You’re widely known for aerial shots. Have you always flown for your work?
I seriously got into flying about 12 years ago, when I did a story on the Sahara for National Geographic magazine. I wanted to go into northern Chad and Niger, but there really weren’t any aircraft available. I had to figure out how to do it myself, so I learned to fly a motorized paraglider.
After that, you were hooked?
I could get pictures of places where nobody had ever flown before and nobody had ever seen from above. The aircraft I use flies very low and slow so I can get a unique vantage point. The ability to see and do something that no one ever has before was very exciting, and I decided to continue doing that in other parts of the world.
So photography — not paragliding — was your first love?
I’m a photographer who flies, not a pilot who takes pictures. I still do pictures from the ground. What I do in the air is something that really nobody else can do.
How do people respond to the paraglider? Does it ever draw the wrong kind of attention or are people mostly just curious?
People are usually very curious — they’ve never seen one before. In Africa, people are waving at you to come land in their village, and then when you land they start to freak out and run away. Generally, the curiosity has a positive vibe. Like when you land in front of somebody’s house and they come out and shake your hand, bring you some water or a little snack, and offer to carry your stuff back to wherever you came from.
It sounds like people’s curiosity can be quite helpful in your work.
For the places that are very difficult to photograph, if you go and land in front of it, people are often so shocked that you can do anything you want for about half an hour — until they realize, “Oh, I’ve got to get rid of this guy.”
I’m a photographer who flies, not a pilot who takes pictures.
Have you ever found yourself in a sticky situation with law enforcement in another country?
I signed up for this program where you can get in and out of the United States by putting your thumb on the thumb reader, and I had to do this interview with the guy from customs and border patrol. He asked, “Have you ever been arrested?” I kind of hesitated, and he asked what my hesitation meant. Then I said, “Well, arrested in what country?” I’ve been arrested for spying in a lot of countries. I was arrested three times in Iran. I had permission to fly there, but I kept getting arrested by the security people. We were told we had to be out of the country within 24 hours. It was a really tough place to work.
It sounds like sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you have a permit or not. It seems like the decision not to bother getting one is a calculated risk.
Once you start the process of trying to get a permit, you can’t be in ignorance of the law. Sometimes it’s easier to buy the local policemen a beer. Do you want to ask them first, or do you just go and do it, then kind of laugh it off with them afterward? It’s a lot easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Has this been successful for you?
It’s the same thing as taking pictures on the ground. If you go up to someone and say, “Hey, can I take your picture?” you might ruin the situation you’re trying to capture. And so, I generally think, “Can I get away with this?”
When do you know you’ve captured a perfect moment?
When everything kind of lines up. A friend of mine calls this experience “photogasm.” When everything’s just boom, boom, boom! And it all just happens. In my business, there is a lot of seeking and not much finding. Things are always different from the air than they are from the ground. So you go up and you look. It’s like hunting. Usually you come back empty-handed. As a friend of mine says, “You don’t catch any fish from a car.”