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Landscape Photography

Photographer and writer Jay Goodrich’s work focuses on architecture, nature and adventure. In addition to writing and creating imagery he leads workshops and photo tours. Those who attend the workshop come away with a better understanding of photography and mastery of images, and they have a greater appreciation for the locations and peoples they have visited. His upcoming workshop takes place in Hilo, Hawaii November 5-12. Jay tells us about his workshops and his experience teaching them as well as attending them.

waterfall_jay_goodrich

Melissa Dubasik: I’d love to get a little background on why you host workshops and what you hope others will get out of them?

Jay Goodrich: Teaching workshops just grew out of my love for photography. I wanted to share my experiences, my passion for this creative medium with others. In addition to that I think what is most important about my workshops is the communal experience. Everyone who is there is completely into photography and learning about photography, so it becomes not only a learning experience for the participants, but for myself as well.

I truly hope that all the people who attend walk away with a better knowledge about how to create a stronger image. I am somewhat of a gear head, but I really want people to understand that you only need your iPhone to be a creative photographer. Idea, concept, and composition first, how you record it to show the rest of the world is secondary. I do teach a lot of equipment and software based techniques as well because the era of the digital capture has opened up the boundaries…actually removed them completely.

MD: Is this workshop geared more towards being creative or improving one’s technical skills? Or both?

JG: I would say more emphasis on creating, but there is a lot of technology that gets talked about. I even teach software specific workshops on programs like Lightroom.

MD: What are some of the unexpected benefits one might get from attending one of your workshops?

JG: Traveling to amazing destinations and at times getting access to special places and locations. In our up-coming Hawaii trip, I have a friend who owns property there and he suggested that we stop by to photograph the stars over the lake of lava in his back yard one evening. I also try to focus on including luxury accommodations when possible. One of our previous trips to the Altiplano of Chile had us staying at an all inclusive five star spa. I try to give my clients a little something extra whenever I can. Even if it’s just a ride to the airport or a private critique of what they created after the workshop. I want to build relationships with my clients and I get really excited to watch them progress as photographers during the course of a workshop.

lava_jay_goodrich

MD: What are the most important things for the attendees to realize when they participate in a workshop, to help them get the most of of the experience?

JG: I think they really need to understand, that it isn’t amazing everyday. There are days when sunrises don’t materialize. Weather changes. Miscommunications happen. Cars break down. People have gear troubles. We do our best to help everyone and fix all of the issues, but sometimes, it will just rain for a week straight. We will make the best out of it though. This leads to: they should also come with an open mind. Be open to a new experience and new people because everyone has a different perspective to offer.

MD: What differentiates this workshop from others?

JG: With this Hawaii workshop we are taking a little bit of a different approach. We are showing participants how we look for everything and anything while traveling. How our eyes are focused on multiple disciplines, multiple subjects, and ever changing light. This allows us to create a large portfolio of images, which in turn gives us a stronger market base, better coverage for a location, and makes us better photographers overall. If I just focused on photographing birds, I think I would have given up on photography a long time ago. It is the experience of what resides around the bend that keeps me going day in and day out. Focus on a great composition and it doesn’t matter what your subject is, you will walk away with a great image.

hilo_jay_goodrich

MD: Was attending workshops instrumental to help you become the photographer that you are now? If so, how did they do that?

JG: I have only attended two workshops in my life. One was taught by John Shaw about selling your work and the other was taught by my really close friend Art Wolfe. One sent me off in the professional direction and the other sent me off in the creative direction. Although, as I have grown my business over the years, I have been lucky to work with some of the top level pros in the industry and this has helped me realize what works and what doesn’t along the lines of instructing. I also have a wife who is a teacher, so she beats the knowledge of two masters degrees in education into me on a regular basis.

