NONE OF US ARE EXPERTS. We are all on our own voyage, and nobody knows for certain who’s steering, where we’re going, or what route we are going to take to get there. For me, when I’m in uncomfortable situations I need to be at my most open because I have the least amount of history to draw from. These are some of the experiences that have changed me, the ones that will continue to shape me throughout life.


Traveling the world at 17

When I was 17 I thought I was the center of the universe and my brother and I were drifting apart. So our parents, using all their savings, sent us both on a 4-month trip together. We had to rely on each other, and I was given a more worldly perspective. We regularly slept on concrete floors, often getting taken in by friendly locals. We took a local bus from Kenya to Tanzania, where we were almost stranded in the middle of the savannah when it left without us. We got sick and were kicked out of our room in Zanzibar when everything shut down for Ramadan. We only got off the island because a taxi driver I managed to piss off, then apologized to, went out of his way to get us on a plane to Kenya. By the end of the journey, my brother and I had newfound respect for each other, and for people who are not as lucky as we are.


Moving to another country at 18

I always knew that I wanted to live in New Zealand. At 18 I’d saved up enough for a ticket, and had $4,000 cash. I believed that it would be a place where I could gather the stories and photos that would start my career as a photographer. I found ways to work as I traveled, doing things like guiding helicopter-access kayaking trips, construction, and taking over cleaning and cooking duties in exchange for a place to sleep. I even got pretty good at feeding myself by learning to hustle at pool. I learned that it was possible to survive with very little, and that in many ways it can be the greatest freedom. When I finally ran out of money, I came back to the United States with 16 rolls of undeveloped slide film. This is the only image that ever sold. That trip didn’t supply me with the photos and stories that would make my career, but it taught me exactly what I needed to know in order to build the life I live now.


A surprise volunteer gig in Costa Rica

I started my photography career by shooting my own adventures. Eventually I started to shoot commercially, but I always knew that something was missing. My brother and I landed a commercial job shooting a remote Costa Rican national park. While on the job, we saw a more important story unfolding. While we were there we volunteered to help the park rangers collect fishing gear that had washed up and become wrapped around the island, or provide an extra set of eyes as they chased down poachers. The poachers were after sharks, and Isla del Coco has one of the densest shark populations on the planet. This is when I learned that photography could have a greater purpose. I spent three years documenting this story for National Geographic, and my work was used along with the data collected by marine biologists to create a new expanded park boundary -- now the largest single marine reserve in the world. Adventures do more than just provide pretty pictures that we can live through vicariously, they can inspire people to care about it.


Caught in a blizzard during a dog sled race

On a “training” trip on Baffin Island for an expedition to the Arctic my team joined a 300-mile race in temperatures as low as -40. We thought we could ski but were only allowed to use the dogsleds, and run. The dogs can’t pull a full sled as well as your body weight, so you end up running a lot. I’ve never been a runner. The race was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done, and two days before we crossed the finish line, four feet of snow had dropped on us, and we’d run out of food for ourselves and for our dogs. The storm would be continuing to drop snow for the next two weeks, so we couldn’t wait it out, we had to push through in one day. We covered 70 miles, fighting through waist-deep snow, pushing the sled up mountains and then riding them down the other side. By the time we reached the 20-mile stretch of sea ice that was our final barrier I’d fallen numerous times because my legs had simply given out while running. Crossing the finish line, I found my breaking point. The dogs were exhausted and on edge and began to fight. I broke down, not handling the situation as I should have. My partner had to restrain me. Embarrassed, and still angry, I turned and walked away. I was sore, but still had some energy left in me, I was still alive, I was comfortably lying in bed, and there was one thing I couldn’t shake. My exhaustion did not excuse my reaction and lack of humility. Now, when I reach my limit, I think back to that day, and I know that it’s always possible to handle situations with compassion.


