Filming Worlds Apart

An interview with filmmaker-photographer Jason Van Bruggen

Jason van Bruggen is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker based in Canada. His lens has previously captured an incredible Adventure Canada journey through the Northwest Passage. We are thrilled to share Jason’s latest cinematic poem featuring AC staffer and author-explorer James Raffan, and caught up with him to ask some questions about his craft.


Adventure Canada: Jason, what draws you to the wilderness as a filmmaker?

Jason Van Bruggen: Our wilderness is an endlessly fascinating subject to me. Not only for its beauty, but also for the opportunities it provides us in terms of learning and reflection. As we enter an age of scarcity and climate change, these opportunities become more precarious. As a visual artist, I have a role to play in conserving wild places and encouraging an appreciation for them in others. Not only for their visual interest but for their profound importance. My passion for wilderness locations is decades old and predates my current role as a filmmaker and photographer. My current career choice was informed by a passion for wild places rather than the other way around. A fascination with intrepid travel has spanned my whole life. Growing up, I spent my summers on unsupported canoe trips in the Canadian backcountry, which is probably at the root of it. I have worked in the most remote and austere locations on the planet ranging from the Tibetan Himalaya to the deserts of Iraq, and spent time wandering around in well over a hundred countries. Wilderness travel and exploration have been profoundly formative and continue to provide me with boundless inspiration.

AC: What extra considerations does a filmmaker have to make when shooting in remote locations like the Arctic? How did you prepare? What is the hardest part about shooting in cold weather?

JVB: There are many, many additional considerations that go into shooting in remote locations, especially when travelling with a sophisticated equipment package. Preparation involves fastidious attention to detail, starting with the planning stages. You need to be ready for contingency, for equipment failure (total or partial) and have backups of all the essentials. The hardest parts about shooting in cold weather are pretty obvious—keeping yourself warm, keeping your batteries warm, and keeping your equipment running are always crucial.  

AC: Is there anything in particular that makes a shooting location special? What do you look for when gathering footage?

JVB: The light. The fleeting point of confluence at which light, topography, and activity all meet is what yields magic.

AC: Wildlife is notoriously hard to shoot. Is there anything you take into consideration to help get the perfect shot?

JVB: First off, I don’t think I have gotten the perfect shot. In my view, the best way to capture wildlife is to research where you might find the fauna you are looking for, identify a target location, and then spend time there. I prefer to wait in one place and get to know it intimately; this allows me to develop an understanding of where the best opportunities exist. This enables me to find the best light and, hopefully, understand the habits and interests of the animals I am shooting. Observing animals candidly, without disturbing them, is always the most rewarding. That being said, you can do everything right and walk away without a single shot. It’s a crap-shoot like that, especially in landscapes as vast and changeable as the Arctic.

AC: What was the most challenging shot in this most recent project?

JVB: Many individual shots had their challenges, but I think the most delicate part of this project was trying to strike a balance between a number of competing priorities. At the end of the day, this is a piece to promote Arctic travel on behalf of Adventure Canada. It is also a portrait of a friend of mine, and one that I wanted to make candid without being overly revealing. Like many of the stories that I imagine and film, I wanted this to be honest and to steer away from a clichéed interpretation of the North, exploration, and wilderness travel.

AC: Part of what makes your northern films and images so striking is the haunting, subdued palate. Can you comment on how you achieve such a vivid representation of local colour?

JVB: I try and represent on film what I feel when I am in the North. The Arctic, as it lives in my memory, is not an overtly colourful place. It is an eerily beautiful place, though. I see a great deal of photography which feels like it stretches the boundaries of credible human experience in the Arctic. While there are flashes of brilliant colour on many of my Arctic voyages, my emotional memory of the Arctic on most days is reflected in my colour treatment of both still and moving images.

AC: How would you describe the experience of working with Adventure Canada?

JVB: I love these guys. It’s a family-run business with tremendous purchase in the communities we visit and huge respect for the part of the world in which they travel. Those relationships have taken decades to build, and aren’t something that can be bought. The resource staff aboard the AC vessels keep coming back, year after year, for the same reasons that I do—we get to work with great people in amazing places.

AC: What is your dream shoot? Somewhere you haven’t been, and always wanted to?

JVB: Tough question. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to a lot , and get to a lot of ‘bucket list’ destinations. I want to continue to explore the most compelling and hard to get to pieces of wilderness in Canada, and around the world. If I had to narrow it down, I would say all of National Parks in Canada that I haven’t been to yet.

AC: Thanks very much, Jason!

JVB: Thank you!


Jason’s work is focussed on depicting North American wilderness, including the Far North in a manner that is authentic and narrative—building new interpretations of these landscapes. Favouring travel that brings him in direct contact with the frontier and those who inhabit it, Jason’s immersive work seeks to explore these emerging landscapes and capture the vulnerability of the ecosystems and the people who live within them, illuminating a tension between the strength and fragility of the region; the age-old resolve to survive, and the current intention to thrive in places where scarcity fosters incredible ingenuity, resilience, and hospitality. Visit his portfolio online for more information.

All photos courtesy of Jason Van Bruggen.

The Labrador Revelation

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Margaret Atwood scans the coast of Labrador, looking for birds and bears

What does Margaret Atwood know about Labrador that the rest of us should?

Having visited The Big Land several times aboard Adventure Canada voyages, the author of The Labrador Fiasco has had the unusual experience of having seen this extraordinary region of Canada first hand. With her keen eyes, the veteran birder and traveller is a valued addition to the wildlife-spotting team aboard the Ocean Endeavour.

