It sounds like a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark or Fitzcarraldo. On assignment for National Geographic, photographer Carsten Peter trekked for a day and a half through jungles and down rivers in Vietnam in the company of a British exploring club that had discovered the largest subterranean caves in the world. In addition to climbing gear, camping equipment and provisions, the club and their porters also had to transport hundreds of light bulbs. Peter planned to use the bulbs as he photographed the galleries and passages of the Hang Son Doong caves.
The bulbs, which were first used in the 1930s, before the invention of the electronic flash, are filled with magnesium, and could be counted on to emit a powerful light. “You have maybe a mile-long gallery that has to be lit,” Peter explains. He had anticipated that each shot would take about a dozen bulbs, placed on outcroppings, set on stands around the cavern or held by climbers as they hung in harnesses in the middle of the caves. The problem was, each bulb could be used only once. “They have a little magnesium in there, and they go ‘poof,’” Peter explains. “They burn out in one flash.” Each of his shots had to be repeated several times as he adjusted the lights, accounting for the climbers turning the bulbs in the wrong direction and for the clouds of mist moving through the humid, dank caverns. Hence the need to carry hundreds of bulbs to the cave’s remote location.
Despite all the obstacles, Peter’s strategy worked. His dramatic images of the cavern’s lakes and stalagmites, published last year in National Geographic, earned Peter his second award from the prestigious World Press Photo competition. He won his previous World Press Photo prize in 2004, for his images of tornadoes in the American south and west.
Peter has made his reputation by exploring remote and sometimes dangerous places in a variety of ways—rappelling into active volcanoes, deep-sea diving, climbing through glaciers, outracing tornadoes—and by employing ingenious techniques and customized gear in order to meet the technical challenges he finds in each location. When, for example, the enormous crystals in a cave under Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert interfered with optical triggers on his strobes, he customized his own radio slaves to trigger multiple strobes around the cave interiors. Inside a volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he used lightpainting and long exposures to capture the dark walls of the crater. “I make special constructions, if necessary. Everything that’s necessary for the shoot, I’ll do it,” Peter says. Though he does careful research in advance in order to anticipate problems, he often has to make quick decisions, and come up with solutions on the fly. “There’s a lot of improvisation involved, because things turn out completely differently than you’d expect. When you’re down there in a volcano crater, you can be faced with something unexpected.”
His obsession with exploration seems inspired by equal parts scientific curiosity and childlike wonder. The German-born Peter studied biology in college. During breaks between semesters, he would travel around Africa by motorcycle, always bringing along a camera. “Photography for me was a tool to show others interesting parts of the world that are difficult to reach.” He taught himself photography by reading a book, and then doing everything the book said not to do. “If they said you can’t photograph into the sun, I photographed into the sun,” he says. “It’s interesting to me to approach it in a different way.” Sales of his photos helped him finance his studies and his travels.
His fascination with nature’s wonders dates back even earlier. As a 15-year-old, he was thrilled to join his parents on a trip to Mount Etna, the active volcano in Sicily. To his disappointment, as soon as they reached the top, his parents wanted to go straight back down, he recalls. “I just wanted to stay there. My parents couldn’t share my enthusiasm.” He remembers peering over the edge of the rim to get his first peek inside a volcano. “After that, I had magma in my blood and I had to go back.”
When, at age 17, he had his first chance to travel independently, he went with a friend to Stromboli, the island off Sicily, and climbed to the top of its volcano in hopes of taking pictures from the crater’s rim. “There was an explosion,” he says, and he and his friend took off running without ever pressing the shutters on their cameras. “When we saw the lava over our heads, we realized we should have been at a safer distance, with maybe a different lens.”
Around the same time, Peter had begun exploring caves. Eventually, “bored with limestone caves,” he decided to adapt his climbing techniques to exploring Alpine glaciers. “I didn’t have the attitude of mountaineers who always want to climb peaks. I was mesmerized by the glaciers,” he says. “You come back every year, and it changes every year. It’s like a living thing. It’s really fascinating.” Soon, he says, he was “hungry for more,” so he investigated glaciers in Iceland and Greenland. At the time, he says, few professionals had photographed glaciers from the inside, yet public concern was growing about the retreat of glaciers as a result of climate change. He sent his portfolio of glacier shots to National Geographic, and landed his first cover story for the magazine in 1996.
Getting on to the cover of National Geographic is every nature photographer’s dream, but to Peter, it meant he had to reach a higher benchmark. In shooting for the magazine, he says, “There are always certain pressures to do something new or different.” He faces competition, not only from other professional nature photographers; Peter notes that he is sometimes following in the footsteps of amateur explorers—like the British explorers who had discovered the Hang Son Doong caves—or working alongside scientists who are also shooting photographs. All of them would like to get their images published.
“There’s often this mistrust: ‘What does he do better?’ ‘Why him instead of me?’” he says. “Sometimes I must admit they make really nice images.” Peter challenges himself to find new interpretations of the locations he shoots. “It’s rare to be in an untouched world nowadays, but maybe you can do something different, or completely new.” He typically varies his lighting technique and gear to whatever the shoot requires—and keeps it to a minimum, given that most of his assignments require long, often arduous treks with camping and climbing gear. A late convert to digital, he typically uses Nikon cameras, including the D4 and D8, and finds that advances in low-ISO performance in the latest DSLRs have been a boon to his work.
When Peter proposed to magazine editors that he could use his climbing experience to get images from inside an active volcano, they were skeptical. But he has now photographed the roiling lava lakes deep inside the volcano on the island of Abrym in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu and the Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo for National Geographic as well as other volcanic sites.
On Abrym, Peter and his fellow climbers had to descend a roughly 1,500-foot vertical drop from the rim of the crater to reach the lava lake below. “It was kind of dicey because of the rock fall,” says Peter, explaining that due to the constant seismic activity, pieces of rock were falling around them and there were few stable points to set an anchor line. “You almost can’t communicate down there because it’s so loud; the ground underneath you is shaking,” Peter says.
On these shoots, Peter usually dons a gas mask and thermal suit. “You have toxic, acidic gases that attack the glass of the lenses. One of my lenses was completely eaten up, and of course all the electrical contacts suffer there.” On one climb into a volcano, the camera he had mounted to his helmet was eaten away by corrosive gasses.
Though Peter has been described as a “daredevil” photographer, he is keenly attuned to the risks both to himself and to his traveling companions. “I try to minimize the dangers as much as possible,” he says. “If you are there with a team, you can’t risk that someone could be hurt.” Research and testing is essential, he says, as is good management of his team.
Peter’s passion for sharing his wonder at the world’s most remote places carries a risk. “On the one hand you make the public aware if its beauty,” he says. On the other hand, he notes, a place like Hang Son Doong could be exploited for tourism. “I hope this isn’t the consequence of showing it to people.” He adds, “I understand if people want to go there, but it should be in a protected way, where you leave behind nothing but footprints.” He hopes the area will be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.