This has made me focus on smaller group sizes and on more client one-on-one time in the field. Typically, I never teach more than six individuals by myself and never more than ten when there are two of us. I also want to spend less time lecturing to participants and more time in the field showing them what works and what doesn’t work.

steve_jobs_iPad_appleApple’s release Wednesday of their new tablet computer, the iPad, had been eagerly anticipated in part for its potential to “save” the struggling publishing industry. Its impact on photography was mentioned several times in our cross-blog discussion about the future of photobooks and is being weighed across the photo blogosphere this week. Fred Ritchin at After Photography calls it a disappointment for content producers and Rob Haggart at A Photo Editor is reservedly excited about consuming magazines in this new way. Bastian Ehl at Black Star Rising takes a less cynical approach, arguing that the iPad’s annoying non-support of Flash is actually designed to force users to pay for content.

Commercial photographer and new media extraordinaire Chase Jarvis is taking his interactive, educational blogging to the next level today with a live studio shoot, which is being streamed online and during which Chase will answer questions from live chat and tweets. The shoot with the band, Brent Amaker and the Rodeo, starts at 10 PST (1 EST), Friday, January 29.

betrayed_movie_DSLROne of the first narrative movies shot entirely using DSLRs (Canon 5D Mark IIs in video mode) launched its trailer online on Tuesday. The Coming Soon page for Betrayed was big news when it went up in August, so we’re excited to bring you an exclusive first interview with director Joshua Grossberg on RESOLVE.

Although the “Photographer’s Ephemeris” application launched in October, it came to the iPhone just his Sunday and has been a hot ticket item with photographers of all kinds, especially landscape shooters. You’ll have to check out the description to really understand how the app works, but basically it plots where the sun and moon will be positioned in line with geographical markers. So, as its introduction explains, “A typical use might be to determine when the sun will set along the axis of a mountain valley, or when a full moon rise will rise across a lake.”

There aren’t many photographers who are also branding consultants or art directors at a successful design firm. Since Steve Coleman is all three things, we thought he’d be the perfect person to help photographers understand and strategize their branding efforts. His first post explained exactly what a brand is (and isn’t). This one will help you define your brand attributes.
One of Peter Lik's "destination" galleries showcasing his landscape photography.

One of Peter Lik's "destination" galleries showcasing his landscape photography.

As I explained in my first post, a brand is not a logo or a website or a design. A brand is a promise, what people trust, feel, and believe you or your product to be. Branding is how you express that promise to people. Here’s some tips to help you define your brand — only then can you express it through branding.

First, your brand will ultimately be defined by other people, mostly your customers and potential customers. They will make up their minds about you and you will usually have to live with it. Your job in building your brand is to try and influence them before their minds are made up. It is easier when they don’t yet know you and harder when they do.

Therefore, your brand can not be just anything you want it to be. It needs to be based on some truth about you, as well as client needs. Otherwise your brand will be rejected as not credible. Your brand also needs to be flexible so that it can evolve as you or the market change over time.

For example, while Polaroid’s brand was successfully built around innovation in instant imaging, its brand become too closely associated with chemical imaging in the minds of consumers and has struggled to stay connected with people in a digital world.

“When they need what you’ve got, you want them to know exactly who to call.”

Second, be clear about what you need your brand to achieve at a strategic level. For most people this will be to set you apart from your competitors, to make you top of mind and memorable. By default, a brand should also say who you are not. A strong, healthy brand never tries to be all things to all people. Strategically your brand offers a way for clients and potential clients to quickly and easily categorize you. When they need what you’ve got, you want them to know exactly who to call. Ideally your brand should also make you look like the original or the best solution, making it hard for others to copy you.

Here are some great examples of photographers who have done this successfully.


Terry Richardson has one of the strongest brands I have ever seen. He has no logo and no real design to his website. Yet he stands out. He is unique, highly memorable. He shoots some of the world’s most famous people with a small, inexpensive digital camera. Why is his brand so strong? In a world full of smartly presented photographers who all look, shoot, and feel similar, Terry is distinctly different. (Check out the video, where Terry talks about his approach and his new Belvedere Vodka campaign.)

