Film

Review: A Nature Photographer Swims with Polar Bears in Picture of His Life

There is a wildlife photography enthusiast out there somewhere who will find Picture of His Life—a slight new documentary probably better off as an episode in some nature-centric television series—worth their hour and fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, the film fails to become something more compelling for the rest of us, try as it might to finagle a narrative arc out of photographer Amos Nachoum’s quest to snap a photo of Arctic polar bears swimming (while he is in the water with them). This particular photograph has apparently never been taken before, and for good reason—Adam Ravetch, a cinematographer along for the expedition and a mentee of Nachoum’s, points out that polar bears consider humans part of their food chain.

Picture of His Life

Image courtesy of the film.

We learn a bit about Nachoum and his history as a diver and photographer, like that he worked as a cab driver in New York while learning to dive on his days off. Soon his photos had him as a guest on the Today Show, the media fawning over impressive photos of scenes like a mother whale nudging her calf that’s died, trying to revive it. Through it all, it becomes clear that if anyone were in a position to pursue this particular journey, it’s him. Co-directed Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin, the film goes to great lengths to have several people tell us this pursuit—as well as his living his entire life willing to take big risks for the shot—is a response to of childhood trauma and war-time PTSD.

Structured around Nachoum’s five-day expedition to the Arctic with the goal of capturing the elusive image, the artist himself has very little to say about his motivations or inner dialogue. Though he’s on screen essentially the whole time, it’s off-screen commentary from the likes of his sisters, other nature experts and even fellow soldiers (Nachoum fought in Israel’s Yom Kippur war in the 1970s) who guess at why he does what he does. But that’s all it is, over and over again—frustrating conjecturing on behalf of the man who’s supposed to be at the center of the film, the man who’s right there. Ultimately, the whole endeavor feels more like what George Mallory said of Everest, that he’s on this path…”because it’s there.” That Nachoum never sits down in front of the camera to tell us himself why he does what he does is either a massive oversight by the filmmakers or (more generously) an indication of just how impenetrable this lone wolf’s psyche really is (Nachoum never married and never had kids, prioritizing his career over everything else).

Like most nature documentaries, the drama of Picture of his Life comes mostly from the unpredictability of the world Nachoum is trying to document: will the plane be able to land, or will the crosswinds be too strong? Will the polar bears be out in the area they plan to monitor? Will they try to eat him? There’s a bit of an effort to shoehorn some of the emotional baggage of his relationship with his father into the story, but the film is at its best when it focuses on the central question of whether he’ll get the shot or not. The answer to that is one I won’t spoil here; if you have more productive ways to spend an hour or so this weekend, a quick Google search can do that just fine.

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