Photographer Carsten Peter: till the lens glows

Some like it hot. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Some like it hot. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Whether on bubbling lava lakes, in gigantic caves or on tornado hunts: Carsten Peter (55) pushes forward for another shot when other people would have long since pushed off. The Bavarian is known as one of the boldest National Geographic photographers around – although he sees things a bit differently.
Selfie of an expedition photographer: Carsten Peter. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Selfie of an expedition photographer: Carsten Peter. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Carsten, when I look at your work I cannot help wondering: Are you ever afraid?

Oh yes, I am worried that something might happen to one of us on our expeditions. Luckily – knock on wood – no bad accidents have happened. I think it is because we always try to work as safely as possible, especially in extreme situations like abseiling a volcanic crater.

There is a film clip from your expedition on Mount Nyiragongo in Congo. You are climbing without heat-resistant shoes on a thin earth wall surrounded by a lava lake. Bits of lava are flying through the air. How can you protect yourself there?

The scientists who were standing further up would have warned us by radio if they had seen bubbles in the lake. Nevertheless, it was pretty extreme. We stood on the third terrace of the crater, in front of me the tremendous lava lake was bubbling away. And then I couldn’t resist taking a look over the edge of the soup bowl. So I had to find out if it was possible to climb up the steep dike. It was pretty tedious because the ash rolled away like marbles underneath my feet. Also, it was hot enough to melt your shoe soles away. But I wanted to know something.

Melting view: ice cave in Greenland. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Melting view: ice cave in Greenland. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Was it the desire for a unique photo that made you go up the dike?

The shimmering heat would have made a great photo impossible. It was simple curiosity which motivated me. The most fascinating thing was the infrasound we could feel. The lava lake works like a membrane. It was an overwhelming experience to actually feel the volcano.

Where does your fascination for volcanoes come from?

When I was a little boy I was fascinated by photos of volcano. When I was17, I went on my first trip to Mount Stromboli without my parents. I was naivly standing on the edge of the crater when it exploded and bits of lava flew around me. I just ran for it. You can explain volcanoes geologically, but when you are standing in front of them you are lost for words. It is unbelievable.

Which role did the scientists play on your trip to Mount Nyiragongo?

It was a scientists’ expedition which I accompanied as a photographer. The volcanologists did not dare to go very close to the lava lake so I brought them some rock samples. It was a pretty big expedition with 107 porters and helpers. Something like that can only work with intensive preparation and well-established contacts. We worked together with the Goma Volcanological Observatory. We did not only have to solve huge logistical tasks but also guarantee security in a crisis country. And sure, a bit of bribery was not counter-productive.

Little men and the wind. Carsten Peter has been accompanying tornado hunters in the US for the last twelve years. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Little men and the wind. Carsten Peter has been accompanying tornado hunters in the US for the last twelve years. | Photo: Carsten Peter

How important is the scientific background of a photo story?

Very. Simple adventures become almost somewhat boring. I want to get a deeper understanding which the scientists can give me. I am also a biologist, but during my studies I quickly realised that the job is more about Petri dishes than real nature. It is necessary to take specialisation to the limits for an academic career. Maybe researching symbionts in aphids’ intestines or something like that. I had the feeling that I could walk through life in many more ways as a photographer. And now I brush shoulders with scientists from many different fields, which is very exciting.

Do you book yourself into existing expeditions or do you organise them on your own?

Both. For example, the Mount Nyiragongo expedition was my idea. I suggested it to the National Geographic magazine and they directed me to the scientist who took charge of it. I was glad to hand over responsibility. Besides the team of scientists, there was also a film team and a photo team.

The hole of all superlatives. Up to 14 assistants had to help illuminate Hang Son Doong cave. | Photo: Carsten Peter
The hole of all superlatives. Up to 14 assistants had to help illuminate Hang Son Doong cave. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Photo team? You mean you work with assistants?

If necessary, yes. Especially cave photography is not possible without assistants. It is possible that the whole team turns into assistants, as was the case when even scientists had to help with the lighting. When we explored the Hang Son Doong cave in Vietnam, sometimes up to 14 people had to help to get the lamps in place. Once we illuminated a distance of one and a half kilometres for one photo.

What was the expedition like in the world’s biggest cave?

It was discovered in 2009. In 2010, National Geographic commissioned me to photograph it. We went into the cave twice, each time for a period of two weeks living autarkic. The cave does not only feature gigantic passages but also a sunken forest in collapsed sinkholes. Mostly, it is pitch black, you have to climb, you are constantly wet. Once a bug crawled into my ear causing me terrible pain. First I tried to drown it by putting my head under water while swimming but that tactic did not work. A colleague arduously managed to squeeze a few drops of alcohol out of a disinfection wipe and drip them into my ear. That killed the bug but it was two days later when it finally fell out.

