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Many photographers are inveterate risk takers, often going to unfathomable lengths for a great shot, and sometimes, in the process, treading a thin line between safety and common sense. Curious to hear the stories behind such daring efforts, we asked photographers Mike Arzt, Art Wolfe, Arthur Morris, Jeff Cable, Michael Clark, Don Smith, and Paul Moon to recount their experiences in cheating death for a photograph.
In each of the following narratives, Don Smith’s comment about the critical importance of listening to your inner voice rings true. Perhaps even more valuable as a takeaway, however, is Smith’s advice at the end of his tale, suggesting, “I somehow need to find the volume switch on mine, before it’s too late.”
Do you have a story (or image) to share about cheating death for a photograph? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.
Above photograph © Mike Arzt
I don’t consider myself risk [condoning] or risk averse; it is more of a risk-acknowledgement type mindset. There are photographers who put themselves much more in harm’s way than I do, and I have a massive appreciation for what they do. When it comes to working in mountain terrain to create the type of imagery we do, it is a team effort. We are working with athletes, guides, helicopter pilots, and an assortment of other folks, all watching each other’s backs. The mountains are completely unpredictable and a life force of their own. The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.
We talk about risks, we study the snow and the weather and we talk about contingency plans should something go astray. We know that there is a huge difference between being on-slope shooting photos versus being at the bottom in a safe zone or shooting from the helicopter. As a ski/snowboard photographer, being on-slope is one of the bigger risks. Should the athlete trigger an avalanche, you are not only down-slope but also standing still. Momentum can be a saving grace for escaping a slide, since the rider can take a 45-degree route and work to clear out of the way of the sliding snow.
Left to right: Sunrise behind Annapurna on our final morning in Nepal. Seth Wescott, one of the best and most winning big mountain riders. It’s hard not to shoot endless images of such an amazing feat of human engineering as this helicopter. A few weeks later it was running endless humanitarian missions in the aftermath of the earthquake. Such massive mountains leaves a lot up to the athlete for picking a safe, rewarding, fun, and beautiful way down. Rob Kingwill and Seth Wescott deciding what’s next on the agenda—so many options! Cameras: Nikon D810 and D4; Lenses: Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8; Nikkor 200-400mm f/4; Nikkor 80-200mm f/2.8
Last year, things got rowdy on our shoot in Nepal’s Annapurna region before we even got there. A Turkish Airlines Airbus slid off the runway, effectively closing down air traffic in and out of the country. No one was hurt, but it took days for them to move the plane. There’s nothing like looking out the window at a crashed plane on arrival. Our next obstacle was battling the streets and traffic. To be honest, I think traffic accidents seem like the biggest threat in many areas of the world.
Once we finally made it to Annapurna we knew the snowpack was not super stable and that a human-triggered slide had almost resulted in a burial the week before. Even more snow had fallen since then, so we were on high alert.
It’s hard to explain all the thoughts going through my head as we battled a tight window of time and weather to get the job done. You quickly go from thinking about the best shot, exposure, and lens, to thinking about being on-slope and where you might be safe. Then, 20 minutes later, you’re sitting out the side of a helicopter with a safety tether and nothing but 2000' of Nepalese air under your feet. I would generally have two camera bodies with different lenses in hand, with more lenses close by. While this is the photographer aspect of the work, you also need to be ready as a first responder should the athletes need help. Our ski boots are on, skis are on board and we also carry a full kit of avalanche locating and recovery gear. You watch friends doing amazing things on the slopes below, and hope to capture the moment in a way that shows both beauty and respect for the feats they accomplish, all while knowing they are counting on you.
On another facet of Annapurna, we watched an avalanche that was probably as big as some of the mountains in my home state of Colorado. We watched it for minutes. It was so huge, the snow dust cloud it created made us call the helicopter and tell them to lift out of the valley. The mountains speak to us, sometimes very loudly.
In the end, we flew out of Annapurna with completely exhausted camera batteries and six percent fuel remaining, but with a completely intact group that could slap high-fives and feel good about all the decisions we made.
I have kids and I do not take risk lightly. At the same time, I want them to see me pursuing my dreams, creating amazing images, and not letting fear control my decisions. As a very wise friend often says, “Going to the mountains is an option, coming home is not.”
Two weeks after we left Nepal, a huge earthquake hit. Go figure. If we had tried to guess at the biggest risks, we’d probably be wrong every time.
I nearly got killed in Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National Park, along with my assistant and two guides. I was working on a book called The Living Wild, and I wanted to include a photo of the world’s second largest sub-species of rhino, the Indian or greater one-horned rhinoceros. They’re 7 feet at the shoulder and weigh nearly 5,000 pounds. These rhinos are extraordinarily aggressive toward humans because of a history of trophy hunting by the ruling classes, and now poaching. In the 1960s, there were only 95 rhinos left in the area, and now there are more than 500. The only defense for a threatened rhino is to charge and gore its assailant. While we were walking in the tall grass looking for these not-so-gentle giants, overconfidence got the best of me. We misjudged our distance from this particular individual, who reacted to the sound of the camera shutter and charged. A well-positioned banyan tree proved to be our haven and we quickly retreated behind its barrier of aboveground roots. Swinging its massive head, the rhino trapped us until it realized we were not a threat and wandered off. Had it not been that type of tree, the rhino would have pulverized us. Unfortunately, I was only carrying my telephoto lens, so I was unable to make any photos while we were held captive in the banyan roots. I am definitely wiser for the experience, which I would call a badge of stupidity rather than honor. I have since traveled back to the park to photograph the rhinos and other wildlife safely.