Many Canadians, if they think of Labrador at all, think of it as a backwater of the already-distant province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

But Atwood and her fellow voyagers know that Labrador has a unique culture and diverse history all its own. Numerous First Peoples made their homes here in a rich history dating back thousands of years. Thule, Maritime Archaic, and paleoeskimo artifacts abound. Ramah chert from this ‘remote’ region was traded widely across eastern North America. Today, the region is home to Inuit, concentrated on the coastal region, with Innu communities at Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet.

Viking explorers reached these shores, which they called Markland, by 1000 AD. They were the first of the European visitors. Red Bay, Canada’s newest UNESCO world heritage site, was home to a Basque whaling station through the 1500s that comprised the New World’s first export industry.

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Adventure Canada geologist David Bathe and explorer Milbry Polk in Red Bay

Portuguese, Spaniards, English and French all plied the Labrador Sea for whale and fish. Later came Moravian missionaries from Germany, whose abandoned outposts now dot the coast. The resettlement of the people of Hebron and other missions is a painful chapter in Labrador history. Medical missionary Wilfrid Grenfell’s humanitarian work drew volunteers from around the world, and sent many Labradorians for training abroad.

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Remains of the abandoned Moravian mission at Hebron, Labrador

Today’s visitors to the Labrador coast are often shocked to realize the scale of Labrador: 294,330 sq km, more than twice the area of Newfoundland. And much of that is rugged mountain coastline, where the human spirit is humbled by geography rendered sublime.

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The Ocean Endeavour in Eclipse Harbour, Nunatsiavut, Labrador

A mere one percent of Labrador is developed. The region’s largest city has fewer than 10,000 citizens. There are few roads in the south, and none in the north.

Ships and boats are still the best way—often the only way—to visit the extraordinary locations that dot the virtually unpopulated coastline along the Labrador Sea.

Yet the biggest thing about The Big Land is the people. Hardy, thoughtful, hard-working, and welcoming, the people of Nunatsiavut are survivors—there are many hard stories here—whose hardship has not hardened their hearts.

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Brass band welcome, Nain, Labrador

From the brass band playing from the wharf in Nain, to the bear guard scanning the landscape of Nachvak Fiord, to the culturalist revisiting her abandoned home at Hebron, to the grandfather welcoming his toddler granddaughter from Toronto, the people of the Labrador coast show themselves at every turn to be the most welcoming of hosts.

Among a myriad of surprises and aha! moments, that’s the Labrador revelation. Perhaps that’s what keeps travellers like Ms. Atwood coming back time and again.

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Exploring Torngat Mountains National Park by Zodiac

Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Adventure Canada present , June 29-July 11, 2016.

All photographs by David Newland.

Expedition to the End of the World

It’s one thing to travel; it’s another thing to travel without a specific destination in mind. It’s still another thing to travel to where few—if any—have gone before.

Expedition to the End of the World, from Danish writer-director Daniel Dencik chronicles such a journey, one that has an immediate appeal to Arctic travellers. The scenery, shot on the ice-choked Greenlandic coast, is achingly beautiful. But this film subverts the ‘nature film’ genre, creating not so much a portrait of a journey, or of a place, but of a late Western state of mind.

The premise is simple: a multi-national group of artists and scientists sets sail aboard an old wooden schooner for fjords along the northeast coast of Greenland, newly accessible due to climate change. That should be a straightforward story to tell. But there’s a catch: while exploration is the obvious purpose, the real goal of the expedition is shrouded in mystery.

ExpeditionToTheEndOfTheWorldHow many are aboard? We never get a clear picture. Where are they actually going? Somewhere up the coast of Greenland. How long are they at sea? We don’t know. How did they come together? Again, we don’t know. Most importantly, what are their motivations?

This last question is the key to the film’s hidden heart. Through a series of vignettes featuring individual artists, scientists, and ship’s crew, we learn that each traveller is really on his or her own, unique journey.

Amid genuine moments of discovery—potential new species of tiny sea creatures; evidence of human habitation revealed by retreating ice—there are quiet scenes beneath pristine mountain ranges, surrounded by looming ice, cruising through limpid waters. And silly moments, too: a scientist trying to wrestle a salmon bare-handed; the launching of a flying Zodiac, quotes from Futurama. The film veers from unnerving, to hilarious, to breathtaking, in bathetic lurches, just as the soundtrack jumps from Mozart to Metallica.

Ship of destiny, or ship of fools? This truly is an expedition ‘to the end of the world’—not just to the polar region, but to the edge of our own knowledge about the world, and, with the looming threat of climate change, perhaps of the world itself.

The symbol is too compelling to ignore: what are we all but passengers aboard a single ship, sailing for parts unknown, with no real goal in mind…and no clue what happens next?

Yet the journey, for all its unsettling moments, is a sublime one; the characters are so compelling, the landscape so beautiful, and the story so compellingly told, that we must conclude that it has been worthwhile.

And that perhaps, as with Expedition to the End of the Earth, it will all come out well somehow in the end.

Visit the coast of Greenland on these amazing Adventure Canada voyages:

Heart of the Arctic 2015
Arctic Explorer 2015
Into the Northwest Passage 2015
Out of the Northwest Passage 2015
Greenland & Wild Labrador 2016
Heart of the Arctic 2016
Arctic Safari 2016
Arctic Explorer 2016
Into the Northwest Passage 2016
Out of the Northwest Passage 2016