for Monster Children
by Sam Edmonds
A few years ago, fresh out of art school and with a list of job opportunities pretty much commensurate with my field of study (none), I received a phone call from a very honest woman asking if I would like to go to Antarctica. The gig would be three to four months at sea, she said, on a vessel that’s not particularly suited to traveling in ice, there would be no internet access or communication with the outside world whatsoever, only vegan food would be served on board and the pay could be described most precisely with the word “shit”.
“Sure”, I said.
The very honest lady was right about all the caveats she listed over the phone: the trip was far from comfortable, even less profitable and the vegan food in Antarctica was exactly what you’d expect. But for whatever reason, I’ve since been back to that God-forsaken continent 17 times.
Apart from the odd appearance in a Matthew Reilly novel, an eighties horror movie starring Kurt Russell or in the briefest of mentions from George Orwell, Antarctica has pretty much existed at the periphery of human thought since we were able to conceive of the place. Having never had an indigenous population of hominids, it’s just about the only plot of land on the face of the Earth completely void of human culture and until very recently, its icy shores were accessed only by the brainiest of brains our species could muster. A fraction of a fraction of the global population were sent there with their petri dishes and their test tubes to prod penguins with really long sticks and see what happens.
To me, this is what makes the place so darned interesting and why I’ve kept on returning there every year since that first and very miserable voyage: it’s just plain ol’ bizarre. It’s not at all uncommon to see inside out penguins on this continent, not at all rare to stumble across animals that have antifreeze instead of blood and even just recently, a functioning USB stick was found in a steaming pile of Antarctic seal shit. But as per usual, the podium of weird stuff you see going on here is almost always topped by people. A long list of countries all vying to stake their claim to the place have taken upon themselves various methods of doing so. Japan has been harpooning everything with a blowhole in the Ross Sea for a few decades and Chile has been sending droves of pregnant women to the ice to give birth to a generation of “Antarctic citizens”.
But certainly at the apex of strangeness here must be the very young but explosively increasing tourism industry. Any given day in the austral summer will see a bonafide caravan of vessels steaming their way from South America laden with enough tourists to fill a stadium in Buenos Aires. Opposed to the Arctic (other end; think polar bears), whose indigenous populations and culture prompt the idea that most people are visitors to the place, the Antarctic is a continent you’re free to transport your own identity to. With only a few seals and a scattering of penguins to deal with, you’re invited to take the cultural basis of whichever Western country you were happened to be birthed in and overlay it on top of the barren, ice-covered landscape.
Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not attempting to segue this into an essay about geopolitics and culture. I’m not nearly well educated enough to speak to that topic. In fact, I don’t really have much more to say on this other than what I’ve been attempting to snow-shovel down your throat this entire time: Antarctica is just a bit bizarre. Whether you take that as a reason to visit the place or as a very clear reason to scribble it off your bucket list is up to you. Hopefully this series of photographs will help you decide.