A few weeks ago, we shared some photos taken by adventure travel photographer Dr. Andrew Peacock who was stranded on the Russian ship M.V. Akademik Shokalskiy in the Antarctic. The thing is, we didn’t want to stop there. When we visited his site in search of his contact information, we immediately fell in love with his photography.
Our “Permission to Share Photos” email quickly evolved into a “Permission to Share Photos and Interview Request” email. Fortunately for us, he said yes.
First, a little bit about our interviewee: Dr. Andrew Peacock is a doctor, climber and adventure travel photographer based out of Australia (for now).
His accolades include: winner of the 2013 PDN Great Outdoors ‘Scenes of the Natural World’ competition, winner of the 2013 Australian Geographic ANZANG “Portfolio” and “Animal Portrait” Prizes, assistant filmmaker/photographer (and medical officer!) for the Corey Rich Productions film “A New Perspective” shot in July 2012 on Trango Tower in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, which won the Grand Prize at the 2013 International Festival of Mountain Film in France, and Winner of the ‘Call of the Wild’ portfolio 2008 Travel Photographer of the Year award.
PetaPixel: First things first, tell us a little bit about your background in photography. When did you start, what initially sparked your interest and what was your first camera?
Dr. Andrew Peacock: I was interested in photography at high school in Adelaide, South Australia where I grew up and always had photography posters on my bedroom wall — ‘Barge and Children’ by Willy Ronis for instance — but I was busy training for flat water kayak racing and studying to get into medical school, so any creative endeavors were largely sidelined. I certainly never had an idea of photography as a possible career that’s for sure.
When I travelled to Europe as a teenager for the Junior World Kayak Championships I took my first camera with me — a Canon T70 — and some rolls of print film. I suddenly was very interested in photographing all the places I visited in contrast with not taking many photos at home.
Being in a new place sparked my interest. I was always dropping into camera stores in various towns and I remember being excited about buying a Tokina zoom lens (my first) in Germany. That trip sowed the seed of a wanderlust for travel and photography but the latter pursuit was a slow burner because medical school and then work as a doctor distracted me for many years.
PP: So when did you begin making the transition from Doctor into Doctor/Photographer in earnest? And from there into Doctor/Adventure Travel Photographer…
AP: While working as a surgical resident in California in the early 90’s I started using transparency film, it was a really transforming moment when I reviewed my first slides from a trip to Hawaii on a light table, they were very average pictures but the unforgiving nature of transparency film and the almost magical 3D quality of the image when viewed through a loupe really grabbed my attention and I wanted to learn more and get better at photography.
At that time I started rock climbing and the Sierra mountains in California were my proving ground. I wasn’t very good at it but I loved the physical and mental challenge it provided and I started meeting and reading about climbers who I found inspiring.
Any hope of a traditional medical ‘career’ was doomed from then on as the life of a nomad climber appealed more and I’ve never gone on to complete training in a speciality area. Instead I have built up an extensive amount of experience in general and emergency medicine combining traditional hospital contract work with remote area and expedition work in Australia and overseas, aiming where I could to find ways of combining climbing, paddling and photography with medical work, both paid and voluntary.
PP: Were you following any particular photographers at the time?
AP: Given my climbing interest I think it was only natural that the photographer I most admired then was Galen Rowell and I really enjoyed learning from his books.
Later, back living in California with a lovely ballerina I had met in San Francisco (now my wife), I decided to volunteer and work as a doctor for the Tibetan Government in exile in Dharamsala, India. I contacted Fuji and they kindly gave me fifty rolls of Velvia to take with me. Galen had written about his connection with the Dalai Lama so I called to ask him about photographing there. It was just a quick phone call but he was very friendly and encouraging. Sadly I never actually met him before his untimely death in a light plane crash.
PP: When did you first get noticed/published as a photographer?
AP: After India I went on to volunteer with the Himalayan Rescue Association in Nepal and when I got back to Australia I thought I had a lot of great images to show. Yeah, right! They were all pretty average, my exposure was off more often that not and I had no clue about how to ‘tell a story’ with a photo. Still, I did have enough photos from the subcontinent combined with those from the U.S. to get a foot in the door with Lonely Planet Images in Australia (this stock library has now been sold to Getty).