Another example is Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik. In a market saturated with great landscape photography, much of which never sells, Peter’s business generates more than $30,000,000 per year (US!!). Peter’s photography, while brilliant, is hardly the sole reason for his success. The essence of Peter Lik’s brand is the creation of a photographic experience. In particular, his galleries are must-see destinations. What you buy is not just a beautiful picture but a small part of everything that you experience in Peter’s world.

The critical third stage in defining your brand is determining what the attributes are that make up your brand. Attributes are like brand DNA. These are the tangible and intangible, emotional and functional characteristics that you and your business, product, or service are — or could credibly become. If expressed and managed correctly, these attributes become the reasons for people to trust and do business with you.

Here’s an example. I asked 10 people who know of Peter Lik to give me 20 words that describe what they believe him to be. I put every word, including those repeated, into Wordle, which creates a prioritized word cloud showing most-used bigger and least-used smaller. This this is a visual representation of Peter Lik’s brand attributes, according to these 10 people.

Picture 92

You’ll notice that the functional description of him as a “landscape photographer” is rated low. From a brand perspective, this is excellent because being a landscape photographer is just the cost of entry, it is not enough to define him as unique. Peter has purposefully built his brand around the attributes that help set him apart. That is how a strong brand works.

So, how do you determine your attributes? Here are eight questions that will help you find them. More »

Robert Glenn Ketchum is a legendary figure in the conservation photography community — largely because of his revolutionary publishing model, which ensures that his photo books have a tangible impact. He shared his ideas and advice for photographers interested in doing the same on RESOLVE. (Clicking on the image below will take you to his first post — be sure to check out numbers 2 and 3 also.)

When RESOLVE was just a fledgling, we ran two posts from Greg Gibson titled “It’s never too late to start a personal project.” Since then we’ve seen so many great personal projects, and heard about even more that are still just ideas. By highlighting our faves in this new “It’s Personal” column, we hope to encourage more photographers to turn their great idea into a great personal project.
Pronghorn antelope in western Wyoming. ©Joe Riis

Pronghorn antelope in western Wyoming.

Name: Joe Riis
Website:
www.joeriis.com
Age:
25
Location:
Moose, Wyoming right now and moving to Bijou Hills, South Dakota, early in 2010. I want to live in a cabin on the prairie.
Full-time job:
Wildlife photographer and videographer

Personal project name and short description
Pronghorn Passage, a conservation photography project that focuses on the Grand Teton National Park pronghorn migration. Each fall a herd of 400 pronghorn antelope migrate from Grand Teton National Park down into the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming, a total round-trip journey of 300 miles. This migration is the second longest overland mammal migration in the western hemisphere (after caribou in Alaska). The migration corridor is being squeezed down by residential development and mineral extraction on the private and public lands that it crosses. Pronghorn Passage is a collaborative project between myself and essayist Emilene Ostlind.

When and why did you start it?
The project was actually Emilene’s idea; she approached me and wanted to work together. She is a writer, and was just finishing up working at National Geographic Magazine and as Steve Winter’s assistant on his snow leopard story in India. She was coming back home to Wyoming to write a selection of essays about the pronghorn migration and wanted me to photograph it. At the time, I was just finishing up a 2-year conservation photography project on environmental threats to the Missouri River. I was ready to start photographing something new, and the pronghorn project, which had never been photographed before, seemed like a great idea.

I started researching and filling out grant applications in November 2007, and started my fieldwork in May 2008, the day after I graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s in Wildlife Biology. We got the project fully funded through the National Geographic Expeditions Council, The Banff Centre, University of Wyoming, North American Nature Photographers Association, Grand Teton National Park, and Patagonia the clothing company. I feel very fortunate to have received so much financial backing for the project, which has allowed me to focus all my efforts on fieldwork.

