Millions know fashion photographer Nigel Barker as a judge on America's Next Top Model. But Barker, who has had a photography studio in New York City for over a decade, is also spokesperson for The Humane Society of the United States' Protect Seals program and visited the Canadian seal hunt earlier this year.
On Friday, an exhibit including his photographs and a documentary from the hunt, "A Sealed Fate?," will open at 401 Projects (running through Sunday, July 27th). Barker will also be on hand to give a few guided tours each day. We spoke to him about the Humane Society of the United States, other causes, his hopes for his children and more last week:
Tell us how you became involved with the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society started in England many years ago, as you may know, and it's a huge organization here in the States--they've really made it into something massive. And as a kid, I was always a big supporter of what the Humane Society did. England is sort of a nation of animal lovers, and I grew up in a family that had dozens of dogs and was a big fan of looking after animals. That said, it wasn't as if we were vegetarians or anything, it was just about treating animals with respect and the farms I grew up around, all the farms knew their cows and horses by name, even the pigs and chickens
And that was just my mentality. When I went to the big cities, went to America and came to New York, people were sort of very separated from that. You have people going shopping up and down the meat aisle and have really no idea about where it came from. And I found that very strange, if you actually what it was or how it got there, and if you did, you'd terrify them or freak them out or they just wouldn't want to know.
And that's like the seal hunt: People love seals, they love them at the zoo, to watch them perform...but when you discuss what's happening to them on the ice, most people say, "Oh, is that still happening? I don't want to know about it." It's out of sight, out of mind.
So, tell us what is happening with seals on the ice? The way the seals are killed, and this is a fact, not a fiction, is that they are clubbed to death with a very blunt instrument or a hakapik, which is an extremely sharp spike at the end of a club. It's very, very brutal. Now, if you were to take the seal, put it on land and kill it in this matter, you'd be arrested. But because it's on the ice, the law doesn't apply in the same manner, so you can get away with all sorts of things. There are some regulations, but they are very outdated. People just have to realize the manner of killing them has been banned in a number of countries, but the Canadian government...when it comes animal rights, hasn't been very good.
How long were you at the seal hunt? We went up twice over the course of two weeks. The first trip was the birth, the second was the hunt. I took over from the previous spokesperson, Paul McCartney, who went for the birth. He never went to the hunt for obvious reasons: It's traumatic and people don't want to see it, and it's also extremely dangerous. When you go for the birth of the seals, the ice is very thick, it's very cold (minus 28-30 degrees). When you go up a couple weeks later, it's amazing how the world changes...it warms up, the ice breaks up, and you literally have to skip along on little ice bergs and floes, and if you fall into the water, you freeze to death. It's extremely difficult terrain. So, it's not something not everyone wants to do...
But I was very determined, if I was going to to do this, that we'd be there for the whole thing. We photographed the seals right after their birth, and then we went up again and photographed them right before the hunt. Then we photographed the hunt itself. So we did several trips to the ice itself during our two trips to Canada.
One of the big things actual sealers and pro-seal hunt people say is that the pictures of the beautiful white coats are misleading...because they fall off and become these things called "ragged jackets." Ironically, they are called "beaters" because the seals can't swim and are just beating around. At that age, when seals are 12 days old, people can legally hunt them. My point was, yes, they are not beautiful little white coated seals, but they are still very beautiful and they are still babies, and I went up there to photograph them at that [beater] stage as well. And the exhibit shows all stages of their life in that short two weeks prior to their deaths.
Now, I did photograph the actual hunt and I've got some horrendous graphic photographs, but they are not on display. The exhibit is a celebration of their lives, and what they are, and their transformation during their short life. I wanted to bring a spotlight to show people what they look like, right up until they die, so people realize they still beautiful.
Why did you decide to give guided tours? I'm very passionate about it, and I felt that if anyone was going to describe what was going on, I'd want them to hear it from my own mouth. And there's so much misinformation and whenever it's hearsay, somebody else delivering the message, there's so much room for error...Anyone who comes the exhibit, and they have a question, they can ask me what I saw and what happened and what I think. And I think that's a very important thing and somewhat refreshing today when everything's so rehearsed and it's all press releases.