The discipline of submitting regularly to LPI and the realization that I wanted to style myself as an ‘adventure travel photographer’ meant that I persisted with photography but it was only when the digital era really got underway that my photography skills and output improved.
PP: Can you expand on that a bit? Why exactly did the digital era have such a positive impact on you?
AP: Clearly it’s an easier craft to get ‘right’ now because of the immediacy of feedback from the LCD screen, but for me it was all about a new sense of freedom if I can put it that way.
I don’t mean that I’m happy now to just fire away at everything and anything, in fact I have a fairly circumspect approach to pressing the shutter and that was only compounded by my sense that everything had to be ‘just right’ before I would take a photo with slide film. I was being constrained by a desire to conserve film and not waste shots and probably by the fact that years in a medical environment somewhat dulled my creative thought processes.
Digital cameras — and less formal medical work — have ‘freed’ me up a lot more, although my friend, experienced adventure sports photographer Corey Rich, tells me I’m still very parsimonious when it comes to shooting.
I was lucky to be invited by him to work as his assistant on a project in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan in 2012 and it was really the first time I had stood next to Corey taking pictures. I don’t think he could understand why my frame rate was so slow when photographing busy scenes! Oh well, there’s always something and someone to learn from in photography, which is one of the great things about it. I have done a few short courses over the years but not been formally taught.
PP: Now that Lonely Planet Images is owned Getty Images do you still work with them? Or do you submit your work elsewhere?
AP: I contribute images to Corey’s agency Aurora Photos in the U.S. now as well as occasionally to the Lonely Planet collection at Getty Images and have recently had a lot more interest in publishing and printing photos because of my last trip to Antarctica that produced some award-winning images.
PP: Alright, you knew we were going to bring this up. You were recently stuck aboard the ship that was all over the news. Can you start by telling us what exactly happened?
AP: The Shokalskiy was caught by an unexpected break out of old multi-year pack ice. The expedition had completed its Antarctic shore based work and we were only two miles from open water when stopped by the ice initially, but during the blizzard that followed that distance became twenty miles.
There was enough initial concern about large icebergs moving independently within the pack ice near the ship to require a request for help to be sent by the Russian Captain to maritime rescue authorities. Once that immediate danger had thankfully passed, for those onboard it was a case of sit tight and celebrate Christmas Day and New Year in the usual fashion while enjoying a unique environment.
Each day was a case of wondering what would transpire next as authorities canvassed options and made and then changed plans frequently. It was an unsettling experience for some of the passengers and so the expedition team focused on doing what we could to keep spirits high and people informed and occupied.
On January 2nd a helicopter from the Chinese Icebreaker, “Xue Long”, that was unable to forge a path to extricate the Shokalskiy, was used to shuttle us across a vast expanse of glittering pack ice to the Australian ship Aurora Australis which had been interrupted in its resupply and refueling operation at Casey Station, one of the Australian Antarctic bases.
It was a thoroughly professional operation conducted in good weather and all of those evacuated are very thankful for the help that was offered, especially in light of the considerable inconvenience to the Chinese and Australian ship timetables and missions in Antarctica.
PP: You were the expedition’s doctor but I seems like you took up the mantle of expedition photographer too. Does that happen often?
AP: I was asked to be the AAE Doctor by a climbing friend, Greg Mortimer, one of Australia’s most lauded mountaineers. We climbed Manaslu (8163m) together in 2002. As often occurs in such a situation I ‘morph’ into the Expedition Photographer, giving instruction and talks on photography to the clients.
Being an Expedition Doctor can be a thankless task because I’m only useful when things go wrong and nobody wants that to happen so it’s always been seen as a good thing by myself and by others to have another useful skill to add to the mix so that I can still be of use to clients.
Interestingly there was one expedition to the Arctic through the Northwest Passage where my contractual engagement was as a photographer yet I was expected to fulfill the responsibilities of a medical professional if those skills were needed.
