scribbling in the dark - photographer's talks: scribbling in the dark - LOOK3 Steinmetz 2009

The scribbing in the dark series is a group of personal reflection writings on photography gatherings and slideshows. My notes are scribbled quickly in a tiny notebook, usually in a darkened room, so I ask in advance that you read the words below as my own recollections.  


scribbling in the dark - 

George Steinmetz at LOOK3 Masters Talk 

Frequent National Geographic / GEO contributor George Steinmetz presented African Air at LOOK this year. 51 year old George said that he was born and raised in Beverly Hills, and by the time he was a teenager he felt he needed to move beyond his cloistered upbringing and out of the “Gucci Ghetto”. When he was 21, for over 2 years, George hitchhiked through Africa with little money in his pocket. Because he had a budget of about $5 a day, he learned about the culture through immersion, often sleeping in huts at night. But he began feeling like an ant crawling across a giant shag carpet, and wanted a way to get above the ground so he could get some perspective on the country that he had fallen in love with. 

When he returned to the States he finished his degree and began assisting other photographers until he started shooting assignments on his own for various clients and eventually for NatGeo. It was for an assignment on the Sahara for NatGeo 12 years ago that George first learned to fly, but it wasn't until the local pilot backed out of the project that he devised another method for getting the aerial shots. For a month, George took paragliding lessons, and then put together a kit that could be broken down into many small bags that could be assembled to make a motorized paraglider. Though he sometimes uses planes and helicopters still, George says their limitations are great in some situations, and his craft allows him to hover low when he needs to without overly disturbing the scene below.  

George showed a little video of the assembly process in fast motion, quite confounding and humorous to watch, all these little pieces that puzzle together to make something that looks like a backpack with a giant fan beneath the sail. For reasons that weren't made entirely clear, the kit gets smuggled into Africa in different stages, and then 2 - 4 cars are used to carry the gear for the trip. While George flies (no more than 50 miles at a time) usually in the range of 50 feet to 200 or so above ground, the caravan travels nearby with an arranged pick up point. At times his friend who is a sport paraglider, comes along on the trips. I think he said that it was on the last trip that it took the government 3 weeks to track him down, so he left the next day.  

In order to shoot, George needs to take both hands off the controls momentarily. Mishaps happen, and he said he needs to be very careful of certain flying too low over sea lions on the shore. If his motor were to quit and the craft went down, the sea lions would get tangled in the sail and he'd be pulled out to sea with the fleeing sea lions. Some of his images are interesting because of the dynamic with the world below him; lionesses stare without fear, children empty out of schoolhouses - but for me the most powerful of the photos were the ones that he said were of places never before photographed, and of the vistas that I know my eyes would never have seen if George had not followed his dream.  

For a glimpse into his reality, see