Out of Eden, Journal II — Expect the Unexpected
(Photographs on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are vignettes from the making of Out of Eden, photographed with an iPhone using the Hipstamatic lens/film combination of Jane and Sugar. The main photography will be published in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine).
All-embracing, this story is flowing far less problematic than predicted.
Months ago when first receiving a call regarding the Out of Eden project from National Geographic senior photo editor, Kim Hubbard, initial discussions were not so much on what the photography for this story would be. Rather, the focus of numerous conversations we had were on the near spectacular potential for logistical problem solving and the layers of unpredictability in order to accomplish the story.
The photography was relatively simple; Photograph whatever I wanted. A reportage wrapped around a loose theme of present day Ethiopian/Djiboutian culture and daily life.
Seems like a dream assignment, right?
In many ways, it is.
In equal measure, it’s not.
With such wide visual potential, the photography (its narrative) can become unruly with its endless possibilities.
Remember, a photo essay is about storytelling.
Imagine walking into La Scala holding an empty sheet of music. You’re presented with an entire orchestral quantity of instruments, each needing to be played not only in tuned, but collectively brilliant and coherent, in the end, filling in notes for a meaningful — dare I utter, potent — symphony which 20 million or more will listen to come December.
There is the heightened awareness that I’m not out-and-about walking the streets of Turkey’s capital to produce a feature of present day Istanbul, carnival season in New Orleans nor the stupefying development occurring in Shanghai.
Out of Eden takes place in one of the most inaccessible regions on earth, where one can drive (if the car can hold together) for hours, not seeing anyone nor even much variability in landscape.
This is arena which this symphony must be written in. Equally grand is the concert hall in which the finished concerto will be presented — a magazine that began publishing 125 years ago this month, founded by such exceptional minds as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
I feel as if every National Geographic story is no different than writing symphony. And once ink hits paper, performing it.
Equally interesting, the challenge is relished.
As marveling as this story is, the words my friend in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea once told me (mentioned in Journal I), are resonating in the noggin;
Expect the unexpected.
In planning for eight to ten weeks of nonstop overland travel throughout most of Ethiopia and literally all of the tiny African nation of Djibouti, I’ve had to muster the wisdom of Job — and nearly 30 years of working on complicated stories in over 80 countries — tapping as much extreme foresight as possible; When one thing goes wrong — as they often do — it can cause a chain reaction of problems.
Nearing week three, so far so good.
The photography is flowing very well. Some days are nothing but travel. Other days are overwhelmingly visual. Another day might be untangling unanticipated logistics. All typical events in photojournalism, especially when connected to rigorous travel across multiple countries.
To avoid one my archetypal narratives, here, in list form, is a rundown of what normally — and I do mean, normally — happens while on complex logistical assignments for National Geographic magazine, all which indeed occurred in the last fifteen or more days:
1- First Landcruiser — Ruined front-left break cylinder. In addition, a front shock absorber literally ripped off it’s mount. Both were destroyed due to extreme road/terrain conditions. While the driver limping the vehicle back to Addis Ababa, I rode in Paul Salopek’s car — and at times, Paleoathropologist Tim White’s Landcruiser — while a replacement Landcruiser was driven up from Addis on or about day seven with a new driver.
2- Second Landcruiser — this replacement could have been Fred Flintstones automobile for all I cared. Just so long as it was strong, able to handle this astonishing Afar terrain, keeping me on course for this story. Fortunately, it was an extremely strong car, however overall this replacement looked and drove like a beaten Russian Lada. In addition, the new driver, though a nice fellow, was an incessant whinier, driving me berserk.