©Joe Riis
I am still surprised by the support we got, but the bottom line is that the pronghorn story had all the elements to a good wildlife story. A small herd of pronghorn migrating a super long distance over an incredible landscape, under threat, that had never been photographed before — plus we were two young Wyomingites who wanted to live with pronghorn. The reason is hadn’t been photographed before is because it takes a huge time commitment, at least a full year. No one knew exactly where they were migrating so I had to do field biology before I could photograph it. Because most of my work is by camera trap, I have to know exactly where the animals are moving.

Do you have a particular image you are especially drawn to so far? More »

How many people will ever see your photographs? If you’re planning to sell your images, it’s your responsibility to help people find them. Even if you’re a world-renowned nature photographer with your own T.V. show like Art Wolfe, building an audience can be as important as clicking a shutter. Here are seven tips from Art to help photographers drive traffic to their work. Sign up for Art’s free webinar on October 5 to learn how he makes his stunning images, or watch his archived first webinar here.
Aerial view of Lake Natron, spotted with a flock of flamingos. ©Art Wolfe

Aerial view of Lake Natron in Tanzania, spotted with a flock of flamingos. ©Art Wolfe

I’ve talked and written about how photographers need to look beyond the stock agencies to market their images. There are a host of pros and cons to these alternate business models, but the need to drive traffic to your website is always the tallest hurdle. No single approach will do. Instead, you need to attract attention, and keep it, by projecting your brand across a range of media platforms and by creating mutually beneficial collaborations. Here are some tips for how all kinds of photographers can do that.

1. Collaborate

Once you have a collection of images, see if you can create an association with other photographers to market a particular class of subjects. Photoshelter makes that easy with their Virtual Agencies, but there are several ways to accomplish the same thing. By grouping your work with that of other photographers, all of you can offer a wider selection of similarly themed work to potential buyers. My work is available alongside images from Thomas Mangelsen and David Doubilet at WILD, our virtual agency.

2. Organize

If each photographer does a good job of file naming and keywording, a buyer is more likely to find your image collection. Online galleries also allow you to display a larger selection of your work than an editor at an agency would allow. This is not an invitation to self-indulgence, however; show only your best or most saleable work.

3. Prioritize

I steer clear of microstock. If you can produce what the market demands in high volume, there is money to be made there, but it tends to encourage “treadmill shooting,” a mentality of “generate content” instead of creating art. Forgive me if I stick to Rights Managed and Royalty Free.

The sun sets over the southern Atlantic ocean as ten thousand nesting pairs of black browed albatross settle in for the brief summer night.

The sun sets over the southern Atlantic ocean as 10,000 nesting pairs of black browed albatross settle in for the brief summer night. ©Art Wolfe

4. Contact

Once your collective is up and running, or even if you decide to fly solo, contact all your existing clients with the news. Buy and use lists of prospective clients, like those provided by Agency Access and other services. More »

I’m sure I don’t have to tell anyone that there are fewer staff jobs — at newspapers, magazines, and wire services — than there used to be. And in the face of even more cuts, we’ve been impressed to see former staffers adroitly shift gears to freelance editorial, commercial work, collaboration with NGOs, and the fine-art and wedding markets. Some, like David Leeson, capitalized on video skills. Lots, like Sol Neelman, are doing a little of everything, hustling to keep a personal project going.

Leaving a job is always scary. Being forced to give up a steady paycheck and health insurance for the insecurity of owning your own business can be especially hard. Yet we’ve heard many inspiring stories of people coming together to work through this transition, including the recent VJ Workshops, Pro Photo Network, and Wéyo.

We decided to do our part too, by developing this online home for resources, stories, and discussion about this sea change for photojournalism and photography in general.

