Jan Kasl’s ethereal image of kayaker Vavra Hradilek floating upon the psychedelic backdrop of a glacial river flowing into the North Atlantic in Skagafjordur, Iceland, seems like an unlikely winner of a Red Bull-sponsored photo contest garnering more than 120,000 entries from around the world. The energy drink giant usually emphasizes high-adrenaline, action sports in its photographic talent pool.
Kasl’s 2019 Photo Of The Year awarded by the Red Bull Illume contest is the exact opposite: a placid, bird’s eye perspective of a tiny green kayak forcing the viewer to look deeper and appreciate humans’ ultimate frailty in nature. The 31-year-old Czech photographer says his unlikely rendition of peace and serenity is its greatest appeal.
“This shot is totally different from the typical action sports footage,” he notes. “I guess that’s why it stood out.”
Kasl made the image last August, on an adventure mission with his friend Hradilek, a Czech slalom boater who won silver at the London Olympics. Kasl says he’s fascinated by the north, and has been engaged in a long-term project “searching for the roots of kayaking” since he visited Norway’s Lofoten Islands in 2014. It was his first trip to Iceland. Traveling by van with camping gear and creekboats, Kasl admits he was curious and intimidated by working in a cold-water environment with a mind-blowing array of photo opportunities.
“Capturing the [Red Bull award-winning] image itself was the easiest part of the whole process,” he says. “Iceland is such an incredible place, you can go in any direction and you will find a different piece of environmental art. There’s still a lot left to uncover when you explore the island from an overhead perspective.”
Kasl marveled at how the water’s flat surface became textured and colored by sediments when viewed from above. He loved how the currents’ curves matched his composition and emphasized a “magical spectrum of blue.” He captured his best shot on one of the first frames, from an altitude of 1600 feet.“The session continued for about an hour, where we tried some other parts of the river and different angles,” he recalls. “But I already knew I had what I came for.”
“It looks unreal,” Kasl adds. “It’s more like a surrealistic painting. I like the silence and calm mood flowing from the image, and especially the fact this picture is one of those shots you have to stare at for a while to realize what’s going on. Sometimes during busy days, I look at this shot and I wish to be Vavra and escape to this peaceful world.”
Red Bull’s judges concurred, calling the image one that “evokes a sense of adventure, exploring both unknown landscapes and mindscapes. It’s thought-provoking, and yet it’s also peaceful.”
The award signifies the importance of “idea, imagination and creativity” in action-sports photography, insists Kasl. “That’s what makes the difference these days, not equipment.” With this in mind, he encourages photographers to chase their creative dreams and seek out unlikely perspectives. “Don’t be scared to realize your craziest ideas.”
Conor Mihell is an award-winning journalist based in Sault Ste Marie in northern Ontario.
Glacial runoff creates the blue hues, which takes on an opaque appearance due to sediment suspended in the water. | Photo: Jan Kasl