3- Thorns — This second Landcruiser could at least drive almost anywhere due to it’s strength. However, by day eight or nine, we had a series of blown tires caused by the all-pervasive, 2 inch (5cm) long thorns of the woyane bush (the Procopis plant). These thorns are so strong, they can piece most tires. The woyane bush had been brought into Ethiopia from South America decades back in a misguided attempt to stop erosion in the Afar region. Now, this invasive species has spread in such prolific ways that just in the last two to three years the woyane bush is so thick, it creates an impenetrable barrier, causes us to drive sometimes 5-10 miles (8-16 kilometers) just to get around the densely packed growth — and there are no road where we’re traveling, making the drive to circumvent a journey and significant time loss.
4- Third Landcruiser — Avoiding the potential for more car trouble, I went back to Addis, personally choosing a third and this time decent Landcruiser. The driver, Melesse, is patient, professional, willing to push his car to extremes…and he doesn’t whine.
5- Permits — To travel and work in remote Afari villages of Ethiopia (off of well-known travel paths like the road to the Erta Ale volcano, a popular tourist vista to ogle), you need special documentation. Not just from the Ethiopian government but additional paperwork from a regional administration office in Afar which oversees local affairs. Due to misspelling a towns name in Amharic script (the misspelling turned the villages name into town which is not even in the Afar area), we needed to update this special Afar travel permit, taking two-days in drive time to sort.
6- Electricity — Traveling in areas with zero access to electricity (forget even having access to water for bathing) means the need for electricity is supreme to charge the cacophony of power-thirsty items in tow:
Thuraya satellite phone
Bgan satellite internet
4-mobile phones (drivers, translators, mine and at times even a forth phone belonging to a local Afar guide)
Electrical necessity was especially true one fine morning a few days back — the car battery labored like an overburden donkey to start the Landcruiser. What I had been harboring in the recesses of the cranium was about to take place — using the power inverters (turning 12v into 120v) would soon destroy the car’s battery, stranding us for what could be days, even weeks, in area which truly could be called The Middle of Nowhere. After tracking down an overpriced generator manufactured in China, we were good to go. Or so I thought — that brand-less small generator has already ruined two power adapters. Yesterday, we found a voltage stabilizer. From years of experience living in Asia with terribly unstable electricity, we now (should) indeed be sorted with a third layer of stable power potential, backed up with cigarette lighter charger and the power inverter (to be used sparingly).
By the way, if you ever want to make loads of new friends, carry this mini-nuclear power station in the back of your car, arrive to a village that has no electricity…and where everyone seems to have your discarded (vintage?) 2002 Nokia phone at a battery level of 5 percent!
7- Unexpected — I received a call from National Geographic on around day 5 of Out of Eden, requesting an additional photograph of Paul, walking with his camels, for another story National Geographic is publishing in either June or July (not for Out of Eden, rather, something else). Out of Eden will appear in the December 2013 issue and has and editing/layout deadline for sometime in July, four months after returning Stateside. This added photograph had to be accomplished far sooner — lightning fast by National Geographic standards; By end of this month. More so, it must be both different and brilliant — you know it has to be when the Editor in Chief, Chris John, speaks to you for 10 minutes via the satellite phone on the importance of this very specific photograph.
Even in semi-normal circumstances this would be simple photograph to achieve. In the Afar region, it’s not. Here is why:
a: Original Plan – This story (the photography), Out of Eden, was never going to be about Paul. Rather, I was to meander, muse, go adrift (my favorite part about these types of stories) anywhere in Afar, moseying along a non-ascertained trajectory beginning in Herto, Ethiopia, arriving 8-10 weeks thereafter (overland) to Djibouti City, Djibouti. I was only going to follow Paul on the beginning of his walk while my support vehicle positioned itself ahead in a village 5-10 miles (8-12k) away, reconnecting with all my supplies in 1-2 days. In this Landcruiser is a near Dave Matthews Band concert level of cables and whatnot to keep everything charged and working.
