Vignettes

Here are snapshots of what we encounter as photographers “in the field” for National Geographic.

You can see how this happens… the media here is really slap dash and has an anti American/west bias… then this news gets passed thru the countryside as if they were using tin cans with string.  But we have the same slant to our news—Saddam Hussein always looks like Hitler in our papers.  But in Sudan and Pakistan there he is in the papers beaming as he opens new schools and hospitals.

Along with the writer, I was in ongoing gunfire in the aftermath of the Urumqi, China riots in 2009. I was also detained by police and held for several hours and grilled with questions. They repeated over and over that I was lying. Last summer in Mongolia while riding horses in a rough place in the forest—lots of mud, uneven ground, and steep slopes—the horse ridden by my boyfriend, who was along to record audio, tripped, fell into a ditch, and flipped over with my boyfriend on his back and his foot stuck in the stirrup. It was a close call and very scary situation since help was not accessible from there. Cell service and roads were several hours away.

I got Meningitis (most likely) from a kid I handed candy to in Niger in 2005. Luckily it was two days before I flew home so I got to spend a week in a U.S. hospital. I was also bit by a solifuge overnight in the Sahara and lost feeling in right foot for 6 months. On our 2005 expedition, we got stuck sleeping outside in Niamey, Niger. Eight people got Malaria including a pregnant woman and myself. Our team in 2006 took a bus from Agadez to Niamey to go home and the driver drove too fast and rolled the bus. Team injuries included a broken back, broken arms, broken toes, concussions, and lots of severe bruises and cuts. The expedition team I was on got robbed by 5 guys with guns, who slashed the tires of our trucks and stole a great deal. It was in the middle of the Sahara Desert and was over financial and tribal issues . . . also a driver rolled a Land Rover that dislocated a team member’s shoulder.

During our assignment in Slovakia in 1984, we were watched by the secret police at all times, so in order to stay sane we decided to work and live as if nothing was wrong. Our bilingual 5-year-old daughter Tara, a confident child who quickly managed to learn some Slovak, traveled with us. One day, while vising an old painter who lived in a great baroque structure belonging to a town church, we heard a hard knocking on his doors. Tara rushed to open and the spooks told our host they knew what we were up to, and if he let us photograph his bedroom with its iron bed, gray blanket and a bouquet of flowers he will lose his old age pension: such a picture in NGM would show Slovakia as a poor and barbaric place.  Later, while leaving Slovakia on our way to Austria and traversing the kilometer of no man’s land stretching between high razor wire fences with gun turrets towering above, we both let out a primeval scream of relief, releasing the tension of being under constant surveillance for several months.

I dive with the same dangerous rebreather unit that killed Wes Skyles. I use this unit under the sea ice where I can remain for over an hour. The average diver might get hypothermia in under 40 minutes.

On my second National Geographic assignment I was swept down a flooded river in Borneo. A rapid held me under water so long that I thought, “well this is it, it is all over now…” I escaped the river but was lost most of the night in the rain forest. My assistant and I staggered into camp at 1 am covered with leaches, and this was only the first week of a 2 month assignment. Stephen Alvarez

I pulled people off of a drifting pan of ice. I coincidentally have drifted out to sea on a pan of ice but was rescued by my Inuit guide.

For me things are not so bad financially. But I don’t have a family at this point. And I have very low overhead living abroad in the ghetto part of town in a two-room apartment. That’s how I make it work, for better or worse.

Benjamin, recently saw people digging in the cracks for durra, sorghum—little bits of it that fell in from the last food drop in February.  I am staring at an open can of tuna—starving—and can’t believe I forgot a spoon.  MedAir is no help—a spoon is way too exotic here. So I dish the tuna out of the can with my fingers and go off to meet commander George Athoor.   It is another half hour’s walk to his compound. Distances are always given in hours for walking and you double the time for Americans.  It is hard for a military commander to have presence when the only raw materials at your disposal are sticks and straw but George achieves it any way.  Multiple armed guards have been alerted and I am ushered into a huge straw walled area with one chair in the middle.  George is sitting in the chair—regal in his thatch Castle.  He is like everyone I’ve met here in southern Sudan—honest and dignified.  I tell him I want to show how his people are suffering—He wants to know some general information about my dealings in the north and it is just that simple—I start to work. 

A drunk who thought I worked for the CIA threatened me at gunpoint in a Louisiana parking lot. In Lebanon I was stopped at gunpoint by a 14-year-old with a rifle who tore the photo out of my passport. While photographing an explosion my helicopter was hit by debris and we had to make an emergency landing.

