Butterflies in the Park or Fear Factor?

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“I’m standing in a stream; the elephant’s running straight towards me…  Really what I’m thinking about is when to run.”  Michael “Nick” Nichols is not just playing for thrills, but on a quest to capture a signature moment in time. 

In the television special National Geographic: Cameramen, Nichols and his fellow National Geographic professional photographers dispel the romanticism of their jobs.  Working as a photojournalist for the century-old publication is not merely the ability to aim a lens at a docile subject and click a button.    The entire purpose of National Geographic is to expose its readers to the exotic places and people that only otherwise exist in the imaginations of the readers. 

Photographers for National Geographic sometimes risk their lives to document the cultures and customs of faraway lands.  One photojournalist’s plane crashed into a lake, another contracted malaria on 12 occasions, and yet another was held at gunpoint while his hotel room was robbed at two in the morning. 

“Maybe even the troubles are more glamorous,” said Jodi Cobb, a National Geographic photographer. 

Travelling for National Geographic is wearisome.  The crew must consider expenses, weather and spend the majority of its time arranging logistics.  Photojournalists must gain access into these uncharted areas with bureaucratic permissions and authorizations.  Minimal time is spent actually pointing and shooting a camera.  Even photo shoots can be a chore or a life threat.

A vibrant picture of a frog mid-flight through a lush rainforest does not depict the 7-month labor the photographer spent just for this serendipitous split-second moment.  The picture is a frame.  It does not include the red abrasions on the photographer’s buttocks made by the 100 or more worms feeding on him while he toiled to encapsulate the striking nature of this foreign landscape.  Gazing beyond the framework, a photojournalist’s job appears more suitable for a stint on Fear Factor.

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A Crew and a Steadfast Determination

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With a migrant population of around 800 in the Gobi Desert expanse of about 1,295,000 square kilometers, it is simple to imagine the labor of catching the endangered Bactrian camel on film.  The crew for BBC’s Planet Earth desert feature experienced first-hand the drudgery of locating and capturing this species on film.

“Here is an animal nobody knew about,” said Huw Cordoy, producer of the Planet Earth series.  “Nobody could guarantee a chance of filming it, even over a long period of time.”

Mongolia is still largely a wild and unchartered country with merely 700 kilometers of paved road stretching out from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.  Within hours, the BBC crew required GPS to navigate the barren land and even their off-road vehicles had trouble maneuvering over the untamed landscape.

The team hired a local guide to help track down the Bactrian camel, an animal the man had been following for 50 years.  For five days, the crew saw nothing.  By day 15, the crew had to overcome a debilitating snowstorm.  A competition was had to determine which could warm up faster before breakfast: a crewmember’s numb hands or a can of frozen sardines.

“The assistant cameraman had to sleep with all the batteries every night, otherwise they’d be unusable the following day,” Cordoy said of the relentless sub-zero temperatures. What’s more, the crew vehicles required a blowtorch in order to warm up the machinery every morning.

By day 23, crewmembers had walked hundreds of miles, cameras and tripods strapped to their backs, just to catch of few glimpses of these elusive animals made even more timid by a history of poaching.

“Camels one, film crew nil,” was the wearied remark of the assistant cameraman Tom Clarke at the end of day 32.  “They’re supreme long distance travelers, these animals; and we’re finding it difficult to keep up.”

The scale of the crew’s perseverance matched that of its task.  By day 36, the crew’s patience finally saw profit.

“We didn’t get much footage, but what we got [of the camels] made a very strong sequence,” Cordoy said.  “What I like about it is that we’ve actually given some publicity to a species that could disappear without anybody knowing it.”

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