Ansel Adams famously said, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” Of course, this is true for almost any photographer, but perhaps it will resonate most strongly with the intrepid few who dedicate their lives and lens to shooting in dangerous climates and circumstances. For them, a step to the right or to the left could mean risking catastrophe, but it could also mean getting the shot of a lifetime.
We asked seven photographers from various backgrounds to tell us about some of their most nail-biting, dangerous photographs. As it turns out, taking chances can lead to an image that changes the way you see and understand the world. These stories, from the day they happened until today, have lingered in the minds of their creators. These vivid, indelible memories have reminded them of the value of taking precautions, and ultimately, taught them the extremes to which they’ll travel to get the perfect shot.
Amazingly, not one of the seven we interviewed has any regrets. At the precipice of the unknown, there’s much beauty and wonder to be discovered, but you have to be standing in the right spot to see it.
“All waves are dangerous, but this one caught me. And I caught her too.”
“I work on a tanker, and photography is my hobby. The waves become very dangerous, especially during a storm, and especially on the deck. But mad photographers like me are ready to take risks for the sake of one good shot. When I took this picture, I hadn’t managed to hide. The waves dragged me on the deck and even broke a lens. I was traumatized. Thank God the SD card remained undamaged. All waves are dangerous, but this one caught me. And I caught her too.”
Pro Tip: “Once the button is pressed, you catch a piece of history.”
“A mother with two cubs came right up to the boat from which I was photographing.”
“I spend time each year in northern British Columbia, near the Alaskan border. Not as much time as I’d like, but time enough that my encounters with the grizzly bears are really important to me. I had one experience where a mother with two cubs came right up to the boat from which I was photographing. Close enough to make me nervous, but with such gentle curiosity. She looked at me, sniffed me out, then turned around, lay down on the grass and went to sleep, as if to tell me the cubs were in my care and she was taking a little “mom time.” These experiences that fly in the face of stereotypes tell me there’s more to the stories we tell. Maybe it makes trophy hunters feel big, brave, and justified in killing these animals, but we’re far more a threat to the creatures of the world than they are to us.”
Pro Tip: “Be courageous. Not every photographer is going to do things perceived as risky but creating work that really matters is always an act of courage. Fear is the greatest obstacle to creativity and I think too many photographers play it safe instead of making work that is uncomfortable for them, or requires them to be vulnerable, to approach strangers, to try something they’ve never tried, or create something that’s different from the usual. There are billions of photographs made every day – the ones that stand out are the ones with soul, and that takes courage.”
“At first I did not notice, but then eventually it became all too obvious.”
“I was shooting large gypsum crystals in one large abandoned mine in Hodrusa-Hamre, central Slovakia. I was told plenty of times that there is bad air down there, and normally it starts about 2.5 kilometers from the entrance, while the gypsum area is about 3.2 kilometers. I was quite nervous but decided to go there anyway, as this was a one-of-a-kind opportunity to see and shoot something remarkable.
Surprisingly, we got all the way to the gypsum location, and the air was fine until about 50 meters before the gypsum crystals. However, the air was still okay to breathe normally if no excessive physical activity was done. After four hours of shooting, we left.
We decided to return on another day. I knew exactly what I wanted to shoot, so I was excited to come back. At some point during that trip, my breathing gradually became deeper. At first I did not notice, but then eventually it became all too obvious. After some time, my breathing became as deep as it could get, and there was still some air depletion, so I freaked out and turned around. We were still about one kilometer from the location anyway.
On the way back, I felt steady relief in my breathing, and eventually I stopped in what seemed to be totally fresh air, where I shot a few small gypsum formations. When we checked the lighter, the flame still would not ignite. About 200 meters onward, it would ignite, but the flame would go out quickly. Soon after that, the flame would be normal size.
I realized that the gypsum crystals are located in such an incredibly dangerous place in the mine, and I am actually surprised to have been there the first time and value my images from that trip even more.”
Pro Tip: “Always plan with experienced explorers who are familiar with specific places. Never go underground alone. Even with experienced crew, turn around if in doubt.”
“I’ve gone back since then and still don’t sit quite that far out.”
“This is one of my favorite photos from New Zealand back in 2010. We hiked up to Gertrude Saddle, just outside of Milford Sound. We got up to the top just as clouds started to move in and block the view, but every now and then they’d open up and reveal the valley below. My roommate walked out onto the rocks, took a seat on the edge, and swung his legs back and forth. I ran over just above him and snapped this photo as the clouds moved apart. There’s definitely a straight drop below him. I’ve gone back since then and still don’t sit quite that far out.”
Pro Tip: “Step back from camp every once in a while and capture the full thing, surrounded by the environment you’re in. Some of my favorite photos have been these moments when you realize where it is you’re actually sleeping, surrounded by mountains, valleys, water, or nothingness.”
“I knew the shot I wanted.”
“Every year on Backcomb Glacier, an ice cave opens up, and you can walk down into it and even ski a section of it. I knew the shot I wanted — for the skier to be going right through the heart of the cave. For the skier, however, it was not easy. He had basically no run in, so a few friends had to hold onto his poles, tow him into it, and then jump out of frame. It took a few tries… but it was definitely worth it.”
Pro Tip: “Never feel comfortable in what you are doing. Always push yourself.”
“The deeper I can go into their lives, the better.”
“I remember spending over two weeks with two narco traffickers in Bolivia, which was quite extreme on its own. Spending nights with them while they were doing their business was a little sketchy. The most thrilling thing is that I get to spend time with the people who I take photographs of. I’m interested in their stories, and the deeper I can go into their lives, the better.”
Pro Tip: “When photographing your subjects tell them directly what your intentions are. Being honest and straight forward will wipe away any suspicion, and then the attitude towards you will shift in a positive way, which will be reflected in your work.”
“The American crocodile is an unpredictable and opportunist animal.”
“The American crocodile is an unpredictable and opportunist animal. It’s also as fast in the water as on earth. During an expedition in Mexico, I had the opportunity to be able to observe it in its natural environment. To approach it is not simple. It’s a cold-blooded animal, and it prefers the sunlight. It’s necessary to attract it by making noise on the water’s surface, as if prey fell into the water. After a lot of patience and perseverance, the crocodile decided to approach. Shy then curious, it came very close, almost to make contact with my camera lens. The thrill of shooting! But you have to be very careful because if you’re careless, the encounter can be fatal. In spite of its strength, it is a vulnerable species, threatened by the poaching and the degradation of its housing environment.”
Pro Tip: “Always bring a little plastic bag to protect your camera (sea spray). The saltwalter is not good for it. Cut a hole for the lens and you are ready for the adventure!”
“Winds so strong they made it hard to even get out of the car…”
“On June 7th 2014, I photographed an enormous rotating supercell just outside Roswell, New Mexico. Winds so strong they made it hard to even get out of the car to shoot this storm, let alone get back in again when it was time to make a hasty retreat. I now leave the car windows open, which is a trick I’ve learned over the last few years – it helps to get the doors open and shut!”
Pro Tip: “The one rule I never break: I always have at least two escape routes planned, before I even think about getting my tripod out. The storm itself is only one of the many dangers – there’s often fallen power lines and flash flooding to contend with too.”
If you want to take you own extreme photographs, check out these tips and tricks for extreme travel photography.