We were stuck for 13 days in our wet pup tent (with our very wet pup) in nasty freezing temps and constant drizzle enveloping the Arctic Coast in the fall.  All food was gone, so we gathered berries and mushrooms ripening in the tundra. The Inuit camping with us and their sled dogs were hungry, too: the kids tried in vain to kill seagulls by throwing rocks. The seal and fish nets were fouled up by bad weather, and the annual caribou migration did not come close to the coast that year. To our amazement, we still did not quarrel, snip or sulk, and it occurred to us it was a good and reliable test, so we decided to get married. This was 36 years ago.  -Yva Momatiuk, John Eastcott

The minister of information has gathered all the players we need to see—the head of antiquities and museums, head of security, an assembly woman in charge of “peace,” a guy they’ve hired to generate propaganda and a few other journalists.  I get stuck with the propaganda guy for a while—if I give him a sound byte from the western world (“bombing aid workers” etc.) he immediately launches into exactly the opposite of that worldview—he does this time after time and finally I say, “no matter what I say, you will say the opposite.”

“No I won’t,” he says.

Thought I’d climb the Empire State Building to show an unusual spin on the very mundane task of changing a light bulb. Go up, shoot, come down. No worries. It didn’t work out that way. Getting the photo took four climbs. I kept getting aced out by wind and weather, but you always climb when you get a slot, no matter what, because to climb the antenna you have shut down all the transmissions from the mast, which means taking television stations off the air. They don’t like that to happen, even at four in the morning. There are a lot of insomniacs in New York. 

On my second climb, moving too fast in the fog, I put my skull into the bottom of a very unforgiving I-beam. It opened a two inch gash in my scalp, and flooded my left eye with blood. The guy I was climbing with, Keith, shouted, “Don’t worry Joe, I’ll fix you up!” And he reached over and tightened the cinch strap on my head lamp. So now I’m essentially climbing with a tourniquet around my head. Which is probably okay, ’cause not much blood gets to my brain, even on a good day. 

I had promised my kids we’d go to Disney that morning, and had a flight arranged, so I got off the tower and got home, without a picture. We went straight to the airport, and my oldest daughter Caitlin held a rag on my head for a good deal of the flight till the bleeding stopped. We were on the Tower of Terror later that day. It’s strange being a photographer, is all. Joe McNally

I have made approximately 500 big tree climbs while on NG assignment. So far only I’ve only had one major fall where my branch that supported the rope broke. The rope caught another branch before I hit the ground.

I came down with malaria while camping on South Georgia Island and was lucky to find a British battalion with an extended medical kit that included Malaria medication. Might not be alive otherwise. I also had cerebral malaria after assignment in Congo DRC. Doctors in the Dutch hospital told me I was within 48 hours of fatal symptoms.

On three occasions I ventured deeper into the failed Chernobyl reactor than any western still photographer. For these visits National Geographic required that I assume personal liability. To get the best possible photographs published in the magazine, I took on the radiation exposure risks on my own.

I witnessed a fellow diver fall over and collapse from brain trauma while diving under the ice. Luckily I had my rebreather oxygen on location so we could treat him. He survived but in a vegetative state.

There was continual harassment by China’s State Security Bureau during the Manchurian Mandate story that I worked on in Dalian, China. There were several threats of arrest while in other towns during that story. In another incident, security forces pulled me off site and took me to police station for “registration.” I think it was because I was able to defend myself in Mandarin that they did not press further.

The most painful were Sudan and Congo . . . In Sudan I spent more time under detention or house arrest than I actually spent shooting the story. I had my cameras taken from me by spooks in the middle of the night who then told me to leave on the next plane. When I got back to Khartoum the head of their CIA could not recover all the camera equipment from their own spooks . . . In the Congo teenage soldiers pointed their guns at my head with that look in their eyes of: “so many dead . . . why should I give a sh** about you? ” Just in general, traveling in cars in these parts of the world seem like video games until you or your friends get injured. NG did send me thru “Bang School” before I went to Iraq . . . and the British spooks who taught that course said the time we will use the medical training they are giving us will probably not be in a war zone . . . it will be when you or someone with you needs medical attention in a car accident . . . 

I’ve been avoiding this scumbag-he is the highest government official in the reserve.  I truly believe he would allow people to do anything they want in the reserve as long as he got paid.  He greets me with his Simon Legree look, rubbing his hands together.  I ask him why he is allowing six soldiers to hunt elephant in the reserve.  I ask him why he is not doing his job.  He gives some answer about how WCS (American NGO) has to mobilize people from Kinshasa to stop this even though it is clearly his job to do so… this government can’t protect it’s own resources. I’m disgusted with this guy and I say “thank you very much… I will let you and Paluku talk.”  As I shake his hand he screams “Ma Cadeaux, Ma Cadeaux…” Screaming for a bribe as I walk in disgust out of his camp… Unbelievable… Randy Olson

I consider any time you get into a helicopter and shoot aerials with the door off, it is a personal risk. I’ve encountered downdrafts that drop you suddenly, heavy winds, and an emergency landing in a snowstorm. In Uganda rebels attacked the village down the road from me, burned families to death in their homes, kidnapped women and children and placed land mines in the roads. In Mexico a child was chosen to lead me to opium fields so we could play innocent if caught by the drug cartel. In Siberia I was placed under house arrest and interrogated at midnight. I’ve been sick for days at sea. I’ve been in many remote situations where the nearest medical help is at least a week away, even with medical evacuation insurance.