I lead treks in India and Nepal occasionally and also on those journeys adopt the role of Expedition Photographer when I can.
PP: How has the experience affected your photography career?
AP: This past year has been a difficult one personally for a few reasons and despite earning more from photography than ever before — we are not talking a large number here folks — my output has been the lowest for years. That was until this current Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE, see www.spiritofmawson.com).
As a result of our ship getting ‘stuck’ in ice I found myself at the centre of a somewhat overwrought media frenzy and, because of the technology we had available, I was able to take advantage of it to tell our story.
Luckily nothing pressing was going on medically so I was given the go ahead by the expedition team to focus on my photographic output. For that slow news period between Christmas and New Year it’s likely that I was the most published photographer in the world in both the press and web news sites. It was all a bit surreal given that I was stuck on a ship at the bottom of the world.
PP: It seems crazy that that’s even possible. How DO you communicate with the media from the bottom of the world?
AP: Access to an excellent Inmarsat communications system and the presence of social media savvy science leaders onboard played no small part in enabling the media attention that the AAE garnered — both good and bad! For my part it paved the way to share images from all aspects of the expedition — not just the ‘rescue event’ — with a worldwide audience.
Because we needed to point the Satellite modem skyward, a tent was lashed to the top deck of the Shokalskiy and from this cozy little media hub I uploaded images while often being battered by gale force winds. From the moment we shared some low resolution files with my copyright watermark on the expedition social media hub (‘Intrepid Science’ on Google+) the emails started arriving from news agencies and newspapers for access to photos.
PP: We may or may not have been responsible for one of those emails. How did you deal with all of the media attention? Were there any specific challenges?
AP: I agreed initially to file 4 – 6 photos a day directly to a couple of news wires on a day pay rate (with a proportion of any income to go to the AAE fund) and said no to a large number of outlets looking for free use of images (at least they contacted me to ask) but that was only until I could get in touch with the great team at Aurora Photos and they agreed to take over the outsourcing.
Then I could concentrate on taking photos and uploading bigger files to just one place (the Satellite connection bill was of concern). I subsequently received an email from Agence France-Presse (AFP) specifically about supplying photos of the impending rescue – as it happened.
The time difference to the US meant that Aurora Photos couldn’t move the files quickly enough so I negotiated terms with AFP to provide six exclusive photos of that event. It was a fun but challenging process to be in the field shooting a dynamic and quickly unfolding event knowing that I too had to be packed and ready to leave on the fourth of six helicopter flights and I hadn’t expected the transfers to occur so quickly.
I photographed the first evacuation, rushed back to my cabin, downloaded the images, selected an edit, quickly processed the RAW files (my preference rather than shoot JPEG) and then rushed again to the bow of the ship where I had set up the satellite link and uploaded the photos into a shared Dropbox folder. It all worked very well. I then focused on taking images of the rest of us being evacuated for later output.
PP: Alright, all this Antarctic talk is making me cold, let’s get back to photography in general. Being a physician must give you an interesting perspective, do you feel like it affects your photography? And if so, how? Have you ever had issues balancing these two worlds?
AP: Hmmm, I don’t really know if it does affect how and what I photograph. I know that I am relatively comfortable in performing tasks in a pressured situation so perhaps that helps me somewhat but that comes with repetition and experience anyway.
I’d like to focus on a health related project sometime and often when I’m at work I see many stories happening around me that could be told through imagery but there is a conflict for me in doing so and I haven’t ever crossed that line in a clinical environment.
In an expedition setting some people do need time to adjust to the idea of the doctor focusing a lot of energy and time on photography. As long as the relevant medical infrastructure — strategies, plans, equipment etc — has been put in place then I feel that I can allow time for photography (both for myself and in helping others) and I know that if needed I can easily put aside any photography pursuit or ambition and turn my attention completely to the assistance of an injured or sick person.
I have never and would not compromise the medical care of an individual for the sake of taking photos.
PP: Your portfolio contains everything from landscapes, to street-style photography, to action shots. Do you feel like you specialize in any one particular subject in your photography?
