Barnack Awards: Mason revisits whale rescue


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Twenty-seven years ago, photo journalism professor Charles Mason won the Oskar Barnack Award for photography recognizing the relationship between man and environment. This year marked the 36th anniversary of that award and the first time Mason had revisited the awards ceremony since 1989.

Mason looks back on the story that won him the award as a kind of right place, right time situation.

In October of 1988, 3 California Grey Whales were stuck under the ice just off the coast of Barrow.

“This happens occasionally,” Mason said. “The wind shifts overnight and blows all this ice that’s in pieces, together. And any whales that are underneath usually just die because they can’t get air. Well this time, the pieces came together and formed a hole in one spot so these whales were sharing this one breathing hole.”

No one had paid significant attention to the situation until video footage of the whales bobbing up and down in the only available hole in the ice was shot by one of the locals and reached the desk of CNN in New York by way of an Anchorage contact, Mason said.

“The video was shot just out of curiosity,” Mason said. “No one had planned a giant mission to save the whales at this point.”

CNN sent a team to Barrow to cover the event and after putting the footage on the nightly news several times, other news teams began arriving.

“I had come back from grad school in late August and I was the photo editor over at the News Miner at the time,” Mason said. “The News Miner sort of pooh poohed it thinking well this happens all the time, it’s a local story, who cares. I thought no matter what it’s a story, it’s in our back yard, the whole world is there. We should be there.”

Fresh out of graduate school, Mason said he didn’t have $600 to spend on a plane ticketk, but his determination got the best of him.

“In a tizzy, I went to the general manager of the paper and offered to pay my own way as long as I owned the photos afterward,” Mason said. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”

Through more media coverage than anyone expected, the story of the whales became a world wide phenomena.

“It was a whole deal,” Mason said. “Ronald Reagan had somebody calling three times a day to Barrow Search and Rescue. Everybody wanted these whales to survive.”

As the news spread, more companies got involved. Husqvarna donated chainsaws to cut holes the ice. BP and other oil companies sent in giant plumb bobs to try to break the ice. Russia even sent over ice breakers

Mason recalled he was out on the ice taking photos all day. In the evening he would split his film and send half to the Fairbanks Daily New Miner and half to New York, where is photos were then distributed world wide.

Along with winning the Oskar Barnack award that year, Mason also won second place in Nature Series World Wide, had his photos were featured in the Photo of the Year edition of Time magazine as well as an extensive series featured in Life magazine.

“It was really cool being on such a major operation,” Mason said.

This year, Mason was invited back to the awards ceremony along with the other winners to be recognized at the 36th anniversary celebration for their work in photojournalism. This included observing the past 36 years of award winning work as well as meeting the young new photojournalists of today and, in Mason’s case, also spending some much needed alone time.

“I had a great time,” Mason said. “I don’t think I’ve spent a week by myself in 25 years. I certainly came away feeling satisfied.”

For Mason, this story so many years ago was what he referred to as accidental good luck. He was there at the right time.

“When I look back on my life from this point of view, the things that seemed most risky at the time were the ones that paid off,” Mason said. “When you smell a story. it’s worth checking it out. Journalism is objective and all, but the person who makes the time and the effort to cover something makes it their own. Take the risk and follow your gut.”

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