Although no one has all the answers, together we can find them — which is why your participation in this “After Staff” project is so important. Our “Experts of the Day” are available to answer questions, but if you don’t ask, they won’t know how to help. Over 20 photographers have shared their experiences in our “Group Therapy” section; by adding your own to the comments, you’ll undoubtedly be helping someone else. And even with five days of posts, we know there are things we’re forgetting.

So please comment, ask, discuss, and reach out. We’re here to help you help each other.

Click here for descriptions and links to all “After Staff” posts.

Feel free to email RESOLVE editor Miki Johnson with any suggestions or questions.

Nature and conservation photographer Ian Shive is launching a new book, The National Parks: Our American Landscape, in August and has created a series of short webisodes to help promote it. The videos even got picked up by Current TV, bringing his work to the channel’s 50 million US households. Ian explains how the episodes fit into his marketing plan and how they convince people to pick up, and purchase, his book.

Miki Johnson: Let’s talk a little bit about your book.

Ian Shive: The book is a 224-page, hard cover, coffee table book on the American National Parks. This is the latest and a most updated look at the parks, a modern look at a classic subject. We included six or seven places that you’ll know — the other 185 pages you’ll have to read the caption to know where that is.

The layout is also unusual. Traditionally national park books have been grouped by region or park. We bounced back and forth across all these different parks. We might show a red maple leaf on a brown pine needles in Maine, and then that color or shape relates to something in Yellowstone National Park in the middle of winter. It was our goal to show the colors and collaborations that happen in nature and are so similar no matter where you go.

MJ: And was this something that the national parks came to you about? Or was this an idea you had?

IS: The parks turn 100 years old in 2016, and I wanted to do a book on the Centennial. I have great collection of images, and I decided to work on a book over five years and develop this idea. So I started sending some emails around to gauge interest from publishers.

Cristina Mittermeier at International League of Conservation Photographers hooked me up with a publisher in California. They called and were like, we love your idea — how would you like to do the book in four months? I said okay, but I needed to pick up a few shots in the meantime. It’s pretty exciting because, from what I understand, every Borders in the country is going to having it on their front table.

MJ: That’s exciting. Is that something that you arranged or the publisher did? How did that happen?

IS: It was through the publisher. And once I had made the deal with the publisher to do this book I brought in the National Park Conservation Association as a partner. I had done a lot of work with them, and the two lead editors of the magazine have been instrumental in guiding my career as a national park photographer. So I asked them to write two essays for the front of the book, and then the president of the organization also contributed the book’s forward. They also have an insert in the book, so it helps further their message, and I’ve given a percentage of the proceeds back to the NPCA.

225-million-year-old trees, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. ©Ian Shive

225-million-year-old trees, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. ©Ian Shive

MJ: So tell me about these webisodes you’re doing.

IS: I’ve been working on multimedia for a while, exploring the collaboration between film, video, and still photography. For the book I had to go and pick up some shots; I had this great archive of national park sites but I didn’t have the obvious shots of Old Faithful, or Delicate Arch, or the Grand Canyon from Angel Point. The publisher said, you can do whatever you want on the other 200 pages, but there’s certain things that we need in a national park book from a market perspective. And I agreed.

So I put together a road trip to travel through the entire American West over about five weeks. I brought Russell Chadwick, who is my partner in video and multimedia, and he shot footage with his HD video camera. The idea was to get a little bit of the park, show me doing my thing, and build a multimedia piece for the web. At first we were just going to do one piece, about the making of the book, as a promo tool.

When we got back and looked at everything, the footage was stunning. We had time lapses of fog going over the mountains in Glacier and Logan Pass, and thunderstorms in White Sands, New Mexico. We had so much stuff, we decided to turn it into four six-minute segments, called Wild Exposure.

I came from a strong motion picture background, so I shared the videos with some friends in the industry and they were like, this is incredible. You’ve got to do something else with it. So I showed it around to a few people in the television network world, which has been a more arduous journey than I anticipated. But I’ve persevered, and the show’s scheduled to air this week on Current Television.