AP: Yes I suppose my website portfolio does cover a reasonable gamut of categories and that’s because editorial work has always been what’s interested me most, and so I think it’s important to show that I can cover a wide range of subject material competently.
Given the interest the ‘Shokalskiy pictures’ generated I wish I’d had the chance to access my website and make any changes to ensure it was really showing my best recent work. The experience was a good reminder of the importance of doing a review regularly along those lines.
Street photography I find fascinating but difficult to master and I have the utmost admiration for those who do it well like Marius Vieth who PetaPixel recently featured. I like to try and tell stories of people moving, traveling and living in interesting and remote landscapes but recently I’ve realized that wildlife in those environments is something I’d like to spend more time on. It might finally be time to save up for a long, fast, prime lens!
PP: Do you draw inspiration from other adventure travel photographers? If so, who specifically?
AP: Definitely, although I blur the lines in drawing that inspiration in the sense that most of those I follow and learn from tend to work in the adventure ‘sport’ arena which I don’t really.
I’ve already mentioned Galen Rowell and Corey Rich. I’ve known Corey since he was travelling the States in a van shooting awesome climbing pics on Velvia and have always looked up to him. I hope he’ll appreciate the joke in that comment if he reads this.
Greg Epperson, Simon Carter and other dedicated climbing photographers have always impressed me with their work ethic. You just have to look at the finalists in the Red Bull Illume contest last year to find many other great image makers for inspiration. Krystle Wright, a fellow Aussie from that group is a good friend and great photographer just making her mark and Jimmy Chin and Keith Ladzinski are also fantastic story tellers.
In the current context I should mention Frank Hurley, an Australian who surely should be considered the original adventure travel photographer on the basis of his amazing photos taken in very difficult conditions while on the first Australasian Antarctic Expedition with Sir Douglas Mawson 100 years ago, the expedition whose path we were traveling this time.
Finally there is a Kiwi, Colin Monteath, who has been off the beaten track following adventure and documenting the mountain and polar regions with great pictures for a long time.
PP: Alright, quick technical question, would you mind telling us what gear you use?
AP: I’ve always used Canon SLR cameras. I have the 5D Mark III (and an old 5D) as well as a number of Canon L series lenses. In Australia we have useful support through Canon Professional Services. I rely on SanDisk Extreme Pro SD cards, Gitzo tripods and Lowepro camera bags.
I’ve tried but generally found it difficult to develop a close working relationship with various gear companies, but I am loyal to any that make reliable kits (hint, hint) because I try to travel light when heading to places like Antarctica or the Himalaya and it’s important that everything does what it’s meant to do as there are no backup options when gear malfunctions or breaks.
PP: Any post processing secrets you’d like to share?
AP: No secrets because it’s not a super strong area of mine! I use Adobe Lightroom exclusively and rarely edit in Photoshop, but that’s probably because I’ve never taken the time to master it. Peter Eastway in Australia is a good example of an educator whose beautiful landscape work demonstrates how digital files can become art, which is something I’m not brave enough to fully embrace but from which much can be learned.
I don’t think I do anything very special, I try to keep things pretty real. On this trip for the first time I’ve been experimenting with some VSCO PRO film presets in Lightroom because they emulate some of the slide emulsion looks that I’ve always liked.
PP: What would you say is your favorite thing about being an adventure travel photographer?
AP: The glib answer would be that editing a few thousand images gives me something to do when stuck on a ship going nowhere in Antarctica. Seriously though, it gives me the opportunity to think and explore creatively in amazing locations and the chance to share stories about those places through my images with (hopefully) a worldwide audience. I like to see my photos published, not just sitting in a hard drive.
PP: Do you have a favorite photograph? How about a favorite destination? You’ve been all around the world, has any place made a more lasting impact than the rest?
