature of predators, which humans are as well, is to conquer.
— What about conquering new worlds then, if we’ll find new planets that we could live on? Would that be a reason enough to concentrate on unification? Getting together and work?
— Oh, well, you know, there will always be economic forces at bay, whoever is funding the mission to another planet will consider the discovery and the population of that planet is their doing, and therefore is part of their control and jurisdiction, I mean, you see it not with just lions, you see it with ants and you see it with humans.
— But we have a unique instrument – the human language.
— But there’s a multitude of them, there are thousands… Hundreds of languages and thousands of derivatives of languages.
— Yeah, but we already have the English language, which is international, the one that could organize the planet and get its shit together.
— Yeah, it’s the official language, but I think that diversity is not the problem, I think diversity is good. I think, to homogenize everything would probably be a way of reducing the potential of humanity. I think it’s important to maintain…
— The balance between the two.
— Absolutely. I think it’s a good thing to find commonalities and to bridge our differences, but it’s also important to maintain our cultural heritage and historical roots to our cultures because otherwise they would get lost in history. Look, I think the world is bridging differences, and communication is there to do that, social media and the internet, and communications in general. And I think it’s a very good thing, in fact, I’m very optimistic about the nature of conflicts in the future because I know the conflicts on religious grounds will be…
— They’re going to seize.
— Oh yeah, yes, they will. For sure.
— So humanity is growing up, but slowly.
— Yeah. Humanity’s growing up, but slowly. There’s another problem, which is resources. And that’s another source of conflict, of course. And that’s a problem that we’re gonna, you know, continue to have. And there will always be groups that will try and capitalize on resource scarcity to promote conflicts on religious or ethnic grounds. But generally speaking, I think that the future of humanity is gonna harmonize more and more. Just like Europe has harmonized into the EU, just like a lot of South America has, to some extent, and you know, has a commonality of language and culturally feels as one, just like a lot of Asia is also sort of harmonizing. So there are pockets of dissidents of course within all these systems.
— And there always will be?
— Absolutely. There will always be some. But you can see that the trend is to harmonize… Right now we live through an extraordinary time of transition, and transition always generates fear. And fear can be capitalized on by outliers, who opportunistically feed on the fear to promote a message that would serve them. And that’s generally a message of nationalism, xenophobia. But ultimately, I think, if we manage to harness technology and allow it fulfil its potential without overtaking humanity — which is, of course, a risk; artificial intelligence has the potential of obliterating humanity as we know it — but on the other hand, technology is also what’s gonna enable us to survive on this planet because of renewable sources of energy and all the rest. So technology has an extraordinary place in our development.
— I also feel like technology itself may not be a priority as it may be the knowledge of technology and the access to it. Our common knowledge, which we possess as humanity, needs to be shared more directly and unhindered because there are countries that have no access to this knowledge. What are we going to do about them?
— I think that is going to level itself off. Access to knowledge… You know what Moore’s law is? It’s the exponential growth of things. So I think that by definition people will have more and more access to technology and information.
— So they’ll get through all the borders?
— For the most part, yes, I mean, theoretically that’s where we’re headed. Now, of course, there’s always gonna be factions who trying to control that information…
— Like North Korea or some African countries, you mean?
— Yeah. Well, you know, North Korea certainly presents a certain type of problem presently, but I think that North Korea is a dinosaur, honestly. I think that North Korea will be eclipsed by history. I think that’s taking a position of…
— Well, yeah, but I kind of worry about all the people that live there…
— So do I. I just mean that this type of regime, — I’m not talking about the people of North Korea, people are people, and the people of North Korea are just as great as people in Russia or Britain, — I’m just meaning the type of regime that it is, will be eclipsed by history, because that level of antagonism, the escalation of violence as a political philosophy is not sustainable in the world that we live in. Little groups can create that kind of antagonism, but big large groups end up naturally, I think, be homogenized by more of a group philosophy.
Alright now, one global problem solved at a time.
— With all that in mind, what do you do to relax and to forget about all the troubles in the world, at least temporarily? Seeing as you’re so active, you’re always doing something, may it be for the greater good or for your own family. What is your way of meditation, your inner palace?
— You know, I love nothing more but to be on the ocean.
— Uh-huh. I’m an ocean man.
— Wow. Does it have to be a warm ocean or it doesn’t matter?
— (chuckles) Well, if I can help it, I prefer that it’d be relatively warm, but it doesn’t have to be the tropics. I’m not especially fond of very cold sailing, but I’m a sailor so I like to be on a boat. Or on a windsurfer. I love windsurfing. So when I can, I go on a sail, on a boat or a windsurfer.
— Are you doing this alone or with friends?
— Mostly alone. I mean, I have a sailboat and I need at least one partner on it, so for that, I do it with someone else. But windsurfing, I do that alone. I surf as well, I swim. Anything to do with the ocean, I love that. That’s my resource, that’s where I feel the happiest.
— Amazing. Thank you for sharing that, Sebastian. And one of the most important questions, arguably: what can each and every one of us do; you know, little things that all the people on the planet are able to do to help stop global warming from spreading?
— Well. It’s really a program that involves, you know, the three drivers of change, which are: people, elected officials and business leaders. It’s as if all three of them were tied with a chain on their feet, and you can only move as fast as the slowest one. But the idea is to constantly move the narrative forward. And curiosity is, in my opinion, always the best driver in all three of those…
— It’s an ultimate tool.