The support vehicle also contains complete camping gear for 3-4 people (Yonas, my translator/friend, driver, myself and at times a local Afar guide), food, water, and most important —7 lbs (3kg) of the finest Ethiopian coffee. We were to reconnect in Djibouti City, the end of the first leg in his seven year walk from Herto to Tierra del Fuego, the tip of South America. This was the plan, the logistical and infrastructure objective to make one meaningful — and yes, hopefully brilliant — image of Paul leaving the origins of our collective humanities migration out of a very small, extremely remote, village known as Herto. With this unexpected call requesting a second — completely different —image of Paul walking, the dynamics (plan) had to change. Rapidly.
b: Logistics – It takes time to sort camels as a mode of transport. One doesn’t walk up to a camel owner saying: “Hi, would you like to walk with me as your camel carries 300 lbs (136kg) of kit over truly fascinating yet inhospitable terrain, leaving your family, farm and livelihood for the next month?” With Paul Salopek’s camels already laded with the supplies for him and his guide, I could only trouble them to carry my camera bag and a tent. This plan worked, albeit for two days of walking.
c: Weather — Paul’s emergence out of Herto didn’t take him through truly epic landscapes. Also, it was overcast, which helps in reducing the Afar heat, however it also reduces the potential for stunning visuals unless a flock of pterodactyl were to fly through the grey sky — and that ain’t gonna to happen. Even so, I was able to make a beginning step with a meaningful photograph of Paul starting his walk for either the main Out of Eden story that will appear in the December issue or for this special request for the June or July issue. Still, I needed one more photograph of Paul journeying.
d: Sprinting — Can’t say I often photograph camel caravans. Yes, I have photographed camel markets. Even ridden a few members of the humped-back family, however I’ve never had to follow on foot a camel walking for any great distance. Camels walk in long strides — three steps for every four human steps. This means walking at a decent clip, requiring constant running in order to be ahead of Paul or else repeatedly photograph him from behind or from the side. After hours of walking, even in overcast Afar, the physical effort of chasing forward to photograph grew impossible after a few kilometers. There had to be a better solution.
e: Inaccessible — With camels, Paul can travel over any and all terrain. More so, Paul is indeed walking on ancient camel trails. Most, if not all, completely impenetrable even via Landcruiser. Now, after a week or so apart, I will reconnect today with Paul in Afar (for security reasons I am not mentioning town names) where we’ll work out the potential path of his next few days journey, in turn drive (and walk) far enough ahead of him to photograph his arrival, and then passing, as Paul walks through — with flowing levels of serendipitous optimism — epic landscapes. This should be the potent means of making this second photograph of Paul.
The importance of sharing the above is not for my friends and colleagues, most of whom have dealt with similar circumstances. Rather, this is to share with those of you who intend one day to do such genre of photography and the fascinating realism of what to expect, which is always that of the unexpected.
Here with the truth about what it’s like working on a National Geographic assignment:
As involving as some of these events have been — cars, paperwork, a constant dance to solve logistical land travel, chasing ahead of Paul, power supply…not to mention incessant level of bugs, extreme heat, 8+ days in the same clothing with no access to bath, lunch and dinner being tibs, tibs and more tibs (tibs is goat meat) — all of this is completely normal. In fact, within the scope of what is involved in such a story, all these events have been minor.
As candid as possible — if events were not going as they have, I’d be concerned.
And other than missing my family back on the farm in the Berkshires, I couldn’t be more delighted or enthralled with the visual progress (and journey) so far.
Now the reality when producing any involving/layered story; It’s 99 percent problem solving and 1 percent photography, all wrapped around a heaping scoop of serendipity.
Growing up in Nassau in the 1970′s, each morning, me and my classmates would sing the Bahamian National Anthem. A part of that anthem always resonates whenever a hurdle rears its head:
“Forward, Upward, Onward, Together”
As week three rounds the bend, I’ve often caught myself humming those words, relishing in what resides ahead, knowing that the resplendence of this story is always present, cloaked in a heavy layer of fascinating orchestration and spectacular moments of visual brilliance, knowing this assignment will continue the grandeur of expecting the unexpected.
All the best from the Afar region of Ethiopia,