Levison Wood talks about some of the challenges of expedition photography whilst on his latest adventure in the Middle East.
Dhofar, Oman, November 2017
It’s five pm on the jebel and the camels are grunting. They know it’s feeding time soon and they’ll be able to munch on the lush green leaves of the Frankincense trees down in the wadi; their twitching noses have been able to smell the vegetation for miles. It’s not far now and the team are all tired, they can’t wait to shed their loads and make camp and grab a drink of water. It’s hot and it’s sweaty and the flies have been buzzing round our heads all day long.
Sayeed, the youngest of the tribe plods on ahead with his beast, eager to prove his worth as a path finder, swinging the rifle above his head like some sort of circus clown. My feet are bruised and blistered too but the only thing I can think about right now is the light. It’s the golden hour and the mountains are glowing a perfect amber. I’m waiting to crest the ridge and get the perfect shot. I’ve studied the ground and know that from the plateau I’ll get a great picture of the Dhofar escarpment as it sweeps away towards the Arabian sea to the south, backlit against a dying sun. As we climb the last few steps, the shadows of the camels are so long they stretch out across the rocky desert. I swing my Camera - a Leica SL - from its trusty place by my side, at the end of a military rifle sling that I picked up in Iraq, and raise it to my chest.
There it is. Cliffs a mile high, looking like a more spectacular version of the grand canyon, with the added virtue of rather menacing camel herders armed to the teeth with rifles and traditional Omani daggers called Khanjals dangling from their belts. It’s like a scene from the Arabian nights crossed with Star Wars and Mad Max. I flip the on switch and then stare in absolute horror as the display flashes the symbol all photographers dread: low battery.
I fumble around, looking for a spare, but it’s too late, the sun disappears behind a ridge and the light is gone. I hang my head in shame. It would have been no use anyway as all my batteries are empty. After all I’ve been away from civilisation (and electricity) for six days, and I’ve been snapping away happily the whole time. There’s nothing to be done except make sure next time, I carry more batteries.
Such are the perils of expedition photography. On that occasion, it wasn’t the end of the world as I’d already taken hundreds of great photographs of the Dhofar, but I was still annoyed. To be fair, my bag was already bulging at the seams and it was well over the ten kilograms I’d planned on carrying and I’d been walking for the best part of a week over rough, steep terrain and the last thing you need is extra weight. My bag was already stuffed with clothes, food, water, notepads, microphones, a sleeping bag, first aid kits and
That’s one of the hardest parts of my job - balancing kit and equipment and making sure that you’ve got all the essentials, both in terms of actual survival, but also what you need to do your job - or jobs. It depends on the terrain and conditions of course but I’ve always travelled light; what doesn’t go into the day-sack, doesn’t go full stop. It’s been a rule of my journeys ever since I set out at the age of 22 to travel the length of the Silk Road across Asia, and it’s a rule I’d stuck to ever since - whether that was walking the length of the Nile, Himalayas or Americas. It’s also tough at times to find the right balance between spending time filming, doing photography and writing, but that’s the price you pay for wearing - as most photographers do - several hats.
For me photography has been a lifelong passion, inspired by a desire to capture images of remote and often misunderstood places and people. I’ve found that it compliments my other work as a filmmaker and writer perfectly. It enables me to document the same journey and story in many ways, and therefore appeal to multiple audiences and reach people that wouldn’t necessarily access my work.
I was therefore deeply honoured when Leica invited me to become an ambassador and trial some of their cutting edge cameras. I’d used the Leica M 240 on my walking journeys (and managed to smash one up in the process). It was a great camera for photojournalism, small and discreet, yet robust enough to deal with the most hardy of environments (other than falling off cliffs).
But for my latest expedition - a circumnavigation of the Arabian peninsula by land and sea - I’d been offered the SL with its unique auto focus system. I loved it from the start. It’s bigger and heavier than the M but the images are stunning, and I hope they’ll see the light of day when I return with an exhibition and a large format book. In the meantime, I’ve thrown away my extra pair of socks and asked Leica for a spare battery, just in case.
Levison Wood's latest book Eastern Horizons was published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 2nd and available to buy now in book shops and on Amazon.co.uk
To see more of Levison Wood’s work, visit www.levisonwood.com.