An award-winning photographer known for braving harsh elements and exploring remote locations with camera gear in tow has reached new heights.
Debra Garside’s heartwarming photograph of a polar bear lounging with her cubs placed in the top five for the Natural History Museum of London’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibit in the people’s choice category in the United Kingdom.
A photo Garside submitted from a shoot on Sable Island placed in the top 200 in the same category five years ago and a photo of the same bear and her cubs made the Smithsonian exhibit in Washington D.C. last year.
Garside sees this latest accomplishment as her biggest yet.
“I was over the moon,” she said. “Being in the Smithsonian, up to that point, was the biggest thing that happened to me in my career as a photographer, but this even trumps that in terms of the status of that recognition.”
Garside said her photograph was one of 25 selected for the exhibition last fall. Visitors were invited to vote on their favourite in the annual contest.
“It’s just huge to be in those 25 because it’s out of 50,000 images from 92 different countries,” she said. “The cool thing is the person that won is a Canadian woman. She’s a journalist from Ontario who has an enormous worldwide following.”
Garside’s photograph, titled Warm Embrace, will join the traveling exhibit to royal museums around the world for a year, said Garside.
“It’s good exposure for sure,” she said. “Photo contests are great promotions but they can be really time-consuming.”
Garside braved temperatures as low as -55 in 2015 to capture the image in Wapusk National Park, five hours out of Churchill.
Now she plans to submit her more recent photographs from Sable Island and Mongolia for future contests.
Last year, Garside was elected to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society College of Fellows. She said the board nominates and then elects fellows every year.
“It tends to open doors in terms of the credibility factor because you’re recognized as somebody that does contribute at that level,” she said. “It could mean other projects are going to come my way or possibly financing for other projects.”
Garside was nominated by CEO John Geiger after guiding him and honourary president and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek on Sable Island last summer as part of the One Ocean Exhibitions, of which she serves as an educator and photographer.
“Being part of a geographical society is definitely something to be very proud of,” she said. “It’s an iconic organization – National Geographic.
“To be connected with that to start with is something I feel really proud of.”
Garside said she’s made seven trips to Sable Island for a total of about six weeks.
“I’ve spent more time on Sable Island than any civilian visitor with the exception of biologists and researches that go there for months at a time,” she said. “It’s something that’s very personal and very spiritual.
“I feel more isolated on Sable Island than I do at Antarctica. They only allow 50 overnight visitors a year on Sable Island.”
Garside said the horses on Sable Island are the only unmanaged wild horses in the Americas. She revels in watching their unique language and herd dynamics, which differ considerably from domesticated horses.
“On Sable Island they see so few people that they tend to ignore you and do what they do very naturally,” she said. “You get to see that in its purest form. Just the subtleties of their body language becomes so much more obvious. It’s one of the few chances on this planet that you can see that.”
On her most recent trip to Sable Island last summer, Garside witnessed a young lame stallion trying to join a herd get continuously chased away by the band stallion.
After several attempts, the band stallion became aggressive and Garside watched as the lame horse gave up.
“He wandered out onto the bare sand beach and laid down in the sand because his feet were really hurting,” she said. “The band stallion came towards him, sniffed him and then laid down with him. It was this dramatic 180 in the behavior of the band stallion. You get to see stuff like that which you never get to see in other parts.”
Garside has had her travels and photographs published in Canadian Geographic and various other magazines around the world.
People can learn more about her travels and work at the Calgary Outdoor Adventure Show March 24 and 25 in Calgary’s BMO Centre where Garside will have a booth.