We photographers can go to great lengths to capture images and, a few days ago, I admittedly almost went too far! Gary Hart and I had taken our workshop group to the Grand Canyon’s north rim for a sunset shoot at Cape Royal, an incredible location I’ve photographed numerous times. As the sun began to lower, I made my rounds checking on our workshop participants. Then I decided to check out a site I had not tried before.
I spotted some yellow wildflowers and tried working a low-angle composition, with the day’s last light skimming the Canyon’s prominent features. It was a nice image, but I challenged myself to find something else. As I looked, the setting sun dropped under a bank of clouds and cast its warm light on the north-facing side of Wotan’s Throne. I immediately knew that I wanted to capture that light, but I wanted a foreground element. I spotted a beautiful Cliffrose bush, rooted literally 2 feet from the edge of a 2,000-foot vertical cliff. Fortunately, heights have never bothered me, but the path to the bush was over broken white Kaibab shale on a down-facing slope. I was wearing new Merrill hiking boots and figured if I used my tripod as a walking stick and leaned into the side of the hill, I could slowly make my way down the slope. I had to make up my mind quickly before the light faded off of Wotan, so I told myself, “If you start to slip, fall into the hill and grab onto the backside of the chaparral bush (seen in the image above).”
All went as planned and I made my way down to the Cliffrose. The light held, the wind died down, and I made my image standing on a level portion of the shale, literally 3 feet from the Canyon wall. Then I needed to get back up the slope. After thinking through my process for the best exit route, I began my way back up the Kaibab shale—the same way I came down. But as I neared the top of the slope, my right foot slipped out from under me. I remember instinctively throwing all of my weight onto my left leg and then pushing off as hard as I could. Fortunately my foot held firm. Two steps later, with my pulse racing and adrenaline coursing through my body, I made it to level ground.
Then the realization of what almost happened hit me and I decided it was time to sit down and say a prayer of thanks. I glanced back down the slope and realized I had made a very poor decision. If my left foot had slipped, there was nothing to grasp onto and I would surely have slid to my death. What bothers me most was the realization that this was not the first time I’ve made a poor decision when trying to make an image. It’s almost as if I go into a reactionary mode and damn the consequences. I’ve been lucky a number of times, but sooner or later my luck can—and surely will—run out. We all have a certain level of comfort when we are out in nature, and we all need to listen to our inner voice. I’m hoping you will listen to your inner voice and not risk your life chasing an image. I somehow need to find the volume switch on mine, before it’s too late.
Volcán Pacaya is an active volcano in Guatemala’s Escuintla department, near Antigua and Guatemala City. Although the volcano was dormant for more than a century, it erupted in 1965 and hasn't stopped since. As recently as 2006, increased eruptions resulted in the formation of a lava river (as seen in my visuals). When capturing stills and video about 1 foot from a lava stream, the heat was so intense that I could only hold the camera up for about two seconds before suffering burns. I had to turn away regularly to avoid getting scorched.
That isn't necessarily unheard of, but the big story happened within a few days of my departure, when Guatemala suffered one of its worst natural disasters in history. On May 27, 2010, the volcano blew its top and sent ashes all over the country, causing severe damage and loss of life. This could have happened at any moment during my shoot.
After returning home, I made a video of the lava flow, which went very viral (nearly 174,000 views to date). When you search for volcano (especially Pacaya) on YouTube, this link is among the first results you’ll find.
I retained my reactions to the scorching heat as harsh cuts in the video edit—at once stylized and truthful—or comical, if the idea of getting sizzled makes you giggle. This is a great example of the virtues that "flow" from ultra-portable/run-and-gun film equipment, like the Sony DSC-HX5V I used to shoot this footage. I decided to post this, in fact, because numerous visitors to my other test footage on YouTube asked to see daylight examples using the highest bitrate available in the camera. So here it is, shot in AVCHD 1920 x 1080 at 60 fps interlaced (interpolated here to 30 fps progressive) at a 17 Mbps bitrate. For dramatic effect, my one post-production process is the use of Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks, a suite of color saturation/contrast/diffusion/gradient effects that make the footage look more "cinematic."
Lastly, I was contacted by the Smithsonian Institution, which had seen my video and was inquiring about the geographic coordinates of the views I captured. The eruption completely demolished the volcano’s original contours, so my footage became priceless scientific information for a project to reconstruct what the volcano had looked like. I was able to use the GPS position metadata in my photographs and videos to provide precise geo-coördinates and angles of view, which became a big contribution to scientific study that I hadn't planned.
See more data and pictures from Paul Moon’s adventure in the full Smithsonian report.
To learn more about the photographers who contributed to this article, click on their names below.