All photographers have been in tough spots: The camera misfires as the receiver catches the ball, or some idiot steps in front of you just as the president hugs the intern. It's the old story of the Shot That Got Away. Adventure travel photographers can trump those stories — in spades.
Picture yourself around a table with four accomplished—OK, famous—photographers. You're at one of those tropical open-air bars, buying rounds. It's late. Here come the stories.
Hanging by a thread
Mountaineering photographer Gordon Wiltsie has been climbing for 30 years, so he was a natural choice for National Geographic to send to Baffin Island, Canada, in the early summer of 1998 to record the efforts of the world's best mountaineers on one of the planet's toughest climbs.
"It was one of the biggest, hardest and most aesthetic rock climbs done at the time," the Bozeman, Mont.-based photographer recalls, "and also the northernmost ‘big wall' climb at the time." They were headed for Great Sail Peak in the fjords of Baffin Island, north of the Arctic Circle.
The expedition included some of the world's best mountaineers: Jared Ogden, Mark Synnott and the late Alex Lowe.
Wiltsie had two methods of taking pictures of the expedition: jumping — the preferred method — or the dreaded "bipod."
"It's very complicated to set up, and it took me a long time. It's suspended via ropes, fixed to a rock anchor 100 feet above. It's got telescoping legs. I get onto the end of the bipod on another rope that's hanging off the end and, using rope climbing and descending tools, move up and down to get unusual perspectives.
"It was extremely frightening, not because it's way, way — at least 1,500 feet — straight down. And you're out front of the wall, so if that bipod collapses it's the same as falling 10 or 15 feet to the ground as you smash into the wall. But I kept spinning around on the rope, and I had very little control of the direction I was pointed. Plus it was raining, kind of miserable at the time. But it was worth it — the shot was definitely worth it." His photograph of the climbers bivouacked in tents hanging off the side of the cliff ran in National Geographic's January 1999 issue.
"But I wanted an unusual angle on [Alex Lowe] rather than using the bipod. I wanted a different angle, looking straight in at the climber just as I was looking at the tents. The only way to do it was to jump." He made himself a human pendulum, secured to the rock face above. "The problem with jumping is, I have very little control over what my body is doing. I have to shoot really fast, very high shutter speed, and I come rocketing back into the cliff at a high rate of speed, with the danger that I hit Alex, which would definitely knock him off." He would land maybe 2 feet from his subject. "Meanwhile, I'm using a really wide lens, a 15mm lens, and my feet kept getting into the picture, or my shadow, or the rope that was hanging beneath me. I could never predict what was coming in, and as I was out at the end of the pendulum I didn't have enough time."
Nowhere to hide
"It's an ancient tradition that goes back to the eleventh century of these salt camel caravans going from an ancient salt mine 500 miles north of Timbuktu in the Sahara," says Aspen, Colo.-based photographer Chris Rainier, warming up for his tale. "A group of camel herders and camels journey for 14 days into the desert and go to this gritty, photogenic salt mine."
Rainier and adventure writer Tim Cahill followed the Toulenni salt mine path, on assignment for Outside magazine.
"The exciting spin was that we quickly got wind that there was a group of bandits after us, and our ingenious Italian guide — who's lived in this area for 20 years and crossed the Sahara with stolen vehicles for years and years — came up with the plan that instead of running away from the bandits, we'd walk right into their camp and say, ‘Why don't you be our protection.' This hare-brained scheme actually worked."
In the desert, he said, "People know for miles around that you're there, and it would have been only a matter of time until we got held up. We made it out alive and experienced one of the professions that was unchanged since the eleventh century." (Not banditry — salt caravanning.)
"The photograph is of one of the traditional camelherders, or camel leaders. This was on a particularly precarious day. We had been searching for days and days for a camel caravan, and we knew the bandits were coming after us. All of our guides were quite freaked out.
