On The Edge

Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge series on public television has brought the intrepid nature photographer to some of the most rare and exotic places and cultures in the world
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on the edge
Elephant seal pups toy with Art Wolfe and his camera, South Georgia Island in the Atlantic Ocean.

I began exploring the world as a kid in West Seattle, mounting expeditions into the woods behind my parents’ house. Even then, I wanted to keep going, to see what was over the next ridge or beyond Puget Sound. Later, camera in hand, I devoted myself to climbing in the North Cascades.

My life changed when I was invited to be the photographer for the Ultima Thule Expedition to the Tibetan side of Mount Everest in 1984, years before the mountain was tamed by commercial guides and lattes became available at base camp. I encountered people who had never seen Westerners before, photographed mountains of incomprehensible scale, caught glimpses of rare wildlife. I resolved to spend my life wandering the planet to capture images of the wild world.

When I decided to expand my brief to include television as well as stills, Travels to the Edge was born. I thought my experience as a photographer would hold me in good stead, but I discovered I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Let me share some lessons I’ve learned.

on the edge
Buddhist monks meditate in ceremonial garb.

What’s Happening?
We seldom speak the local language. It’s easy to offend without knowing it. In southeastern Asia, it’s rude to show the bottom of your feet. In other places the OK sign means…something else. Some events remain a mystery.

We visited a Surma tribe in the wilds of Ethiopia. Members of neighboring tribes engage in ritualized stick fighting called donga. Participants can end up bloody, broken or dead as they demonstrate their manhood for all to see. Alcohol plays a role. It’s sort of like a football game, with similar passions being raised. Ethiopian regular soldiers armed with AK-47s maintain order. We shot the action, and as it subsided, our handlers hustled us off the field of battle like heads of state under attack and shoved us into our vehicles. We never knew what threat, if any, they saw.

I know this sounds like whining, and I’m very good at that when called upon, but the benefits far outweigh the trials. The universe rewards our attention and our faith with magic moments, and we’ve experienced more than our share of arresting landscapes, wildlife and people.

on the edge
The Monte Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre mountains in the difficult weather of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap in South America.

On a rocky prominence in Patagonia, we hiked hoping to photograph a condor but found only empty sky. Then, at the summit, one condor and another and another soared around us, circling, passing close enough for us to hear their wings tearing the air, the sound of ripping cloth. Later, on the same trip, we hiked and skied to the west side of Cerro Torre on the Patagonian Ice Cap. Patagonia is renowned for brutal weather, and even in fine weather, clouds build up in the afternoon. On our only day in position, we were blessed with pink light on the high, snow-fringed peaks. Within days, 100-mile-an-hour winds would scour the ice cap, and snow would stream off the spires like vapor trails, but we were granted that moment.

On South Georgia Island, my favorite location on the planet, I was photographing elephant seal pups inches from my wide-angle lens. I had to wipe away nose prints. One affectionate fellow crawled up on my back uninvited, assuming a position that could be used as evidence in a divorce proceeding as I spoke to our cameraman.

Another Ethiopian tribe, the Karo, dance after sunset during a harvest festival. We didn’t get the best footage, but after shooting, I downloaded the images to my computer and ran an impromptu slideshow. All the children in the village crowed around me, eager to see themselves on the screen. Except for the unfamiliar patter, I could have been with a group of kids anywhere in the world.

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on the edge
Another demonstration of tenacity, Wolfe shows a little of what his day-to-day life is like on location.

We started down this path with an eye toward opening a window to the world. The experience has reinforced what I already knew. I knew we lived on a beautiful planet, but I’m still astonished almost daily by what I find. Wildlife always has delighted me, but the adaptations found across the phyla are often unbelievably elegant or odd. We’re in the midst of the largest great extinction in 65 million years, and it tears my heart out even as I record the wonders I find.

on the edge
Competitive and violent stick fighting is a demonstration of manhood in many Surma tribes in Ethiopia, Africa.

Equally importantly, I can see and feel that all peoples are the same under the skin. A mother living in a leaf shelter in the Congo wants the same for her child as the mother in Malibu—shelter, food and clothing, only with fewer brand-name labels. The barriers between us are matters of assumptions, habit and groundless fear. I hope our show can help bind us together in some small measure.

Who Needs Sleep?
Every day, we get up before dawn to get in position for the first shot. For the rest of the day, we click off our shot list, succeeding if conditions permit, flailing around if they don’t. We often keep shooting into full darkness. Then, back at the hotel or camp, we download and argue about what we could have done better or should do tomorrow. We crawl into bed late, and seconds later, the alarm rings. By the end of the trip, everyone has the thousand-yard stare, and we look like extras in Apocalypse Now.

on the edge
A people’s “town hall meeting” in the Great Indian Desert

Still Photography And Video Are Different!
For 30 years, I shot alone or with an assistant, moving quickly and responding instantly to the opportunities I saw. Now I feel like I have a cannon ball fixed to my ankle. When I see something, I need to bring two cameramen, a guide and an assistant to film me shooting. My productivity as a photographer has suffered, which can frustrate me and lead to the occasional blowup. I calm down when I remember that the team is trying to create the best program possible and that browbeating them is neither productive nor fair. I like to think of my immature outbursts as displays of artistic temperament.

on the edge
Osprey in Baja California, Mexico

We’re about to embark on Season Three. We’ll visit the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, accept an invitation to a Kayapo village deep in the Amazon and film Sudan’s wildlife migration, rumored to rival that of the Serengeti. We’ll also go to Yellowstone in both winter and summer, a place that we tend to take for granted, but is one of the wonders of the world. The crew, lashing me to be better, will make sure we produce the best shows we can in the face of the unexpected. I look forward to being exhausted and exultant, often at the same time.

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Getting The Show Made
on the edge
Art Wolfe shares a slideshow with Buddhist monks.

I have two seasons shooting my public television program Art Wolfe’s Travels to the Edge under my belt. My team and I have packed a lifetime into those two years. We’ve learned a lot.

You don’t get rich on public television. For each show, they pay us…wait for it…nothing. Even so, I’m grateful to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) for embracing the show, providing the platform to launch it into almost every market in America, with international markets coming on board quickly. Producing T2E isn’t cheap. Without generous contributions from Canon, the Rich Media Group at Microsoft and Conservation International, our show would be called Travels to West Seattle.

With OPB and our sponsors’ leap of faith, we started to plan and shoot episodes in the far corners of the globe. We worked in the Sahara and the Himalaya, Australia and Antarctica, in the crush of a Hindu festival and on uninhabited islands.

Things don’t always run smoothly on the road. They say you learn from your mistakes. If so, I’m becoming a savant.

To see more of Art Wolfe’s photography, visit www.artwolfe.com. To learn more about the Travels to the Edge series, visit www.travelstotheedge.com.