(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,
January 25, 2013 1 Comment
Rarely do I travel with more than one piece of check-in luggage.
Maximum, one medium-sized rolling bag containing a few changes of clothing, loads of underwear, socks and a tube of toothpaste — airport security does not like such items anymore in carryon luggage.
Thanks, Richard Reid…AKA, The Shoe Bomber.
All minimalism is out with the bathwater on this latest story for National Geographic.
Three bags — two mega, the other my normal checkin — went into the cargo hold of two planes, as I traveling from the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to Ethiopia where they now rest beside me in a 5th floor room of a three-star hotel in this sublime nations capital.
It has taken months of planning for this assignment — illuminatingly titled, Out of Eden — to prepare for every sublet nuance this project may throw; Eight to ten weeks, traveling overland from discovered remains of our first human ancestors in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia — literally where each of our brothers and sisters walked out of Africa 60,000 years ago, populating this astonishing planet we can only call home — meandering across deserts, mountains, ravines, depressions and villages, till I reach Djibouti City, Djibouti, sometime in March.
Like New York City, the Djiboutans named it twice.
For those following this story on my Facebook page, Twitter or on Instagram, you might be wondering why I’m carrying so much kit compared to my colleague, superb human, Pulitzer Prize winning writer (twice), National Geographic Fellow and official walker for the Out of Eden, Paul Salopek?
I know my dearest of friends, Gary Knight, has been wondering.
Simple — Paul has seven years to walk from our ancestors remains till reaching Tierra del Fuego — and for this first part of Out of Eden, as long as he needs — totting I believe nothing more than a few changes of clothing, pens, notepads, a laptop, sat phone, solar charger, sleeping gear and other minimal bits and pieces, doing so at least from Afar to Djibouti City with a camel Paul purchased last week who will carry most of these items…including water and basic food stuffs (will be meeting up with Paul tomorrow evening to actually witness what he’s fully carrying).
Encumbered — I’m carry more bobbles and bits which require electricity than a small village might demand in a week, not to mention camping gear for a translator, driver and myself.
Yes, I’m traveling in a car.
Here is why:
Gone are the days when a photographer on a National Geographic story only needed a backpack to carry clothing, a few hundred rolls of film and a camera bag with cameras that only required little more than two watch-sized batteries to operate its metering for weeks on end.
The rest was manual — and we liked it.
With everything gone digital, we now tote a substantial collection of gizmos and contraptions, each requiring their own special cable, a virtual tangled bowl of spaghetti noodles and clamoring hunks of electrical plastic meatballs, the whole lot demanding power. All this nonsense is needed (along with portable 120/220 electricity) or else cease being able to take photographs within 1-2 days.
As much as traveling on camel back may seem romantic, Yonas Abiye (super talented journalist with The Reporter newspaper), a driver (gifted with memory retention of a pasta strainer, I’ve tragically forgotten his name post brief meeting today) and myself will make this journey starting near Mille (pronounced phonetically as Mill-ay), in the Afar region of Ethiopia, to the border with Djibouti, in a grayish-blue toned 2008 4×4 Toyota Land Cruiser.
Even if I didn’t have this triple sherpa load of whatnot to carry, here is why I’m driving:
This story, Out of Eden, is not about Paul.
Rather, it’s a story about our collective humanities migration out of Africa to where we each live today.
Therefore, I will not be following in Paul’s footsteps.
In fact I plan to get completely lost, zigzagging in all direction, photographing a reportage piece on the society, culture, landscapes and truly anything and everything which comes my way, illustrating what this part of the world, and its people, are doing today.
Come sometime likely in early March — communucating with Paul periodically via satellite phone — I will meet up with him as he arrives in Djibouti City.
Wonderfully expressed once by a Highlander friend in Papua New Guinea while on another National Geographic story a few years back — sharing with her how unexpected and wildly magical everything kept occurring while in country — she uttered in a marvelously dry tone:
“Expect the unexpected, John”.
With only a few hours remaining in this somewhat unaired room — for a $150 a night hotel, it oddly lacks an air conditioner nor any understandable means to open a window — I thought it might be interesting to start the journals of this journey with some insight regarding what I’m carrying in this anomalous matching set of Eagle Creek bags and their trusty sidekick, the always toting ThinkTank Airport camera roller.