"I saw this caravan and I had to photograph it; it was just too spectacular coming across the desert," he recalls. "There were a fair number of Italians in the group, and they were quite upset that I wanted to stop. …The Italians were screaming, ‘We've got children! We've got wives!' But it was such a great moment, and I wasn't sure if I'd see another camel caravan. I thought we'd have to get out of there or we'd get killed. … I ran out and got one shot, then had to jump in the car."
A walk in the park
"I was at Amboseli National Park to shoot the state of wildlife in game parks," says Bozeman, Mont.-based photographer Brian Vikander. The German magazine Stern had sent him to Kenya. "We were on our way back to our tented camp where we spent the night. There was an elephant making a direct line and altering its line to come directly at the jeep that we were in.
"I had an 800mm lens on him, following him in." Vikander was standing in the back of the Land Rover, his head through the game hatch. "You start off, he's one-third of the frame, and he kept getting bigger in the frame as he got closer. With the big lens I had on, you could tell he had that musk — the secretion that comes on. They get into that ‘must' thing where they go a little bit crazy, and you could see the heavy secretions dripping down the side of his head. I realized he was inside the minimum focus of this lens, which is 32 feet, so I came out of the lens and just watched him come in. It was the only lens out; I didn't have any other cameras out.
"The driver of the vehicle, watching him come inside of 20 feet, started getting concerned. He flooded the vehicle, couldn't get it started. As the elephant got to the vehicle, his ears got pinned back and his trunk came up, and he reared back on his back legs, came up and brought all of his weight down and smashed the front end of the vehicle. The jeep really rocked. “The back end came up — perhaps we were off the ground, maybe we weren't, but it felt like we had hit a teeter-totter.
"My driver was terrified. He was screaming in Swahili. I was screaming in English.
"The elephant backed off, did the ear wagging and trumpeting, then veered off. He had taken care of the threat — whatever was there — and created a bunch of new threats for Awoka, my driver and me." They were five miles from their camp, and it was getting dark. They had no weapons, which are forbidden in the park. They had no radio. They began to walk.
"I was terrified to have to walk in the park back to camp. Awoka probably knew where we were going, but I had no clue. It was like the first time you go camping, where every noise is the Sasquatch or a bear. Here we had two of the most deadly snakes in the world, lions and tigers who like to hunt at night, hyenas." They reached the camp with no encounters and went back the next day for the destroyed vehicle and camera gear.
Aid and comfort?
Seattle photographer Fred Housel, working for the aid organization CARE, experienced a different kind of hostile encounter.
"This is outside the town of Kuito, Angola, a country that essentially has been engaged in civil war for the last 25 years. I was there in 1998. We were there to document CARE's effort to both keep the remaining populace alive and to mitigate the dangers of land mines.
"This particular area had seen some heavy, heavy fighting. We had been visiting a refugee camp nearby where CARE delivers care and clothing. We had been told about a ruin nearby where soldiers came with a vestigial memory that there had been a hospital there, but there were no services. So we were traveling in a small caravan of two or three pickup trucks with the CARE logo on them and CARE flags flying from the antennas, and we pulled in." He thought CARE would be recognized and welcomed.
"So many scenes in Angola are stunning because they are so photogenic. This particular courtyard got my attention, so as soon as I got out of the pickup I started to snap pictures. Immediately I was surrounded by a crowd of angry men — angry men who used to kill people for a living.
"Normally I will ask people first if I can take their picture, as a courtesy. My Portuguese, which is what they speak in Angola, is cursory at best. I did my best to defuse the situation, which had a hostile air, by explaining that we were there to help as much as we could, and were certainly not there to annoy or antagonize anybody. There was a quasi-military structure there, and there was a leader who came forward.
He told the angry soldiers that "it is through photos that we communicate the plight of Angola to the rest of the world," and "if they were willing, I would be honored if they would let me take photographs. After that, there was a serious desire to show me how they were living in this totally bombed-out, shot-up ruin.
"Besides the fact that it's very dramatic, with bullet holes and wounds, there was a sort of piteous quality of these men waiting for help that was never coming. As if one day doctors and nurses would drive up and it would be a hospital again, which it would never be. That was . . . one of the few incidents traveling with CARE where I felt my life was in danger."