The next morning I need to change shirts, and I realize I should go into the tent to do it, but it is a production to do anything in a small tent, and all of these folks are half naked anyway…  So… I take off my shirt in the middle of the camp and 70 pygmies all gasp and cry out at once… the sight of that much white skin is a bit much for them. I am ok with that, but I am really tired of all the babies crying when I come near and even their friendly little dogs start barking like crazy when I am close to them.

I, like many in our group, choose to work in situations far beyond the comfort level of most Westerners. For instance, for my story in Dharavi slum in Bombay, I rented a very, very simple room in the slum and lived there alone for two and a half months. In the course of the assignment I left the premises of the slum maybe a total of 6-7 times. The exposure to unsanitary conditions, un-luxurious living conditions and safety issues are far beyond normal working conditions. I (and we as a group) do this more than voluntarily and it is our passion, but it still is relevant in terms of what we put up with to do our jobs.

I went blind in my left eye from high altitude edema on my first story for the magazine in Peru. On my second story in Borneo I almost drowned in a flooded river.

I ride one of the donkeys most of the way back because of tender knees and blisters.  We are out later this time and the heat of the day is killing everyone.  We’ve gone thru all our water and still have an hour or so to go to get to the village.  When we finally get back I find out even Adil wasn’t left any food.  All he’s had in the time we’ve been gone is tea.  I give him the last of my peanuts. I paid the local guides and gave one guide with a huge neck goiter my pota aqua tablets—if the iodine doesn’t help him, at least he will have clean water to drink.

The worst animals are microscopic. I rarely come home without parasites, amoebas, and worms—both internal and under the skin. It takes weeks and or months to remove them from my body with toxic medicines that are very bad for your liver.

I climbed the Empire State building antenna 4 times . . . split my scalp on I-beam . . . lost vision in my left eye due to tremendous amount of streaming blood at 1,500′ hanging in a harness from antenna.

Kent Kobersteen, new to the Geographic in those days, was our editor on the Slovakia story in 1984,
and he was excellent.  He was even able to send us Polaroids of our more successful images while we were still in the field, and we could take them back to isolated mountain villages to surprise the folks we photographed with these much cherished offerings. Getting these pictures to us was no small feat. The Cold War was still on, and we were to learn after the collapse of Communism that the Soviets were burying ICBMs in the very hills we were working in. Many times a road that clearly existed on our maps would be barred from entry and the police would grab our passports without any explanation and return them later, ordering us to turn around and get lost. Locals would tell us us that Soviets had taken over some small towns along those roads after the Prague Spring and never left: we would often hear their artillery practices.  

Gabrielle shows up and says, “Is it ok if we go to where people are eating leaves?”   These are war refugees that have nowhere to go and they have eaten the leaves out of the bottom areas of the trees, so they are in the tops getting the last ones… I call Melissa on the sat phone—she’s been terrified by all of this.  I have about 200 flies on my body as I am talking to her—periodically I breathe in and swallow one or two.  I tell her “this is the sound byte for what I’m doing.  I’ve moved 3 tons of food and medical aid into an area the UN is afraid to fly into, where people are starving and only have leaves to eat.  My satellite phone hit her cell phone in Lexington KY where she is in an air-conditioned, cupolaed, chandeliered barn photographing a 72 million dollar racehorse—we couldn’t be in two different worlds.

I had to beat a black bear off a guy who was drowning while being held underwater by the animal. I saved the lives of 7 soldiers in Sudan by diverting an airplane to pick up war wounded. There had not been a plane in the area for six months because Khartoum had made it a no fly zone and was shooting down any planes that came into the area. We had to hike a guy out of the jungle in Guyana who had suffered extreme anaphylactic shock . . . his testicles swelled to the size of grapefruits and he looked like the elephant man . . .

It was a typical day of that 3 months expedition to South Shetland Islands in Antarctica and I was scuba diving at 120 feet below the surface do document some rare marine invertebrates. It was everything under control until the moment my regulator got freezed in free flow. In 6 minutes or so my air was gone. Actually, I had just enough time  to reach a emergency diving tank located at 10 feet and coud perform my obligatory 10 minutes decompression stop  and avoid  a serious decompression sickness . Luciano Candisani

 

One fall day we dragged our canoe across acres of deep mud and very shallow water of the Atchafalaya Swamp, watching out for alligators and cottonmouth moccasins, and pulling our mud-encased feet out of the dark stinking muck for many hours.  We were looking for a bit of dry land to camp, and eventually found a tiny islet with willow roots still holding some soil in place and solid enough to pitch our tent. Our daughter was conceived on this sliver of land. -Yva Momatiuk, John Eastcott

I was arrested and held for 4 days in Nigeria. I was once assaulted in Istanbul and accused of being a CIA agent.

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