There’s off the beaten path, and then there’s really off the beaten path. That’s where you’ll often find Colorado-based photographer Beth Wald. The winner of the 2006 Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure and numerous other accolades brings back images of remote areas of the globe, ranging from Afghanistan to the Arctic. Conservation of our resources—both human and geophysical—is at the heart of her work. While she began her career shooting mostly sports-adventure photography, especially climbing, now she focuses on people and places that are outside of the traditional news media’s vision.
Wald shares her vision with aide organizations and magazines, including National Geographic, Time and Smithsonian, and through workshops and seminars, including the United Nations Environment Programme.
Outdoor Photographer: By the assignments you choose, you obviously want to send a message about conservation.
Beth Wald: My photography right now is focused on the connections between humans and nature and landscape. Over the years, I’ve tipped from the sports-adventure side of photography to the more reflective and environmental side.
Outdoor Photographer: What caused the transition?
Wald: I started out shooting as a climber and using photography as a way to keep climbing; that shifted. It’s gone full circle because I studied plant ecology and environmental science when I was in college. I always stayed interested in that even while I was pursuing the more adventurous stuff. As you mature as a photographer, you want to do something so your body of work has some meaning. I think it’s important to try and zoom in on whatever you feel is important, regardless of what that something is. I’ve found ways to use my photography for environmental causes through organizations such as LightHawk.
Outdoor Photographer: What sort of work do they do?
Wald: They’re a group of pilots documenting environmental issues such as clear-cutting, which is best seen from the air. I volunteered and helped them out with imagery. These days, probably 70 percent of the projects that I generate or that I’m assigned are either cultural or environmental. The more adventure stuff has become 30 percent.
Many of the stories I’ve done have combined a bit of the two, adventure and the environment. I did a project for Skiing Magazine last year that was on ski mountaineers who were doing relief work in Pakistan. It’s in the adventure world, but with a more serious aspect.
Wald: I was never a great climber myself, but I got my start as a photographer in the mid-’80s by photographing other people climbing. Mountaineering came first, then photography. There are a lot of people out there with cameras, but you have to put a lot of work into it—looking ahead, setting ropes, getting to the right position at the right time of day; you have to forget about climbing yourself.
The first story I had published in National Geographic was on a rock-climbing expedition to Halong Bay in Vietnam. I spent a month photographing climbers scaling limestone towers that had never been climbed before.
Wald: The award is about giving back to the places where you’ve been working. It’s not limited just to photography, it’s open to all artists, but you have to be nominated. I submitted my Afghanistan work, which I thought had an element that explains something about the world, enlightens people’s perspectives and is a story that brings attention to a cause. The work in Afghanistan is some of my strongest and is most in the tradition of Galen Rowell—landscape, environment, adventure and culture.
Outdoor Photographer: How was working in Afghanistan?
Wald: I did projects there in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In 2002, I went there on a project for Smithsonian Magazine. The story focused on what’s left of the great places in Afghanistan. It was somewhat architectural—the monuments, the mosques—but also showed the diversity of culture in the country.
While I was there, I also did a story for Sierra Magazine—an overview of the environmental status in Afghanistan after years of war. That work led to a project I did in 2004 and 2005 with wildlife biologist Dr. George Schaller, one of the top conservation biologists of our time. He wanted to do a wildlife survey in the Wakhan Corridor, a tiny strip of land that sticks out in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. We put together an expedition that was funded by National Geographic. [George Schaller has worked for more than thirty years with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), another group that helped fund the expedition in the Wakhan Corridor. Visit www.wcs.org.]
Outdoor Photographer: In what type of wildlife was he interested?
Wald: Dr. Schaller wanted to learn the numbers and range of the wild Marco Polo sheep, a magnificent species he had studied in the surrounding countries—Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. The missing link in his research was Afghanistan. He has been working to help create a four-country, international Peace Park, which will protect the Marco Polo sheep and other species in the area and create opportunities for sustainable development for the local communities.
Our journey took us over two months from trailhead to trailhead as we explored on foot, on horse and yak nearly every corner of this region. There has only been a handful of scientists, travelers and mountaineers who have ever set foot in this area in the last hundred
or so years.
Outdoor Photographer: Afghanistan has never been the safest place to travel, but after 9/11 it became even dicier.
