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Assignment Vietnam

A snapshot sparks an idea

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.

I also packed an entire digital editing facility of two laptops and multiple external hard drives with backup power should the power on the boat die (which it did). Since we’d review and organize thousands of digital photos on computers during the shoot, I brought along my digital photo assistant, John Burcham. John is savvy about everything digital, and he’s also a climber and a veteran of many expeditions. Besides overseeing digital photo management, John worked as my climbing rigger. Other non-climbing members on this expedition included an art director, two producers, a Nikon technical advisor, a local logistics fixer, a translator who we discovered spoke excellent Vietnamese but little English and the boat captain and his crew of four. It was a small group given the job we set out to do in one week.

Typically on an expedition, especially a climbing trip to a foreign destination, I’d be concerned about traveling with a group that I had never traveled and worked with before. But this expedition had a specific goal, and Beth did an excellent job in unifying the team despite the daily stress of living on a rat-infested boat, eating greasy food and dealing with the unrelenting heat.

The photo that Nikon chose for the print ad was selected from thousands of photos I shot of Beth in dozens of situations during the week in Vietnam. The photo was simply one of the many remarkable moments on the trip and was captured through a process similar to my other documentary photo shoots.

Beth had spent an afternoon on the second day photographing Rolando and Brittany on a steeply overhanging tower. Early in the day, Rolando climbed the tower wall to check the quality of the steel bolts that decay rapidly in the ocean environment. When he started up the rope to perform the safety check, I was wading in the water below the climb scouting various photo angles. From the water, I saw Rolando swing 20 feet out from the belay on the rope and begin his ascent of the rope. I took a quick series of photos of Rolando. In reviewing the photo a short while later on my digital camera back, I knew that I could alter the composition slightly for a similar photo of Beth.

I knew that when Beth completed her shoot on this cliff, she’d rappel back to the belay and that would be the moment I could capture. But I’d have to wait until Beth completed her shoot with the climbers. In the meantime, I photographed Beth from many angles as she photographed Brittany and Rolando ascending the tower. With the climbing shoot over, Beth began her rappel back down the rope, and I had already positioned myself near the belay with Rolando in anticipation of Beth’s return to the belay. The sun angle had changed since I photographed Rolando, making Beth almost backlit by the sun. I called to John, who was standing in chest-deep water, to direct a LumiQuest reflector disc on Beth as she swung back to the belay. I had waited all day for this shot, and with the waiting over and my camera firing at 6 fps and John tracking Beth with the reflector, it was only a matter of proper composition to nail the shot for the ad.

Visit Bill Hatcher’s website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.