The journey into the underworld was often not easy.  | Photo: Carsten Peter
The journey into the underworld was often not easy. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Do you get on your expedition colleagues’ nerves when you take so much time for lighting?

I need to meet quality requirements so I guess I can be quite demanding. I also have to be diplomatic so the mood does not suddenly change. When in a hitch, improvisation sometimes helps. I am pretty good at creating something out of nothing and getting things going again.

You have to do a fair bit of climbing in volcanoes and caves. How did you learn that?

I practised several techniques that help me to explore the world with my camera. Climbing is part of it, but also diving or powered paragliding. I put all skills to good use on initial reconnaissance missions. Before I suggest an expedition to National Geographic, I often research the area beforehand to find out if it is even possible to photograph.

 

How did you come to take photos for National Geographic anyway? Did you introduce yourself or did they approach you?

A long time ago a friend suggested I should apply at National Geographic. I laughed at her and said, I could never get in there. The editors receive lots of brilliant photos, and they only publish less than 100 stories in one year. When you compare that number to the great many top photographers and ideas there are just waiting on the sidelines, it is next to nothing. Nevertheless I submitted an idea: View from the inside of a glacier. They returned it straight away. Well, I thought, that was that, and kept on doing my stuff. One year later they suddenly asked me what had happened to my idea and if I had kept on working at it. And indeed I had, on self-financed expeditions. And so it seemed the right opportunity had arrived. I guess it was crucial that I had a unique topic ready in high class quality at just the right time. So, my ice caves became the cover story.

Volcanologists accompanied the Congo expedition. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Volcanologists accompanied the Congo expedition. | Photo: Carsten Peter

And after your cover story, National Geographic awarded you commissioned work?

Initially they took some of my stories, and after a while they gained confidence in my work and awarded me my first contract work. A lot changed from then on because suddenly work had to be finished in a set time and – of course – it has to be unique and in brilliant quality. You are despatched somewhere for a few weeks, it rains non stop, the authorities hold you back, something gets damaged – the normal complications – and still, you have to return with hands full of gold. The more money you are responsible for, the more you have to accomplish. It is big pressure. And if you do not make it, there are countless top photographers who are waiting eagerly for their chance.

Your position as photography Olympus isn’t in danger, is it?

Of course things are easier because I am established. They know they can send me anywhere and I will not disappoint them. I am renowned for the extreme at National Geographic. When I first suggested climbing a volcano crater they looked at me in disbelief like: “Now he is totally mad” (laughs). However, I also have to prove myself with each job, I do not have a permanent contract after all.

National Geographic refers to you as their boldest photographer. Do you feel honoured?

I was a bit shocked when I saw it on the cover of the German magazine. There are many other situations which demand more courage, just think of war reporters. I am a coward and always try to keep myself as safe as possible (laughs).

Can you become rich as a National Geographic photographer?

Surely not. The good old days of editorial photography are over. There might still be a chance in advertising.

Do you also working in advertising?

Sure, I take on advertising jobs or assist companies like Nokia when they want to use one of my volcano photos for a campaign. My heart beats for expeditions though.

Spherical limestone. “Cave pearls” sounds nicer. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Spherical limestone. “Cave pearls” sounds nicer. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Twice you won the World Press Photo Award and you got elected best National Geographic Photographer in 2012. Which award means more to you?

The World Press Photo Award is the most prestigious award in photo journalism, of course I am happy about that. The other prize is awarded amongst National Geographic photographers, so this one is the most important one as it is not awarded by judges but by my colleagues who all take photos at a top level.

Are National Geographic photographers an elite group?

I would rather speak of a family. We are simply photography fanatics who would give anything for a picture. I love the annual meetings in Washington to catch up with everybody.

There is also an Emmy in your cabinet. Do you also make films?

I won it for our movie about our expedition in the Marum crater in Vanuatu. For me, though, the biggest challenge is still to combine everything in one moment in one picture. The movie in all its facets, like editing, is much more forgiving.

Do you also give presentations in the US? Are you more popular over there?

Yes, definitely. The National Geographic magazine is much more of an institution than here in Germany.

The lava lake in Mount Nyiragongo. Carsten Peter dared to go to the edge of the fire bowl. | Photo: Carsten Peter
The lava lake in Mount Nyiragongo. Carsten Peter dared to go to the edge of the fire bowl. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Why don’t you move to the US?

I like to be there, I also have many friends over there. But I grew up and feel at home south of Munich. Can there be any place more beautiful?

Is it because of your close connection to home that you created a book about the demons of the Alps? This is much different than your usual work.

