Exploring the Link Between Melting Glaciers and Mental Health with Michael Schauer

By Grace Farson - 4 min read

Shrouds is the first installment of a personal project by the German photographer Michael Schauer which explores the relationship between glaciers and mental health. We spoke to Michael about this conceptual series and how spending time in the Rhone Glacier in the Swiss Alps inspired him to make this particular body of work.

The Rhone Glacier is an area that attracted Michael to explore a topic that has long interested him. The dying glacier is covered by white sheets, which is an attempt to protect this age-old giant from sun damage as well as greenhouse gases. Covered in sand and soot, the formerly bright white glacier has now turned grey. Today, the sheets laid over this glacier are just as important to glaciology as well as tourism.

For Michael, photography is one attempt to grasp what is happening to glaciers and how it all relates to a much bigger, but equally challenging topic - mental health and more specifically, depression.

How did you first come to find the Rhone Glacier? Can you tell me a little more about what drew you to this location and why you visited?

The glacier only came to my attention in 2017 when I saw the fantastic piece of Fierz Ralph Edward. He also depicted the shrouds covering the glacier and the ice cave in a beautiful, surreal way, but I wanted to give it my personal touch. And, to be honest, his piece lacked a certain kind of heaviness that the issue of deteriorating glaciers and the special landscape created by the canvas has to me.

What have you learned about glacier change and do you think photography is an adequate way to document this?

I am in no way an expert for natural phenomena since I come from a social sciences background, so this is all to be taken with a grain of salt. But what I do know is, that water is a force of incredible impact and beauty which is unique to our planet and age. Glaciers on their own are even more impressive since the ice they are contain is, sometimes, multiple millennia old anddensely compressed. Therefore it becomes blue, really blue. You do not see ice like this anywhere else and it is even more remarkable that this huge body of ice is constantly on the move and that it makes noises while doing so.

Photography of course can help to shed a light on these things and secondly to establish a connection between the subject and the viewer. I would not know about this particular place if I had not seen it in photographs before. Documentation of natural phenomena is also intertwined with documenting the progression of a thing.

“To see two pictures taken at exactly the same spot with ten years in between and seeing that they look radically different - I believe that has the potential to move people.”

Does photography express permanence and/or impermanence? Do you feel that it is an effort to try to make something more permanent, perhaps more tangible?

I personally never limited my photography to just depicting what I see, but rather I aim to also put my own feelings into my work. This was a priority from the day I first picked up a camera in 2014 because I have always used creative outlets including music and writing as a means to come to terms and process my own experiences.

It is not very commonplace to draw a comparison to glaciers and mental health. As I reviewed these images in the series, I was interested in the correlation you have made between these glaciers and in particular depression, as depression is something that affects everyone - either a personal struggle or a loved one in the same way climate change does. Is there any truth to this in this series and can you explain your thought process in making this connection?

You can certainly be for sure that climate change and depression impact a great amount of people. To me, the very need to cover a glacier with canvas, or shrouds, is a way of burying them alive. When I first saw them, I immediately felt this immense sense of grief - I even feel it now, talking about it - and when I visited the place, the stillness and un-realness you feel here is something I only know from saying goodbye or feeling loss.

Depression covers its victims like a shroud, making every interaction, every feeling and experience intangible. It detaches one from life itself so that one does not know what it feels like to be alive anymore. In covering the Rhone Glacier with canvas to protect it, the connection between depression and this very place was immediate and absolute.

“I wanted to see what would come about if I opened myself to the flow of this place.”

In looking through your images and other images of deteriorating glaciers, I am often struck by the fact we do not get time back. And, to your very point the same can be said about depression. Can you speak more on this?

There have been times where I spent my days just blankly staring at a wall, covered in my own shrouds so to speak. I will not get these months back and I do not want them back. But the thing is - this time taught me how fragile a seemingly safe balance is, how people and own thoughts can influence us. Spiraling one into ecstasy - or despair. These times have taught me to take care of myself, be good to myself. Finding joy in photography and finding out I am actually able to communicate through photography certainly helps.

This collection seems different from your other photos of nature and the natural world. Can you speak more to this?

These images are not typically landscape photos in the way of that a beautiful space is often depicted, but rather these are about an occurrence of beauty in a tragic place. In some way, you have to look closer and a relatable scale to further push this concept.

“When I shoot, I let my emotional state, recent memories and things that are in my head at that time guide me in what I shoot and how I shoot.”

It was surely the unique look and feel of a glacier covered with blankets that drew me to this space, but also glaciers in general have something in them that I utterly adore.

“These age-old, slow-moving giants are one of the most powerful forces in nature. When they change, the world changes with them. In my work I want to share this love for the beautiful cold.”

These images tell the story of something beyond just dying glaciers. This is a story of deterioration and asking the question what will remain. Do you think these photographs are a way to preserve them?

Photography in general is a way and a means to preserve and grasp fleeting moments. Therefore you let someone shoot your birth, your prom, your wedding, take photos during every vacation you are on. If you look back at the images is another question but to know they are there is calming in a way.

Why nature and landscape photography for you? What is the greatest challenge and greatest reward in trying to capture the natural world?

I always was fascinated by all the shapes, textures, colors and moods the world has to offer and I want to experience them all. You need to find your own way of capturing what is in front of you to not just to recreate what you’ve always seen. There is a process behind it all and when you make it through the void of reviewing and editing a series of images or even just a single image that you really, really like, it is all worth it.

There is also a reward in trying to do a place justice. It is a great challenge and a great endeavor to capture the essence of a place and not only a nice shot of a mountain with a lake in front of it.

If you want to see more of Michael’s work, visit his EyeEm profile or follow along on his Instagram feed.