In the hierarchy of badass jobs one can have, there are a few standouts: astronaut, Alaskan crab fisherman, falconer, professional skydiver (to name a few). But there’s still one more that really takes the cake as the most hardcore, badass job on the planet, and that’s the National Geographic Photographer. These photographers put themselves through the ultimate tests in order to get the most incredible shots, and it takes a special kind of person to want to stay up for hours on end—covered in god knows what—just to take a photo of a bird that no one has ever been seen before.
One of our very own is that special kind of person: Daniel Byers ’08 is an alum who has worked as a photographer for National Geographic and USAID. He also produces films about environmental and health issues along with Joey Brunelle ’07. Together, they have created films that cover issues around the world, including climate change, the preservation tropical ecosystems, and healthcare in Nepal.
We asked Daniel about his time at Brown and some of the work that he has done. Check out our interview with the brave alum after the jump.
BlogDH: How many countries have you been to?
Daniel Byers ’08: Probably around 20, which isn’t all that many as a number. But only one of them is a European country, and I do a lot of repeat work in certain regions, so, for example, I’ve been on five expeditions to Nepal these last three years, but very different areas, landscapes, and cultures within that country.
BlogDH: What was your favorite project?
Daniel: Chasing snow leopards in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan with National Geographic and the WCS. After we managed to trap and radio collar the first leopard in the country’s history, it circled back and started stalking us instead, even confronted one of our expedition members and stared him down the last night. It brought home to me the importance of having respect for the other life—especially predators—you might deal with in the context of wildlife documentary film. You could imagine the cat saying: “You let me go, so I’ll return the favor… but this is my mountain, and don’t you forget it.”
BlogDH: What is a typical day like in the field?
Daniel: Cold! Getting out of your sleeping bag at 30 below is probably the hardest part of the job. Then there’s often a great deal of walking, 8 or 10 hours at high altitude, to get to the next camp (or whitewater rafting, or climbing, or Tibetan pony-riding). There’s absolutely no such thing as a typical day in the field overall—every project and every place is entirely unique, with an entirely unique set of challenges.
BlogDH: Have you ever felt as if your life was in jeopardy?
Daniel: Absolutely. I was in the Sikkim Earthquake in Namche Bazaar last year—houses came down. I stayed overnight with twenty armed cocaine runners in Honduras. I was smack in the middle of a German helicopter raid on the Taliban during the spring offensive in Afghanistan last year. A desert viper attacked me last week, and got my boot—inches higher and I wouldn’t be writing this. The list goes on, but risk goes with this kind of work, and overall I’ve been very lucky.
BlogDH: What was your time like at Brown?
Daniel: Awesome, obviously.
BlogDH: What did you concentrate in?
Daniel: Screenwriting. You need to understand how to tell a story, from the structural and narrative side, before you can make a film.
BlogDH: Did you take any photography classes at Brown or RISD?
Daniel: As many as I could manage. I also took art classes and writing classes and society/history classes. Filmmaking is informed by a huge diversity of factors, from story to visuals to real-world subject matter – the latter is especially true of documentary.
BlogDH: Why did you want to be a photographer/filmmaker?
Daniel: I wanted to be a filmmaker because, while I enjoy storytelling, writing alone isn’t enough of palette of experiences for me. I want to engage with the physical world and other people to tell stories, and I want to try to tell stories that make an impact towards the things I find important. The world’s a mess and it needs its problem narratives reshaped and the positive work that is being done needs to be shared.
BlogDH: How did you get involved with NatGeo?
Daniel: Through a friend who’d seen my expedition work and recommended me to them. I’ve shot two pieces for NatGeo Channel, but most of my work is independent.
BlogDH: What photograph are you most proud of?
Daniel: I quite like this portrait of a boy with heterochromia I took while making a film with an outreach medical eye camp in Mustang, Nepal—he’d suffered trauma to one eye, causing it to refract light differently and appear blue. The doctors are trying to determine now if they can help restore his sight.
BlogDH: What’s the most badass thing you’ve done and/or seen?
Daniel: Done: galloped across the Tibetan desert with a team of Buddhist monks to ferry old blind men and women to an eye screening camp. Seen: the Darweze fire crater in Turkmenistan, a massive crater created by a soviet drilling catastrophe in the 70s that’s been burning ever since.
Daniel definitely fits the mold of the don’t-give-a-shit-about-my-personal-safety, balls-to-the-walls National Geographic Photographer. His work is also shedding light on important environmental and public health issues. If you want to learn more about his various projects, be sure to visit the website for Skyship Films, which he and Joey Brunelle ’07 run together. Also be sure to check out Daniel’s Flickr page.