Sara Lindström, winner of this year’s Environmental Photographer of the Year, tells Oliver Atwell about her winning shot

How did you come upon this incredible scene?

I had decided to explore parts of the Canadian Rockies I’d never visited before, travelling alone and sleeping in my car while chasing the light without much of plan. One night, I heard rumours of a big fire north of where I was, but I had just witnessed one of the most amazing moonrises ever, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the news. The next morning, I had been driving for an hour or so when I came around a big corner. Suddenly, I saw this massive pinkish plume of smoke rising to the sky and the road was leading me straight towards it. Driven by my hopeless curiosity, I let the road take me closer, but as I drove past, I noticed the flames were moving in my direction. I was one of the last cars allowed to pass before the highway was closed.

It must have been an awe-inspiring scene to witness.

After passing the point where the fire was about to swallow the highway and I was a safe distance away, I couldn’t help but stop and get out of my car. Nothing had held me spellbound as the incredible scene in front of me. Almost like a robot programmed to only follow orders, I climbed to the top of a slope to get a better view. I’m not sure how long I was standing there, but I remember thinking there was so much beauty and horror in it at the same time. For whatever time that passed, I stared at it with fear, awe and extreme fascination. It was as if I had shrunk to the size of an ant and there was nothing I could do other than watch as the fire furiously and rapidly consumed whatever was in its way. It made me realise how helpless we actually are when Mother Nature decides to show her true powers. I left feeling very alive and full of gratitude for getting the chance to witness what I’d just seen. It was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever come across.

What camera and lens were you using?

This particular shot was taken with a Canon EOS 6D and a 24-105mm lens. Being an all-round zoom, it allowed me to try some different framings ranging from full-on wideangle to a bit more of a close-up.

Why did this particular picture stand out for you?

I shot like a maniac in between the mesmerised staring sessions. I like this one because although it only shows a fraction of the smoke plume at its base as opposed to my wideangle versions, I feel it gives you a sense of being at the scene. And I like how the helicopter demonstrates the human presence and helps you understand the actual proportion of the fire. It captures man versus nature.

How did it feel to win the Environmental Photographer of the Year competition?

It was surreal, but amazing. This was the first time I’d really entered a photography competition and I don’t think I understood the full dimension of it until I got to the opening ceremony in London. I was stoked only after first hearing my photo had been selected as one of 60 out of a total of 10,000 entries that would be part of an exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society, so winning the whole thing was a big ‘wow’. I took geography and environmental studies at university not knowing how I would channel that knowledge once I graduated, but I think by picking up photography I’ve truly found my path. And winning this award helps to confirm I’m on the right track. It’s like as soon as I started to follow my heart and only focus on what I’m passionate about, things began to fall in place.

Do you think you’ll start entering more competitions? What do you think could be the benefits?

From this experience I would say it’s a great way to get your name out there and get in touch with the right people who could take you further with your goals.

What inspires you to pick up a camera?

Being an avid traveller and outdoors enthusiast, beautiful scenery with and without people in it make up a big part of the photos I take. I’ve done a lot of climbing and skiing photography in the past two years while living in the Canadian Rockies. It’s a place that really inspires me, and coming home after a long day of playing in the mountains, knowing I’ve snapped some amazing photos, is my favourite kind of day – it fills me with so much joy. There’s something special about capturing people in their right elements – passionate people sharing their love for nature and adrenaline. And it’s awesome to be able to encourage others to go out and enjoy the outdoors through my photos as well.

Then, when I’m on the road, I love to capture whatever my eyes find beautiful, be it a moment in a busy market scene or an exotic animal. Also, because of my degree in geography and environmental studies, I realise that I always wear those goggles, and whenever I come across something that demonstrates negative human impact on the landscape I get an urge to reach for my camera and share what I see with the rest of the world. This is the kind of photography that I find most important and what I would like to be a big part of my career; the kind of photography that inspires people and make them want to be part of the solution of the problems we face.
I guess this sort of ‘adventure’ and environmental photography go hand in hand; in order to be able to keep on enjoying those wildly beautiful landscapes that I love so much, we need to protect them.

What do you plan to do next?

I’m still figuring that out. I have spent the past few months in Europe doing some work, but I’m planning to go back to the mountain community in Canada by the end of summer. Then I might go to New Zealand for a while. Along the way, I’m hoping to connect with people with the same interests as me and get involved in some inspiring photography projects.

About Sara Lindström

Sara-headshot

Sara was born and raised in the forests in the far north of Sweden. She picked up the basics of photography while living and studying in South Africa in 2010. Her interest quickly grew into a passion, and over the years her insatiable hunger for new horizons has taken her to more than 50 countries on five continents while chasing light and beauty. See www.saralindstrom photography.com