Wald: Ninety-five percent of the coverage about Afghanistan we get is all about the war. While that’s incredibly important, it’s also important to know more about the country. There are multitudes of languages and ethnic groups in the country, as well as mountains, forests and wildlife. The diciest part was getting to the area where we were to do this wildlife survey. Once you’re in the Wakhan, it’s pretty safe. It’s remote and has never been a front line of battle. It's above 12,000 feet with just small tribes living there. I went back with Dr. Schaller to the Tajik side of the border in 2005 to do more wildlife photography, then back into this area to do more cultural work.
Outdoor Photographer: How did the remoteness affect your equipment?
Wald: On those trips, I was predigital, but even if I had been shooting digital, I’d still have shot film on this particular assignment. We were off the road for two months. I don’t have the experience to keep digital equipment charged for that long. There were a couple of times when we had five days of snow with no sun. If you’re using solar panels to generate electricity, that’s a big problem. We had a satellite phone and a little video camera, and just keeping those charged was challenging.
I had one Nikon F5, three Nikon F100s and a Nikon F3, which I often carry as my ultimate backup. The wear and tear on the equipment is tremendous; we were traveling on yaks and horses, and there are no roads.
Outdoor Photographer: What kind of lenses were you working with?
Wald: I had a set of Nikkor lenses—a 17-35mm, a 24-85mm, a 35-70mm, an 80-200mm and a 300mm. Since we were out doing a wildlife survey, I also had a 500mm ƒ/4 AF-S Nikkor and a 600mm ƒ/4 AF-S Nikkor. The Marco Polo sheep were extremely shy, and since there are no trees in the landscape of the Pamirs, it’s really hard to sneak up on them. I also brought a doubler, a tripod and a Nikon Speedlight.
Outdoor Photographer: You work in low light with that flash to give a feeling of ambient light, but with a more workable shutter speed and ƒ-stop. What's your technique?
Wald: I use the Nikon Speedlight on an SC-17 cord quite a bit in various low-light situations. The nomads live in yurts, which are a little too dark to shoot in; they’re lit with lantern light or candlelight. I duct-taped a warming gel on the strobe and held it off to the side where the lantern light was coming from so it looked like they were lit by the lantern. I used Fujichrome 400 often, which looked really good. I was also shooting Fujichrome Provia and Velvia slide film.
Outdoor Photographer: You’re shooting digital, too. What about gear? Wald: I have a Nikon D2x, a D200 and I just got the D80 to try out. I used the 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 AF VR Zoom Nikkor lens in Argentina last September, which was great for shooting on the fly.
Outdoor Photographer: What sort of work are you doing in Argentina?
Wald: I’ve been going mostly to Patagonia in Argentina and Chile. I’ve been inspired by the dramatic landscapes and skyscapes there. I've also documented logging, overgrazing, desertification, oil and gas development, and I’ve donated many of these images to organizations working to protect the wild places down there, particularly Defensores del Bosque, La Fundacion, and Conservacion Patagonica. I’ve also been doing a personal project in black-and-white on the life of the gauchos, the horsemen of Patagonia. I always wanted to be a cowgirl.
Outdoor Photographer: Why black-and-white for this particular project?
Wald: It seemed to fit the dusty, gritty nature of the landscape and it pulled it out of time. It’s like stepping back a hundred years when you’re there. I don’t see this particular body of work as strictly documentary. I think it’s somewhat more romantic, expressive; the black-and-white gives it a more timeless feel.
Outdoor Photographer: How can photography make a positive impact on society and aid conservation efforts?
Wald: There are many ways that it can. It can bring the beauty of a place to people. Yosemite was preserved largely because of the photography that was done there in the 1860s. Photography brought that spectacular landscape to people who might never have had the opportunity to see it in person. It’s vital to create that awareness. Think of how those great big landscape photographs impacted how we think of the United States. Of course, the camera can document destruction as well.
Probably one of the most important environmental photographs ever taken was of the Earth by the astronauts. We can see how incredibly beautiful it is, how small it is and how fragile it is. We can come to the realization that this is our home, there’s nowhere else to go.
To see more of Beth Wald’s photography, visit her website at www.bethwaldphotography.com.