Hopefully it'll really move people to see that I didn't do this for the limelight, that I'm really putting a lot of time and effort in this...We had an exhibit of my photographs in the House of Commons in London, and the European Union is considering banning all seal products...Norway owns 90% of all seal-processing plants in Canada, and if the demand goes down, then the supply [has no nowhere to go]. If we can't stop the Canadians, we can try to stop the Norwegians.
What about those who say the Canadian seal hunt is important to their livelihood, like the fisherman? I know there will be people who will be economically hurt by this somewhat. And I say somewhat because the hunt only takes place for three days a year, so you can't exactly say you generate your year's income from a three day hunt. Also, we know that the net income off the hunt is only $12 million (US) and that's a pittance what the Canadian Ocean and Fisheries Department declare they make every year in Canada, which is in the billions.
What about more humane ways of killing the seals? We've suggested it, but it's very hard to shoot something while you're on the ice, rocking up and down. And the sealing plants charge the sealers something like between $6 and $12 for each bullet wounds...and with the value of seal pelts dropping over 50% in the past five years, it's much easier for them to hit them over the head with a club.
We took doctors, vets, to look at the actual skulls of the seals and they determined the skulls didn't even have enough damage to them to guarantee the seals were dead when their skins are removed. We came up with a percentage like 42% of all seals are alive when they are skinned.
One wonders why the Canadian government wouldn't try to subsidize other industries for the fishers. One of the things I told members of Congress in Canada was, "I know you're not happy with me being here, in this capacity, take it as a gift to you, because I'm going to be here, taking pictures of how beautiful your country is, how gorgeous the landscape is, how stunning these creatures are, and you can treat it as a tourist attraction. And you're more than welcome to use my pictures to advertise the fact and draw people in the way you do for whale watching."
There was a whale industry in Canada for years, and that got banned in the 1970s and now there's an eco-tourism industry of whale watching which makes more money for Canada than it did when they were whaling. But it takes time--I'm sure there were whaling boats that lost money, but things change and we have to change with the times. In this day and age in the 21st century, to go around, clubbing animals with hakapiks is just insane and we have to stop it.
As a father of one and one on the way, I want to do what I can for the planet so my son can say, "Hey my dad made a difference and I can make a difference, too." If we all act more responsibly, then we can make this a place worth living in.
How long have you been in NYC? I came in 1996. So almost 12 years.
And your studio is in the Meatpacking District? Yeah, I've been here for years. I've had my studio officially since 1998.
So you've seen the neighborhood transform dramatically. I came here originally because it was the only place I could afford. When I got my studio, it was an active meatpacker downstairs and you had to climb over packets of meat or push them aside to get to the door. I remember carrying my tripod and cameras and there would be swinging carcasses on either side. So it was pretty hard-core, especially with my feelings about all of that.
You must have thought that challenge on America's Next Top Model, at the meatpacking plant, hilarious. You know, I'm not party to the creative process, as far as what they decide to do. And when I saw that, I did think it was pretty weird.
Where do you like to go in and around the neighborhood? I'm here [in the Meatpacking District] all the time--I'm here at my studio now. I take my son to Bleecker Park, and there's a great water park I'm a big fan of Chelsea Market since an air-conditioned haven in the summer and a heated haven in the winter.
I'm also a member of the Soho House, and we love that too. I took my son there for swimming lessons this morning, and I try and do that because I can go there at 7 a.m. and spend a couple of hours with him... you feel like you're at the Riviera when you're in fact in the heart of the Meatpacking District which couldn't be further from the Riviera.
Nigel Barker's photography exhibit and documentary, "A Sealed Fate," will be open at 401 Projects Friday, July 25 through Sunday, July 27, 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Barker will be giving guided tours at 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. each of the days--here's more detail on RSVPing. Also, he can be seen on the 11th cycle of America's Next Top Model this fall; Cycle 11 filmed in LA, but he believes the show will be back in NYC for Cycle 12.