Letter From Windhoek, Namibia
This first newsletter of 2019 focuses on my work from our recent expedition to South Georgia. Chartering our own DYP vessel represented a big investment but travelling to polar destinations with 100 other passengers is not entirely consistent with our ambitions to garner strong new original content. It is difficult to be original when there are scores of others with identical jackets, making the same landing on a windswept bay. Furthermore, the greater the human footprint, the more marginal our ability to convey the sense of travelling to the edge of the world.
We must - like a small Netflix - invest to deliver visuals that meet our expectations and ambitions. There was a palpable sense of pressure when we left on our 80-hour journey in open seas from the Falklands - we were all there to work, not to cruise. To return from this most extraordinary final frontier empty handed would have been a setback from every perspective, but it was a real possibility if the weather was unkind.
This decision to travel alone and without compromise was ultimately validated as the trip defining photograph was taken shortly after landing on shore at 3.50 am. This would have been very unlikely to have happened on any other expedition vessel. To be in charge was everything.
DYP has come a long way in the last two years and in 2018 alone, over $20m was spent purchasing our limited edition prints and other content. A good percentage of this money goes to philanthropic causes and conservation foundations, but a considerable amount is then reinvested in finely researched projects in which we will look to team up with the very best creative and logistical talent.
In documenting this planet, my vision has always been not only to push boundaries creatively, but also to build toward a position where we can compete with the bigger studios in terms of intellectual capital and - to an extent - resource. I have huge admiration for the work of filming units for the BBC Natural History Department, Nat Geo, Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel and the content they deliver is both transcending and inspiring. They set a high bar, but not one by which to be intimidated.
We often operate in the same locations, but in a different marketplace. Still photography is characterised by over supply, underinvestment and confused business models. In 2019, everyone is a photographer and it shows. Since 2013, we have attacked the opportunity to offer something different and the bedrock of our vision has been to focus on the variables that we can control - the principal two being work ethic and financial investment. Work ethic should be a constant, but, at the margin, we can now show increasing courage in investment.
Of course, we often fail to deliver in our goals - either through misfortune with weather, animal behaviour or imperfect execution. However, over time, as our commitment to research and field support has been upgraded, we have more consistently delivered. We have learnt that the sequence of research, then investment and then execution is, for us, the prescriptive path. There does not really seem any smart alternative.
We recently had an exhibition in a gallery where the limited wall space did not allow for narratives alongside my photographs. It was what it was, but my strong conviction was that this impaired the experience for visitors. A single photograph on a white wall without the background story can leave the viewer in a vacuum. This generation is so visually informed that the “how” is more important than the “what”. I try to tell stories with my images and whilst the viewer has cart blanche to interpret in any way he or she chooses, an accompanying narrative helps them on their way. The more we can immerse ourselves in a story, the more likely it is to retain our attention and maybe touch us emotionally.
For these reasons, we now tend to take a film crew on most of our trips. The trip to South Georgia allowed us to explore this dynamic to the full. The rightly acclaimed Netflix series “Tales by Light” which documents professional photographers on their travels is brilliantly shot and produced. Unfortunately, because I am a Nikon European Ambassador and the series is backed by Canon, I was effectively removed from consideration in the series. In photography, the N word and the C word do not get on.
However, I am friendly with the Australian filmmaker Abraham Joffe - who is the mastermind and cinematographer of the series, and we have been looking at ways to collaborate. We both wanted to start with a special project in a raw and extreme location. East Africa was considered too mainstream and the timing was not right for places like the North Slope of Alaska or Yellowstone. South Georgia immediately seemed the perfect choice and Abe was excited by the idea that we would travel there on our own as opposed to part of a big group.
As it turned out, Abe’s British colleagues - Dom and Louis, were both talented and entertaining additives to the boat and we worked well together. The end product will be released in the first quarter and I look forward to showing it to you all.
It is not that hard to get to this Jurassic Park of an island - though good sea legs and effective ways of killing time on the journey are helpful personal traits. The challenge as a photographer is to know exactly what you are going to do when you get there. The most powerful images tend to do a location justice, but this island is so visually intoxicating that capturing its essence is not something that is achieved without a great deal of cognitive processing.
South Georgia has depth and height - 10,000 ft mountains rise steeply from the shoreline and it is difficult for one vignette to convey all the layers. There is every chance that images - no matter how beautiful and engaging - only tell one half of the story - they either show a sense of place or they home in on detail of the island’s fauna - mostly King Penguins and elephant seals.
In a film or in a portfolio of images there is not such pressure as an aggregation should serve to tell a story, but a killer single shot in isolation will ideally try and achieve both foreground detail and then the contextual narrative behind. It was this goal that I wrestled with during the 11 times we landed. Many a time when I returned to the warmth of the boat and reviewed my latest images, I felt deflated - the majesty and rawness of the place was simply not being conveyed at a level I would have liked.
Fortunately, digital processing allows for an immediate retrospective and as a result concepts and approaches can be refined, it is an iterative process that has at its core a brutal edit. There is no more important discipline for a photographer than an extremely tough personal edit.
The weather inevitably played a role - wind, low cloud, snow and - just occasionally - strong light define the island. One mood can morph into another with such speed that there are never any constants. We arrived with an acceptance that the weather would most probably be against us half of the time and that was about right. In particular flat light and low cloud do little for the backdrops. A photograph in which the artist starts his or her review by saying “it would have been better if ...” is unlikely to reach a level that transcends. That “if ” will not be Krakatoa erupting in the background, or a Serengeti migration, but simply interesting and informative light.
I also learnt on the third day of landings that a strong sun was not as kind as it sounds. We often stop filming in East Africa before breakfast and in South Georgia an unobscured summer sun can be too strong by 6 am. It sounds ridiculous but it is very difficult to photograph the white crested King Penguins two hours after sunrise - there is simply too much glare for the image to have calmness. Of course, there is always the option of backlighting the subject, but that does not lend itself to documenting depth.
It was a cruel irony that low cloud doesn't work, high winds make it impossible to land and yet a beautiful and calm day doesn't help much either. As soon as it became clear to us that the best possible light in which to work was first thing in the morning on a clear day, I took great pleasure in waking everyone up just after 3 am - after all we were there to work not sleep.
I think we all did a decent shift of work in South Georgia and we developed new friendships on board the boat. It is as good a test of someone’s ability with a camera as anywhere I know simply because of the enormity of the visuals presented in front of you and the fact that seals and penguins - no matter how beautiful - are not polar bears. There is no “Cigar” encounter - you have to work with what you have and it is always there. Antarctica and South Georgia are entirely different briefs to the Arctic.
We wish all our readers a wonderful 2019 and we hope that this newsletter will offer a regular and healthy distraction from the uncertainties of today’s world. We do all recognise at DYP the privilege of being able to do what we do.