“The Wild Exposure episodes are scheduled to air this week on Current Television.”

I had a meeting in San Francisco and shared the first segment with them. They thought it was really different and it fit really well with their programming. They weren’t all about changing it. They were into what the show embodies, the kind of Zen moments and a soft conservation message. They’ve agreed to run the four-part series, so 50 million U.S. households and 142,000 web visitors a day will be exposed to the show.

MJ: And they’re running these short pieces?

IS: Current has a unique approach to how they do the programming. It’s not like ABC where something begins at 7:00 and ends at 7:30 and has seven minutes worth of commercials or whatever. They have five-minute shows, two-minute shows, twenty-three-minute shows, and they all flow together. So there was no need to expand or force an expansion on the pieces.

We feel like the web has really shortened people’s attention spans. To get somebody to sit down and watch a show for 30 minutes is difficult these days. One of the strengths with Current is you can do a tightly edited, compelling six-minute show and achieve your goal, either a message of conservation or even advertising. So the show will exist as six-minute units that are spaced out. We are also looking at potentially marrying all four to be a twenty-four-minute segment.

Maple Leaf, Acadia National Park, Maine. ©Ian Shive

Maple Leaf, Acadia National Park, Maine. ©Ian Shive

MJ: So how do these episodes fit into your larger marketing strategy for the book?

IS: I think getting people to invest in what you’re doing is the most important part of marketing. Let’s say you walk into a Borders and you look at this book, but you’ve never seen anything else besides it. It might sell itself, certainly. But you can really augment that emotional connection that people have to the book if they have seen this six-minute segment on Glacier National Park. Somehow they feel a more personal connection with what you’re doing, and that’s when they actually buy to the book. Or they decide to crack it open and give it a longer look than they would have before.

MJ: Have you thought about how the book and episodes translate into increased visibility for you as a photographer?

IS: With 50 million U.S. households, it’s going to be very interesting. I have no idea what I’m in for. I’m hoping nothing. The last thing I want to do is get to a national park and have a ranger ask if I have a commercial filming permit.

I hope that Wild Exposure will continue beyond the book. And one thing that I have begun to discuss with the network is making the show more interactive. How cool would it be to have me in the field, and let’s say I’m doing a story on poaching in Africa, you can actually meet that poacher and hear his perspective, then introduce other characters who embody this type of conservation photography.

I also want it to stay true to Current’s prime demographic, which is 18- to 34-year-olds. I want it to continue to appeal to a younger, sophisticated, edgier, hip audience. I feel like that group is so often overlooked — certainly in nature photography. I think it’s usually geared toward older audiences, but the conservation message is all over.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. ©Ian Shive

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. ©Ian Shive

MJ: Did you fund these Wild Exposure episodes yourself?

IS: I did. The payoff is the marketing. Right now there’s no money being made off it. It’s purely a marketing and promotional tool that I hope will grow into something that generates income at some point, maybe as a regular television series. Or at the very least, you know, just boosting my profile as a photographer. It’s an incredibly crowded marketplace, and everybody’s looking to get their voice heard. If you’re a book publisher and you’re looking to do a book on anything, and if your photographer shooting things, then producing a series that can be placed on the web or television seems obvious.

MJ: It sounds like it’s all paying off, but I suppose it’s always a gamble.

IS: It is. People might not respond to it. It’s very exciting, but I’m putting myself out there in many ways. I’m putting myself out there not only in print in a book, but also the show, too. People are seeing me peeking out of a tent. They’re seeing what I’m shooting, how I’m shooting it, what results I’m getting, and then they see the product I’m putting out. One thing about today’s media, and especially the web, there is a brutal honesty that I love, but it’s also brutally honest. So I’m prepared a little bit for that. I just hope people like what I’m putting out there so that I can continue to do what I love.

