How photographer Esther Horvath is inspiring the next generation of scientists and explorers

Esther HorvathPříroda a divoká zvířata08 bře 20246 minut čtení
Esther Horvath's Women in Arctic Science project for Nikon magazine

Ahead of International Women’s Day, polar region and science photographer Esther Horvath shares the story behind her ‘Women of Arctic Science’ photography series, a collection that celebrates female success, research and pursuing one’s dreams

In the stark 24-hour darkness of polar nights, time is dictated by mealtimes. “Everything else happening in the world falls away and you enter a bubble,” Esther Horvath explains. “It feels as if you’re on another planet.” The photographer travels several times to Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway – the world’s northernmost settlement – to document scientific research. In winter, 35 people live in the village, which is accessible only by a 14-seat airplane that flies there twice a week. “You won’t meet any other people. It feels very isolated but, at the same time, you’re extremely connected to your surroundings: the mountains, the sky, the northern lights,” smiles Esther. “It’s very difficult to come back to the noise of normal life.”

Esther Horvath
AmbassadorEnvironmental Landscape & Wildlife Photography
What’s in my kitbag?

Born in Hungary under the Iron Curtain, Esther dreamed of expeditions to the polar regions, having seen TV documentaries of men marching in a snowstorm. “I wanted to feel the snow and wind on my face. It was a completely inaccessible dream at the time,” she says. “I never saw women in the Arctic, and I wasn’t allowed to leave the borders of the Iron Curtain.” After pursuing a master’s degree in economics, Esther moved to New York in 2012 to attend the International Center of Photography, graduating in documentary photography. Three years later, she completed her first assignment in the Arctic Ocean for an American magazine. “I worked with scientists who research climate change and the changes of the Arctic Ocean ecosystem, and I felt such deep appreciation for turning my dream into a reality,” she says. This was the turning point for the Nikon Ambassador to create a photography series that would inspire the next generation of female scientists and researchers to dare to dream and achieve their goals. Thus, the Women of Arctic Science series was born.


The time for climate change is now 

The Women of Arctic Science aims to showcase the lives, motivations and work of female scientists and researchers. The ongoing project currently contains 45 portraits, with each woman telling a different story in a location connected to her work and her environment. “It starts with a long discussion about location, what to wear, what to have in her hands, how to sit or stand,” Esther explains. “I want the message of each image to be strong.”


Now, more than ever, it’s time for change. “I have a strong calling to humanise science and climate data and tell climate stories through the eyes of scientists. I want to inform politicians, decision-makers, the public, and share my work on as many platforms as possible,” Esther explains. “I recently watched the film Don’t Look Up – I feel like this is the time we live in.”


Using light in 24-hour darkness

How does Esther compose her photographs in complete darkness? “I use a lot of different types of light, often two in one photograph,” shares the science photographer for Alfred Wegener Institute. “I might have a headlight on my subject, or I’ll wear one and also have torches.” If not on the move, Esther will use flash. I love to use a light that creates a cinematic feeling against the blue light or darkness of the night,” she says. The Baroque Dutch painter Rembrandt’s use of light and shadows often acts as her inspiration.


“I photograph in RAW and everything in the photo must be sharp. I do many tests when it’s snowing, and my shutter speed depends on whether I want to have the snow as a line or freeze the dots,” Esther continues. “I now use the Nikon Z 8 (previously the D850), which is amazing in darkness and is full of detail. It’s the best tool I’ve ever had. I always use the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S and sometimes the NIKKOR Z 35mm f/1.8 S.” Esther now also films for the Women of Arctic Science series with the Z 8. “Every shot starts completely black and then the person with the headlight comes in and completes the science activity and then walks out,” she says. “The Z 8 captures every low-light detail.”


As a Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers, Esther follows its post-production ethics and the ethics of the world press and does very minimal editing to her photos, only editing highlights, shadows and contrast. “I always frame in camera, so I never need to crop in post,” she adds.


Inspiring the next generation

Below are four portraits from the Women in Arctic Science series. 


Alyse Dietel

In 2012, Alyse Dietel (below), climber, fell 80 feet from a cliff while on an evening hike with a friend. She was lucky to survive the fall with a shattered pelvis, broken tailbone, broken ankle, broken ribs, two fractured vertebrae, a partially collapsed lung, a dented kidney, a sprained neck and numerous bruises and lacerations. Doctors told her she might never walk again. That year, she was at the peak of her climbing skills and had competed nationally for the past eight years. Her doctor’s words were unrealistic to her – she almost didn’t understand what he was saying.


She believed in herself and, with her strong will to walk and climb again, she began a healing process supported by strong mental exercises. Her goal was to take one year to heal. At eight months and one week, she was standing up. Three weeks later, she was dragging herself around on crutches. The following month, she went to her local climbing gym and tackled the easiest route. Soon after, she was back on the cliffs and today she does adventure climbing for the pure joy of being in nature and connected to the mountains.

Esther Horvath's Women in Arctic Science project for Nikon magazine
Natasha Bryan

Natasha Bryan (below) of the Sea Ice Biology Team during the ArcWatch expedition, led by the Alfred Wegener Institute in August-September 2023, takes temperature measurements and ice cores from the Arctic Ocean. Twelve cores are collected and studied at each ice station. The team is interested in the organisms (diatoms) that live in the channels of the sea ice and want to understand how climate change is affecting their habitat.


Esther Horvath's Women in Arctic Science project for Nikon magazine
Allison Fong

During the MOSAiC expedition in the central Arctic Ocean, scientists remove ice from the floe in different ways and in various forms, such as an ice core for samples, or to install scientific instruments. Allison Fong (below), a biologist and head of the Ecosystem team during MOSAiC, has sawn a large block out of the floe in order to launch the so-called FishCam in the water. At a depth of 250 to 350 metres, the FishCam records images of the world of Arctic fish – and occasionally other animals. During the expedition, the FishCam supplies images of marine creatures.  

Esther Horvath's Women in Arctic Science project for Nikon magazine
Joanna Sulich

Joanna Sulich, (hero image) a biologist and educator with Polar Bears International, is currently part of the team researching the effects of climate change on the polar bears’ maternal denning season. The Maternal Den Study looks into one of the most important and at the same time most sensitive periods in the bears’ lives. 

Joanna also works in Ny-Ålesund, focusing on polar bear-human coexistence solutions. She does education outreach with tourists in the small Canadian Arctic community of Churchill, which, due to its seasonal polar bear density, is known as polar bear capital of the world. There, Joanna participates in workshops and teaches various audiences about the Arctic system in accessible and engaging ways. 

She is actively involved in science communication outside of academia, particularly with children, and shares science through art and visual materials. Her talks and posters have won awards at international conferences, and she has also published articles in science magazines for young audiences.


Esther’s work has been featured in National Geographic, the New York Times, Audubon Magazine, GEO, Stern and TIME, among others. Follow her on Instagram here.

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