Swimming with Polar Bears

A stunning sequence from the 2019 documentary, Picture of His Life about underwater photographer Amos Nachoum.

Swimming with dolphins is a lifetime dream for some people and they can realize it at several destinations around the world for a price like Orlando, Cancun and the Bahamas. But who in their right mind would want to swim with polar bears? Wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum does. His obsession with this quest and the realization of it is the central focus of Picture of His Life (2019), a documentary by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir. 

Wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum on location in the Canadian Arctic to film polar bears in the documentary Picture of His Life, directed by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir.

For those who don’t know, Amos Nachoum is a world renowned photographer from Israel whose photographs have appeared in National Geographic, Time, Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Life and numerous other publications and diving magazines. For most of his career, Nachoum has distinguished himself by his unique approach to photographing wildlife, especially in underwater environments, and that involves getting up close in intimate quarters with his subject. This is not recommended if you are shooting alligators or orcas or anacondas but Nachoum seems to have an innate instinct for when to keep filming and when to retreat from a life-threatening situation.

Amos Nachoum photographs a seal in this scene from the 2019 documentary, Picture of His Life from co-directors Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir.

The closest he ever came to being attacked was when he tried to film a polar bear underwater and he barely escaped unharmed. That encounter only increased his desire to photograph these deadly carnivores at close range and Picture of His Life documents his attempts to achieve his dream as he searches for his subject in the Canadian Arctic, accompanied by local Inuit natives and a crew that includes award-winning photographer Adam Ravetch.

The crew that accompanies photographer Amos Nachoum on his search for polar bears in Picture of His Life (2019) includes (from left) Billy Kaludjak, Adam Ravetch, and directors Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin.

If you are looking for an autobiographical portrait of Nachoum, this is not that kind of documentary. It does provide personal details and information about his life in bits and pieces but Nachoum remains something of an enigma. What we do learn is that he had a tumultuous relationship with his father who was strict and unyielding in his expectations – he wanted Nachoum to become a carpenter and raise a family. Instead, Nachoum became a nomad, wandering the globe after becoming a self-taught photographer and deep sea diver. It may have been his experiences as a soldier during the horrific Arab-Israeli War of 1973 that shaped his strong sense of risk-taking as well as an aversion to a traditional lifestyle. What becomes clear during the course of Picture of His Life is that Nachoum is married to the sea and the creatures he photographs are more like family members.

Amos Nachoum prepares to film polar bears in the Canadian Arctic in Picture of His Life (2019), a documentary by Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin.

One refreshingly different aspect of the documentary is that co-directors Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir avoid the typical talking head interviews that usually punctuate any biographical film portrait. Concentrating instead on filming Nachoum’s preparations and eventually launch of a five-day expedition, the filmmakers serve up selected audio bites from the photographer’s two sisters, friends and colleagues like Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques-Yves Cousteau) who provide intriguing insights into Nachoum’s personality and aesthetics.

A polar bear swims in the freezing waters of the Canadian Arctic in the 2019 documentary, Picture of His Life about wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum.

If the eventual encounter with a female polar bear and her two cubs seems a bit staged and not an unscripted development, it nonetheless provides a dramatic finale to Picture of His Life as well as a spectacular visual highlight. In fact, selected photographs from Nachoum’s career and film footage of his past adventures around the world provide the most fascinating moments of Menkin and Nir’s documentary. In one sequence, we see a Nile crocodile chow down on Nachoum’s camera when he gets too close, in another we see a polar bear stalk and kill a seal with lightning speed. Leopard seals, Greenland sharks and a manta ray become memorable supporting players and there is a poignant sequence of an Orca trying to revive its dying offspring. A lot of what Nachoum captures is survival of the fittest in the natural world but there is an extraordinary sense of wonder and beauty in his images.

A fateful encounter between a penguin and a leopard seal is one of the more famous photographs of Amos Nachoum (as featured in Picture of His Life).

Picture of His Life is currently on the film festival circuit and has already won a number of awards including Best Documentary at the 2019 Israel Film Festival and the Audience Award at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It seems inevitable that it will get picked up for theatrical distribution in the near future. 

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