— That’s right, absolutely. Because that’s what promotes discoveries and development. And right now it is incontrovertible that we need to transform our way of life and adapt it to new challenges, but also to recognize that we need, in order to survive, to live in harmony with our ecosystem. And that to live in this illusionary divide, which has separated us from the natural ecosystem and placed us in a position of total detachment from the world that surrounds us, I think that’s very detrimental. And as we live more and more in cities, which is a fact of XXI century, by 2050 there will be 6.5 billion of us living in cities. And cities are these artificial barriers of the outside world, to nature, to the governing forces of this planet. And everything else that we do, in order to generate our level of comfort and quality of life, very-very most of what we do in that respect, is not working in line with systems that define our ability to survive here. So we need to align those two prerogatives, you know – surviving and quality of life. And so, in aligning ourselves, we need politicians and business leaders to create sustainable solutions to give us zero-emission living. And in order for them to do that, we need to drive them and express our desire for that to happen, and this is the way that we vote with our purchases, we vote with our curiosity and our research. Every time we research electrical vehicles online, it activates algorithms that send messages to the business communities saying that we’re interested and that the consumer society is interested in more of that. In our purchases, be it as big as electrical vehicle or…
— By the way, do you have one?
— I had a hybrid, which is half-electric, but I just sold it and I don’t have a vehicle at the moment because I just moved from Los Angeles to Munich. But I’m gonna buy the hybrid or an electrical.
— Oh right, where are you going to find an ocean or sea this time? France?
— Where? Well yeah, I have a house on an island in France, and so I go sail there, I spent a month there this summer, that was really nice, ’cause and I generally don’t spend that much time there. But I now have two little girls, so I have a good excuse. I can say it’s because of them, but in reality, it’s really for me.
— Pretty good excuse, if you ask me.
— Yeah. And then I’m going to Los Angeles for about a six weeks in November, so I’ll be close to the ocean there. And after that I have to figure it out, I need the ocean, so I’ll figure it out how to get to it.
— If there is one thing you would like to wish our readers, what would it be?
— I would say, stay curious. Be curious. And travel if you can.
— Thank you, Sebastian.
— It was a pleasure!
— Indeed it was!
I could not help but ask him…
— Can I hug you?
— Yeah, absolutely! Let’s do it. Your mother brought you up well.
— Thank you!
— Yeah. You can tell her that from me.
— She would probably hear that.
— Oh, would she? Good. Now, where did you learn to speak English as well as you do?
— I guess, by myself. I was actually a little nervous speaking to you because I hadn’t had a lot of practice recently. But mostly I’m just watching films, getting immersed into English culture — that’s the best way to learn a language, I think. Also, you know, reading a lot of books. William Shakespeare, Jack London…
— London? Did you read Jack London?
— Yeah, I love him.
— Oh, excellent! Did you read Martin Eden?
— I am actually reading it right now, it’s my partner’s favourite book.
— One of my favourite books of all time.
— Yeah-yeah. I haven’t read it since I was a teenager, so it’s been a long time, but I read it twice when I was younger. You know, he was a first American socialist writer. And Martin Eden is sort of big socialist because it’s about, you know, class disparity and it’s a great book.
— Jack London is so universal.
— Yeah, I love Jack London. He was one of my early influences and, I would say, single-handedly, probably the reason why I ended up being a polar explorer.
— Yeah, you know, White Fang, The Call of the Wild and others… Those books were my early influences. I read them when I was twelve and I lived in the dream world of his. The time he’s spent in Alaska and Canadian North… And then Martin Eden, actually, really defined my political views. He was the early influence in my, sort of, politics.
— I’m definitely gonna read it tonight…
— Yeah. The other book you should read if you like reading is Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse.
— I’ve actually heard about it.
— Should read that book. That is another seminal book.
— Thank you.
— A great book of, you know… Journey through life. And evolution from young man through adulthood; and it’s basically about a young man who grows up in a monastery and then leaves the monastery, travels the world for his entire life, but in the end of his life finds himself coming back to the monastery. So it’s says something about, you know…
— It’s a full circle.
— Full circle. A beautiful book. You name again?
— Adrian, of course.
That was another full circle.
— So sorry. Okay, Adrian, thank you so much, man, take care, and it was great to see you again.
— Thank you! Oh, and there was something else I wanted to ask you. What is your impression of your gallery at Lumiere brothers?
— It’s first class. The gold standard, the best.
— Yeah. These guys did a great job, and the work they pulled, what I thought off, you know, was a wonderful show. And they did all the heavy lifting, so I was lucky enough to just show up, basically.
— Thank you. That was important to hear. Farewell, my friend!
— Take care, man!
And so we bid each other farewells. He left. And I still needed to pay for my coffee. The barmaid tried to attract my attention, as I was just approaching the bar.
— I’m sorry, but…
— Yeah, I was just on my way to you. Give me a bill, please. I had americano.
— It’s just that this man was sitting here with a bunch of people all morning, and they’ve been changing a lot, ordering things, and his bill is still open…
— Oh, that is Sebastian. He lives here. Well, for a short time, at least.
— Do you know him?
— He’s an adventurer. One of the most incredible humans I’ve ever met.
— You’ve been working here a long time?
— Yeah, many years.
— Wow. So this is the place?
— The place will be in a week, in Spain, on a beach…
— Oh well. Adrian.
I think I want one more coffee.
And yes. Later on that evening Sebastian gave a magnificent presentation in The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography.
And he did meet my mother.
— Until we meet again, Sebastian Copeland, you brilliant bastard.