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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Assignment Vietnam

A snapshot sparks an idea

This Article Features Photo Zoom
Photo Adventure: Vietnam World-class climber Rolando Garibotti, Halong Bay, northeastern Vietnam
The worst season to visit southeastern Asia, specifically if you want to explore and climb northern Vietnam’s spectacular karst limestone towers, is in the middle of summer. The summer temperatures have an uncanny ability to match the daytime humidity that averages 95%. That’s unless a summer monsoon inundates the region. Then it’s best to run for your life, especially if you happen to be moored in Halong Bay in a slow Chinese barge. I had photographed climbing in Halong Bay before, but I had been there in the cooler months of December and January. Last summer, not heeding my own best advice, I followed a team of climbers to Halong Bay for a photo shoot into some of the worst climbing conditions imaginable. But I wasn’t there to shoot the rock climbing.

Our boat-based climbing expedition already had spent several days on the steamy waters of Halong Bay in the South China Sea and, to our relief, the monsoons seemed to be in remission. Onboard this expedition were world-class climbers Brittany Griffith and Rolando Garibotti, two accomplished climbers who can be credited with thousands of climbing ascents around the world. The climbers had been anticipating this trip for weeks, so despite the heat, the climbers had already ascended many stunning climbs. I had been shooting hundreds and hundreds of photos, but I had yet to shoot a single climbing photo of Brittany or Rolando plying their gymnastic skills on the steep cliffs. My camera wasn’t pointed at the climbers, but was pointed at pro photographer Beth Wald, who was the climbing photographer and the leader of this expedition. This climbing expedition, real in every sense, was a commercial advertising shoot, and I was there to shoot a print ad featuring Beth.

The client, Nikon, hired me to document three Nikon pro photographers in three locations around the world. Those three photographers were commissioned by Nikon to produce a remarkable original photo in a location of their choice. The locations the other two photographers chose to make their photos were in Alaska and Minnesota. The weather window for shooting in Alaska and Minnesota was restricted to the warmest season. That left Beth no choice but to take her climbing expedition into the heat of the Vietnam summer. This Vietnam assignment was unique for an advertising shoot because it was a real climbing expedition with all of the logistical difficulties of a real adventure. I was hired as a photojournalist to document the effort Beth went through to make her photos. Typically on expeditions, I’m the only photographer, but in photographing Beth I found this assignment to be a little different from other documentary-style shoots I’ve done.

The biggest difference for this commercial shoot was the gear. I traveled to Vietnam with an atypical mountain of gear to ensure I’d have equipment and backups at hand for any photo eventuality or disaster. The preplanning and logistics of this trip were the same as on any photography expedition, and I prepared ahead of time as if I was shooting the climbers themselves. I’d be ready for anything, with hundreds of feet of rope, climbing harnesses, rope ascenders, helmets and other climbing and rigging gear. When Beth rappelled off a cliff to shoot the climbers, I’d rappel with her. I often joked with her that she didn’t have to pay any mind to me as I was just the paparazzi shadowing the celebrity.


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