Being isolated in the Arctic

On the Arctic expedition, the ice was smooth, and the snow packed down hard. The difficulty now was the feeling of being so isolated, and alone. An airliner flying overhead was the first sign of man I’d seen since arriving two weeks before. I imagined people up there sipping wine and looking out their windows totally disconnected from the world below. The next sign of humans that I saw was an ancient Thule ruin, built by people who called this place home, and lived their entire lives here. It’s odd, but I believe that this was the happiest I’ve ever been. Everything else is insignificant when all that matters is survival. Simple things became magnificent, conversation is a luxury. Every other worry is nothing in comparison to the situation at hand. On my rest days, I’d climb a mountain that may not have seen footprints in hundreds of years. We’d go out and hide behind hills to spy on wild muskox, and we would keep our eyes peeled for polar bears and wolves. To me, boredom means that I haven’t properly focused my attention on living; it doesn’t mean there isn’t something to do, it means I’m being lazy.


Going to Haiti to cover the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake

After the earthquake hit Haiti, the news began to throw out huge statistics detailing the tragedy. I immediately booked a flight to the island, but was turned around in Miami when I learned that the airport had been closed due to riots. Almost exactly a year after the earthquake, I landed an assignment to tell the story of the recovery efforts. I imagined a violent place where people were so on edge that a stranger might be seen as dangerous, and where there was no happiness. This image was taken on the day I arrived. People were generous, kind, and welcoming. Above all, in spite of the tragedy, they still knew how to find joy. Some of the locals invited me to a party in one of the poorer neighborhoods. If I were to have made my decision based on the foreign opinion of Haiti, I would never have gone. I ended up dancing through the night, and having an experience that totally changed my perspective. The second change happened on my walk home. Two of the guys I had been at the party with began holding my hands. As a straight male from the US, this felt incredibly awkward, but just because my culture has taught me something, that doesn’t make it true, or correct. It was apparent that it was just a part of Haitian culture, which I hadn’t known, so I just relaxed and went with the flow.


Talking to a boy who lost everything

City Soleil in Haiti is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world. There is no real sewage system save for an open canal, and this led to a cholera epidemic that was sweeping through the community. As part of my story, I walked through it looking for an image that would convey what people here live like on a daily basis. From an outside perspective it’s easy to think in terms of statistics, and to de-humanize the people who live there. My conversation with this boy changed that for me. His family had lived on a farm on the rural edge of the city but sold it to move to the city where they thought they would find a better life. Soon after arriving, the earthquake struck, and they were left with nothing at all. They had no land and couldn’t live self-sufficiently like they had before. They had only one option, to build a shanty in City Soleil. I will never understand completely what it feels like to be trapped in a place like this, but I can certainly have more compassion for those who are.


Close encounters with wild animals

At the very end of my expedition to the Arctic, I finally encountered the white wolves that I’d been hoping to see for the last month. On the last day, I had skied out onto the ice alone to write in my journal. I heard our dogs howling in camp, about a mile away. It was a very distinct howl that signaled a threat, not the standard communal howl that they ended every day with. Seven wolves were running across the ice toward me. They were close, too close for me to retreat back to the camp before being overtaken. Instead I waited for them. They began to run around me, each taking a turn at coming in behind me when I had turned to face the last. Still it didn’t seem threatening, but more like they were curious. Six of them eventually sat around me in a wide circle. The last continued to circle with its head held low. I sat down in a submissive gesture that I hoped would be respected. The wolf walked around behind me. I couldn’t hear it anymore, and wondered if perhaps it had walked away when a hot breath began to pant on the back of my neck. The cold wet nose made contact with my skin. The other wolves seemed calm, so I stayed calm. The inspection only lasted a moment, and the wolf walked around in front of me and sat down. I don’t speak wolf, but I swear in its eyes it was saying, “you are okay with me.” What I learned that day is to act natural, like you’re meant to be there. Don’t be afraid, but don’t present a threat either by trying to show how tough you are. The body language you must convey in these situations tells the animal, “I know you’re there, but I don’t mind.” It’s seen me through close calls with sharks, mountain lions, bears and humans.