AP: The favorite photo I’ve taken changes all the time and usually it’s a favorite because of the process or emotion involved in its capture rather than any sense of mastery or excellence. Currently it’s an image from this Antarctic trip of the Shokalskiy ‘stuck’ in the ice taken using an old Canon 15mm Fish Eye lens (thanks for the sale Krystle Wright!) by placing my camera into a small gap in an incredible multi-hued blue ice feature hoping to compose such that the blue ice and small stalactites I could see would arch over the ship. (seen at the top)
I couldn’t see the viewfinder or the LCD screen. It worked really well and evokes a classic Frank Hurley image from the ice. A variation of the shot with two people included for scale was published on the front page of the main Sydney newspaper on New Years Eve. For some reason I only took the FE lens with me out on the ice that day and really shouldn’t have expected to find such a shot in an otherwise expansive area of mostly flat ice.
As far as destinations go, Nepal has made the most impact on me personally but I have yet to really feel that I’ve photographed the people and the landscape of that incredible country well. I need to take more trips there and do that better. Photographically, the polar regions are exciting and varied and so unique. I will always jump at any chance to return to the Arctic and Antarctica.
PP: Do you have a favorite moment that you wish you would have captured, but missed out on?
AP: No, but I do have a favorite adventure that I did capture but miss not having photos of today. My wife Sabina and I climbed the ‘Black Ice Couloir,’ a classic moderate but somewhat committing climb on the Grand Teton in Wyoming. I took along a point-and-shoot camera to record what for us was a real highlight of our climbing journeys together but later, on another climb, I dropped the camera and it plummeted to the glacier below never to be found.
PP: Is there any place left on your bucket list that you’d like to go and photograph?
AP: Many places. Alaska. Ancient Petra in Jordan. Anywhere that the food and wine is excellent, that means Tuscany … again. The view from the summit of Mount Everest with nobody else there … oops, except for my wife of course!
PP: Any advice for budding adventure travel photographers? Tips? Tricks of the trade?
AP: Oh I’m still very much a budding photographer. I’m not sure that I know many tricks but I know I’ve learned a thing or three from this trip.
My main tips are to value the time and effort you put in and the output you produce, shoot RAW files, edit critically, learn Lightroom, and get your photos out there — and by that I don’t just mean on Flickr, I mean in magazines, commercial websites, stock libraries, the walls of a gallery or a home etc.
Hold out for payment for your images, don’t believe the ‘we don’t have a budget’ line or at least learn to be an astute judge of when a contribution for free can lead to other things for you or of when it makes sense to be generous for a cause.
PP: Do you still consider medicine to be your main occupation? Do you ever see yourself leaving that behind entirely to pursue photography exclusively? And, last but not least, what’s next for you? We understand you’re getting ready for a big move to the United States, what role will photography play once you get here?
AP: Yes, at the moment medical work is what pays the travel bills most easily but there is a major change afoot that I’m hoping will alter this. I’ve recently received a permanent immigrant visa for the U.S. and will arrive on the west coast on February the 7th for an initial five weeks to see what we can set up for the future.
I’m looking forward to catching up with our many friends there and exploring possibilities for a new base somewhere west of the Rockies, yes it’s that broad an area we would consider! The rub is that working in clinical medicine in the US would entail a long process of re-qualification and so I think now might finally be the time to take a leap into the unknown and pursue photography more seriously.
Clearly it’s not an easy time in the industry for making that transition, I’m well aware of that, and to do so would require a more business-like approach, some realistic goal setting, the warm embrace of all social media and some damn hard work to succeed, but of course it’s possible. New creative and business friends are always welcome, if anyone has ideas, suggestions … offers(!) then feel free to get in touch with me at [email protected]
As for leaving medicine behind completely, I doubt that will happen. I’ll always be a ‘doc’ and I’m proud to be one too, I can make an important contribution to others by practicing that profession, it just won’t be five days a week within the confines of four walls. I’ll stay registered to practice in Australia, return there frequently, and I will continue to educate and work in Expedition and Wilderness Medicine all around the globe whenever possible.
PP: Thank you for your time Andrew, and safe travels!
PS: Here are a few bonus images, including one final photo (the last one) that we’re including because, in Andrew’s words, he’s “always wanted to see this photo published.” We’re happy to oblige :)