On thin ice with Conor McDonnell

Photographer, director and WWF ambassador Conor McDonnell first used his camera to get a press pass to a sold-out concert. Now, a decade on, he’s been in Africa with David Attenborough and is using his images of the Arctic to inform and inspire global change.

I got into photography when I was around 15 or 16 years old; kind of by accident. I got a very basic camera one Christmas to help with my Art GCSE’s in school, however I never ended up really using it as my art teachers were very traditional and they were more about painting and drawing, etc. It basically stayed in its box besides the odd family birthday or trip away. Then, I saw a concert that I really wanted to go, but it was sold out, so I figured out a way in: obtain a press pass. A few emails later I managed just that and I went to photograph my first concert – there began my obsession with photography. 

The love for exploring cold regions started around six years ago. I’ve always been obsessed with polar exploration after my grandad told me stories of Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen when I was a young kid – I think it’s stuck with me since then. But around six years ago I met polar explorer Inge Solheim backstage at a concert when I was on tour in Norway. He told me that the next time he was heading to Svalbard he would give me a shout if I ever wanted to come. I jumped at the chance when he messaged a few months later.

Since then I’ve been on multiple expeditions (such as attempting to sail to the North Pole on a non-icebreaker yacht), and visited the Arctic many times too. I always feel incredibly lucky to be there, it’s such a magic place. I think what I love about it is that it’s so different to the other half of my life/job, when I’m touring or photographing celebrities. I find being there really clears my head.

There have been many special moments, but being on safari in Kenya with Sir David Attenborough has to top it. Never in a million years did I ever think that I would get to meet Sir David, let alone work with him. He’s my idol, an incredible human and someone I really look up to and aspire to be like.  

I’m extremely lucky to be able to go to many of the places I have been and see all of the things those places have to offer, be it wildlife, nature or food. I try to use my photography to highlight issues to those who might not necessarily know about them. My Instagram following is quite a young audience as many have followed me because of the artists I tour with or work with, but these people are the exact audience I want to reach as they are the future of our planet. So, if I can highlight current issues in the world that they may not necessarily be aware of and make them change their ways or actions simply with a photo, then that’s something I want to achieve and can be really proud of.

People are definitely waking up. Take the climate crisis for example: it’s no longer a taboo or niche subject. Even over the past year or so, with the school strikes and Greta Thunberg’s incredible work, it’s become a household subject that people are willing to talk about openly. It's become cool to care about the planet, whereas a few years ago you'd have probably been called a hippie or a bit weird! 

There’s still a long way to go but I’m hopeful in the way that it’s going. With photographers like Paul Nicklen, the power of social media, TV productions like Our Planet on Netflix, more coverage on the news and the climate marches all over the world, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it.

Conor wears the Shackleton Hero Sweater while on a research project with Barba Boat in the Shetlands. See more of Conor’s work at conormcdonnell.com