I first heard about China-based freelance photojournalist Ryan Pyle through a post on his blog about making images during last year’s earthquake in the Sichuan province. I was impressed with his honesty about the difficulty of that coverage and am excited to present his tales from this recent expedition here on RESOLVE.
From Ryan's recent trek around Meili Xue Shan in Tibet. ©Ryan Pyle

From Ryan's recent trek around Meili Xue Shan in Tibet. ©Ryan Pyle

For years I’ve been hiking in China, and just about any time I can squeeze out a few free days, I jump on a plane to Sichuan or Yunnan province, in Southwest China. I always shoot during my trips and have grown adept at both executing these treks and coming back with images suitable for a published story. In other words, I’m well versed in extreme altitude, extreme weather, and cameras.

So it was with delight that I took an assignment in June to document the religious mountain of Meili Xue Shan in Southeastern Tibet. The “holy mountain” is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and is home to a kora, or “holy trek,” that is ranked China’s most difficult trek by the China Mountaineering Association. Pilgrims make the trek around the holy mountain, a complete circumnavigation that is said to cleanse the soul.

Sitting in my apartment in Shanghai, it was difficult to contemplate a ten-day, 300-kilometer trek through Tibet. A series of questions began running through my mind: How was I supposed to walk 12 hours a day and still make strong images? Was there a road? Was there mobile phone access? Was there electricity?

My first decision was to shoot film — digital just wasn’t going to cut it for this trip. Not only would electricity be scarce, but extreme temperature fluctuations would drain the batteries and potentially be too tough for my Canon 5D MII’s. So I dusted off my Canon 1Ns and bought 200 rolls of Fuji Provia. Luckily I already had all the gear, clothes, and footwear to attempt such a journey. Excitement was beginning to sink in.

A few days later, fear began to sink in, too. When I researched, I was disturbed by how little information existed about this trek, including crucial details like the length of the trek, it’s difficulty, and possible villages along the route. I was finally dug up two resources: a China Trekking site compiled by a person who had obviously never trekked in his/her life and a travel website by two German hikers who had done the trek 3-4 years earlier.

I would sleep in a tent, cook my own food, and walk for 8-to-10 hours a day — all while documenting the journey.

The Germans had estimated the kora to be around 300 km (185 miles), meaning that I needed to cover 15-to-20 miles a day to complete the trek in a reasonable amount of time. That meant I probably needed to sleep in a tent every night, cook my own food, and walk for 8-to-10 hours a day — at altitude — all while visually documenting the journey. Did I mention that each day was a vertical assent or descent? And that there are three passes over 4,500 meters (15,000 feet)? This was starting to sound like mission impossible.

I decided to travel with a writer for two reasons. First, we are very close friends and we’ve been hiking together in the Himalayas since well before either of us was getting published. Second, he is an expert in the region. It’s rare to find someone you can hike 12 hours a day with, for 10 days, and still be on speaking terms with, but we complement each other and I would never have considered going alone.

I knew to never go wandering into Tibet without a Tibetan. In this part of the world, people die on the mountains — the only safety you can count on is experience. Finding a guide proved difficult, and in the end I decided that I would find the right person in the village where I would start my journey. That was a potentially risky move, but like everywhere in the world, you can usually make things happen once you are on the ground.

My flight to Zhongdian, now named Shangri-la, was easy enough. Zhongdian is the first town on the Tibetan plateau in China’s Southwestern Yunnan province. I decided to fly in and rest there for two days; at 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) it would be an ideal place to acclimatize before making more aggressive moves into the mountains. Taking the time to acclimatize in this part of the world is as essential as remembering to bring film for your camera. Without spending the first day or two resting, you are setting yourself up for attitude sickness and possibly worse.

From there, getting to the mountains was easy enough. And as the initial adrenaline rush gave way to reality, the trek revealed itself to be the most visually beautiful, emotionally rewarding, and physically and mentally challenging experience of my life. And all that was crammed into just nine days.

