The shot looks simple enough: a woman walking a dog in the snow. The composition, the leading lines, and the primary colour against a white background are pleasing. But dig into the story behind Guia Besana's image and you find the everyday becomes extraordinary: the Italian Canon Ambassador's picture is a poem about people, places and the complex relationship between the two.
Guia's work has been published by CNN, Vanity Fair and The New York Times. Plus she works with a range of corporate clients, and has exhibited images around the world. She usually splits her time between Paris and Barcelona, but when her partner – also a photographer – took an extended commission in Norway, she decided to visit him with their daughter.
On Svalbard, a chain of Norwegian islands in the Arctic Ocean, polar bears outnumber people by 3,000 to 2,100. Here, the town Longyearbyen is the most northerly settlement in the world. Travel any further north and all you'll find is the odd meteorological outpost. During the polar night, the sun sets in late October and doesn't rise again until early February. On Guia's first day in Longyearbyen, the temperature dropped to -15°C. But that couldn't stop the photographer from venturing outside to shoot a series of images of this fascinating settlement.
Out in the snow, Guia soon spotted a woman walking her dog. She looked a little closer and felt it was more like the dog was walking the woman. Something about them got her photographer's instinct going. "I instinctively thought that scene of the animal being in charge of the human was interesting," Guia says.
"The woman didn't seem to notice me because, even though it's not particularly visible in the image, snow was blowing in all directions, making sight difficult, and the dog was very fast in leading the way. Dogs in the Arctic are remarkably strong and resistant to sub-zero temperatures."
Guia shot the picture of the woman with a Canon EOS 5DS R, which she likes because it's fast and sharp, and cancels the low-pass filter effect that can blur details, particularly on landscape shots. She used her Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 33mm "because it is the lens that contains all my favourite focal lengths in one: 35-50mm. [Taking this one lens] helps me to stay light and avoid changing lenses in difficult weather," she says. Even though the final image looks white, the sun was dim, so she set the ISO to 800, the shutter speed to 1/100 sec, and aperture to f/5.
The biggest challenge that Guia met on this shoot was working with cold hands. She wore a thick pair of gloves with a thinner, touchscreen-friendly pair underneath. Taking the top pair off to operate the camera, it was a race against time to take the shot before she started losing the use of her fingers.
In recent years, abnormal weather – most likely the result of global warming – has caused problems in Svalbard. Some scientists warn that the resulting avalanches and landslides could soon make Longyearbyen disappear. Does this background information gives Guia's photographs a hidden layer of meaning? Is it a warning of what’s to come? ”This picture kind of describes how in the wilderness and remote places you see animals in charge of their surroundings," she says, and, also, humans letting nature take the lead. "I like the way that the woman holds back her right arm and hand. This movement underlines how she lets herself be guided by the dog, and is somehow accepting him as a leader."