While Monk’s Dream plays from this MacBook Pro speakers (richly expanded on these already brilliant Retina display speakers using the app, DPS…a must have plugin for iTunes — wowy!) here’s The Kit for part one of Out of Eden:
NOTE: IF CURIOUS, CLICK ON THIS ABOVE IMAGE WHICH HAS EACH ITEM LABELED, THEN REFER TO THE DETAILS BELOW
1- Eagle Creek Load Warrior 25 inch roller — This bag contains all clothing for two or more months:
(The first two clothing items have been The Uniform for the last 10 years while on assignments, all the same color — kaki tan pants, dark green shirts, and surprisingly holding up extremely well)
REI light weather pants — three
REI light weather long sleeve shirts — five
Shorts — one
T-shirts — two
Sleeping t-shirt — one
Sleeping shorts — one
Underwear — ten
Dress Shirt — one
Jeans — one
2- Eagle Creek duffle — Empty, stored in main luggage for when needed
3- Eagle Creek Gear Warrior Wheeled Duffel 36 in roller — two, used for carrying most of that crap you see on the floor
4- Cliff & Luna Bars — 73 white chocolate macadamia nut power powers…breakfast for the next two months
5- Medical Kit — Containing more meds, bandages and whatnot than
6- iPhone Camera Cable — Supported through a Kickstarter project, Trigger Happy (not my favorite name for this — remember, cameras don’t shoot anything. They take in light. Only guns shoot) is something I’ve yet to use. hopefully it works
7- Reading Glasses — Five sets, in case loosing one, two or more — a habit I’ve been able to master over the years until discovering they were already on top of my head or crushed in a pocket
8- Toiletries — Hand sanitizer, toothpastes, a hair tie…I’m a minimalist
9- Multi-Plug Adapter
10- 120-volt cigarette lighter power supply
11- Camera towel
12- Various headlamps
13- My tent
14- Driver/translators tent
15- Reusable Twists — Various sizes of heavy-duty twisties. Hang about anything, anywhere
16- Bathing Soaps — These are amazing anti-mosquito repellent soaps that contain citronella. Found them years ago while passing through the Johannesburg airport while working on the National Geographic story, Malaria. Picked up an entire box. Unfortunately, these are the last three bars. Sure hope I route through South Africa again soon
17- Bug Repellent Cream
18- Muti-purpose Tool
19- Lamps — Battery power, they put out gobs of light
21- Ground Tarp — Small tent
22- Sunscreen Mozzie Repellant
23- Ground Tarp — Large tent
24- Mosquito Spray — 100% DEET (malaria country where we’re going)
25- ThinkTank Airport Roller — Have had this amazing (and I mean AMAZING) roller carry-on camera case for over 7 years. It’s been through more airports, up/down more stairs, tossed, dropped and careened across floors, rocks and deserts more times than can be counted in memory. Besides a touch bit of the rubber on the wheels fraying, this bag from ThinkTank keeps on going strong. Here’s what’s inside:
Canon 5D Mark III — two
24 1.4 lens
35 1.4 lens
50 1.2 lens
Battery Charges — two
Batteries — four
ThinkTank — A small Retrospective model shoulder bag. This is where a few of the lenses go when out and about. The rest stays in the roller, taken out when needed
26- Inflatable Pillow — Brookstone blow up felt neck pillow (for plane travel)
27- Clothing — Paint/shirts
28- Collapsible Chair — REI has a super-nify foldable chair. This will be seriously used when waiting about in remote areas for the light to get brilliant
29- Stuff — Sharpies, international drivers license, medical vaccine card, passport sized photos, more hair ties and in the envelope, NGM’s amazing Dazzler letter of introduction
30- Map/Guidebook — Lonely Planets guide to Ethiopa and detailed maps of Ethiopia and Djibouti
31- Flash Cardholder — Deputy Director of Photography, Ken Geiger, was kind enough to give me one of the new NGM ThinkTank flashcard holders when I was in DC a few weeks ago for the Out of Eden story prep. They are being given away to National Geographic photographers at next weeks seminar, which unfortunately I’ll be missing this event — sorry for blowing the surprise
32- Clothing — A few more pants/shirts, haphazardly placed on the floor rather than in the other clothing pile
33- USB Cigarette Lighter Charger
34- World Map
35- NGM Luggage Tags
36- Water Bags — To protect kit in case it rains and as backup laundry bags
37- Sleeping Bag — Small
38- Sleeping Bag — Larger
40- NG Hat — Gift for someone along the trip
41- Hammock Ties
42- Mosquito Net
43- Mosquito Net
44- Power Inverters — Two 300volt models that turns 12volt car battery power into 120volt power. To be used to charge a MacBook Pro, camera batteries, sat phone, iPhone, etc
46- Multi-Plug Adapter — Two more for a total of three
47- Belt — Special type…
48- Small Bag
50- Mesh Bag
51- French Press Coffeemaker — THE most important piece of the kit
52- Shelters — Three Kelty 3×3 meter shelters to protect driver, translator and myself from the harsh Afar desert sun while waiting for good light
53- Waterproof Zipper Bags — To hold all the various loose items seen here
54- Small Bag
56- Inflatable Pillow
57- Self-Inflating Mattress
58- Satellite Phone — Thuraya. Including a Thuraya Wifi Hotspot box, allowing to wirelessly connect all communication items to the internet from any location
59- Hiking Shoes
60- Canon Cigarette Lighter Battery Charger Kit
61- Hardrives — Two, 2TB Western Digital USB3, which will make transferring photographs off cards and into Aperture each day an extremely quick task
This is The Kit, which will (should) sustain most if not all needs for the next two or more months while driving throughout more than half of Ethiopia and all of Djibouti — yes, Gary, I’m driving, not walking nor with a camel because tomorrow I pick up the LaMarzocco expresso machine and generator…
Hope the peering into my bags — bags which received more Likes on Facebook than likely any photo of just bags have ever receive — was informative.
4 hours till Yonas Abiye and the driver arrive at the hotel for the 10+ hour drive to the Afar region to meet Paul.
And satellite phone is still not working. Sure hope Thuraya in Dubai sorts this soonest or this might be the one and only journal from the trip. . .
All my best,
January 6, 2013 Comments Off