©Ryan Pyle

From Ryan's recent trek around Meili Xue Shan in Tibet. ©Ryan Pyle

Without giving away too much of a story that is not yet published, I can say that the Germans were wrong in their calculations — the trek is around 400km (250 miles), when taking into account the switch backs and detours. That made for about 30 miles a day.

My writing partner and I completed the journey in nine days and suffered some of the most extreme weather conditions I’ve witnessed in my decade of traveling in the region. We were rained on, snowed on, and hailed on. On the last day, it was 25C (77F) when we woke up and -20C (-4F) just seven hours later, at 4,900 meters, with wind strong enough to knock you off your feet. I lost about 20 pounds in the process and gained a completely new respect for our Tibetan guides, who floated effortlessly over high passes and across windy plateaus.

As far as the gear was concerned, the Northface tent, sleeping bags, and jackets performed wonderfully, especially with violent temperature fluctuations. The Canon 1Ns held up beautifully in rain, snow, and sleet. The Fuji Provia was, as always, the right color film for the job. And after walking up and down mountains for ten hours a day in the remote Himalaya’s, I feel as though I could face down Michael Phelps, on dry land at least.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: Have you faced extreme conditions while making photos? How did you manage the simultaneous physical and creative demands?

Sean Gallagher, a photojournalist living and working in China, won a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting in February for his work on the country’s desertification. After a whirlwind trip to complete his coverage, Sean returned with several photo stories. One key to tackling such a long, complicated project, he explains, is to accept that you can’t control everything, and to recognize opportunities when they come up. Don’t miss his earlier posts about finding and planning in-depth stories.
In the foreground, a piece of orange pottery can be seen. These 1500 year-old fragments pepper the ground throughout the city. ©Sean Gallagher. Courtesy Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

A 1,500 year-old pottery fragment in the abandoned city of Yinpan, which Sean discovered serendipitously after his original "abandoned city" story fell through. ©Sean Gallagher. Courtesy Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting

Planning thoroughly and planning well are key to a large-scale assignment. However, staying flexible and being willing to throw out the plan at a moments notice is equally important. If you are prepared for both, there is a good chance your trip will be successful.

Traveling in rural China is not the best place to have a specific plan. Like most of us, I live in a large city where I am used to trains turning up on time, buses criss-crossing the city at all times of the day, and convenience at my fingertips almost everywhere. As soon as you step out of China’s major cities, a lot of this evaporates.

In my plan, I had penciled in one week for each location. As far as details — timing, when to arrive, when to leave, etc. — my notebook held no more information than, for example, “Week 1 – Inner Mongolia.” I knew exactly I where I wanted to go and what I wanted to achieve there, but it was impossible for me to predict how and when I would arrive and leave a certain place. In this respect, I had to remain completely flexible and not become frustrated if I could not get to a location on ‘x’ day, as ‘y’ day would probably be ok, too. This was a luxury I had working for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which afforded me much more time than most assignments.

Adapting to change was the only constant on my trip. Mid-way through our journey, my assistant had to unexpectedly return to Beijing, forcing me to work alone for a small portion of the trip. I had anticipated something like this, so I focused on subjects I could cover without an assistant.

The biggest challenge during my Pulitzer assignment was when my “chapter” on abandoned cities appeared to have fallen through. I had researched and planned a trip to a spectacular abandoned city in the Inner Mongolian deserts. The day before embarking, we discovered that the area had just been shut off to outsiders because the route to the city passed through one of China’s space rocket launch centers. I had no other back-up location for abandoned cities, so I was concerned that this important chapter would be missed.

As we called hotels to book rooms for our future stops, we mentioned our predicament to a hotelier. This hotelier happened to be a professional guide to explorers and told us of another abandoned city rarely visited by outsiders. A quick search online revealed that the demise of the city fell inline with desertification, so we decided it was our final (and only) option. The old city of Yinpan turned out to be one of the highlights of the whole trip, despite coming about completely by chance.

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