I do not like to get categorized into a box: I like to dance out of line. A friend brought my attention to the subject. So I went to a masquerade in Tyrol’s Inn Valley and could not believe my eyes. It is incredible what cultural treasures are on our doorsteps and hardly anybody knows anything about them! I researched many such myths and customs and photographed them too. A Buttenmann (man offering mobile privy service in some large cities in the 18th century) in Berchtesgarden got so wild that my lens was broken. It was authentic and much more exciting than any folklore event.

All in all, your list of books is not too long.

A book means lots of work and bad payment. I would like to do something new, but I have to manage my time in order to be able to go on expeditions again. And of course, I also like to have some free time once in a while.

What do you do in your spare time? Are you like many other photographers who cannot leave their camera on the shelf?

Maybe. Most of the time I enjoy my time at home because I travel the world enough for work.

Artificially illuminated art made of limestone: inside the world’s biggest cave in Vietnam.  | Photo: Carsten Peter
Artificially illuminated art made of limestone: inside the world’s biggest cave in Vietnam. | Photo: Carsten Peter

How would you describe your photographic style? I notice that you do not play around much with depth of field.

I also like that. The great thing is that there are no laws governing what photography has to be. I do not like to focus on one thing. The photo is important and the fact that I can tell a story with my pictures. It does not matter to me which techniques lead to the result.

Which picture do you regard as your most famous?

The story with the highest response was about the cave in Vietnam. It was the most visited story on National Geographic’s website with 23 million clicks, five times as many as the previous record holder. Guess what that was?

The second most successful online story of all time on National Geographic? Maybe panda bears?

No, nudibranch slugs. Fantastically photographed by David Doubilet. Incredible, right?

Are there any missed photo opportunities you regret?

Sure, I tend to be plagued more by the feeling of failure than of success. This self criticism is a basic feeling I have, but it also motivates me to try harder and better next time.

Are there pictures whose success surprised you?

My first cover photo of a tornado might ring a bell to many people although it was definitely not my best tornado photo. But a cover does not need to be the best. It needs do be simple and clearly structured so you can understand it from a distance.

Only with people is the size of the sinter terrace apparent. | Photo: Carsten Peter
Only with people is the size of the sinter terrace apparent. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Another one of your covers for National Geographic shows storm chaser Tim Samaras with whom you have hunted tornados for twelve years, until sadly, last May, he and his son Paul and colleague Carl Young were killed by a hurricane in Oklahoma. Do you have an explanation as to how something like that could have happened to such experienced people?

Tim and his team became good friends and I still have not come to terms with their death. When we were travelling, I had full confidence in his judgement of the situation. It is difficult to now find an explanation. It was the biggest tornado of all times, 2.6 miles (4.2 km) in width. The wind speed was around 500 kilometres per hour. I don’t want to imagine the moment when they realised their misjudgement. The debris of the car and the dead bodies were discovered scattered over half a mile. If I had not been working on my volcano book back home, I would probably have been sitting in the car with them…

Do you want to go on a tornado hunt again?

Yes, but it will never be the same as it used to be. Tim was such a genius , as an engineer and meteorologist. He developed a camera which can shoot 1.4 million pictures per second. We wanted to shoot lighting with it. But he was the only person able to operate this camera which works with a helium-powered turbine. The tragedy represents a big scientific loss.

The cover photo from National Geographic. Tim Samaras died in a tornado in 2013.  | Photo: Carsten Peter
The cover photo from National Geographic. Tim Samaras died in a tornado in 2013. | Photo: Carsten Peter

Tim died while living his passion. Is this thought comforting, maybe also with regard to your own risky actions?

That has often been said about Tim, Paul and Carl. I do not share that view, because it is certainly not what they had intended. It must have been a brutal death. My God, how do you want to die? As far as I am concerned, my ashes could be scattered into a volcano, I would prefer that to lying beneath a tombstone. But for me to wish how I want to die – no, I am not ready yet.

What shall remain of Carsten Peter? Do you have a message you want to convey with your photography?

I love nature, and environmental destruction hurts. Maybe I can protect more natural treasures when I direct attention to them with my photography. For example in Vietnam there were plans to make a tourist attraction out of the cave. When the story was published in National Geographic, the plan was ditched in favour of establishing a softer luxury tourism. That is not perfect either, but better than crowds of people marching through the cave on man-made walkways and hovering over sink holes in cable cars.

 

4-Seasons Info

Books by Carsten Peter

From the “continuous burner” in Indonesia to eruptions underneath Icelandic glaciers: In his National Geographic photo album “Vulkane” (volcanoes), Carsten Peter illustrates the 14 most dangerous volcanoes of the world whilst adding the latest scientific insights too. 244 pages, 39,95 euros, Globetrotter order number: 22.96.80.

 

 

 

Also published at National Geographic: his photo album “Alpendämonen” (demons of the Alps). A fascinating journey to the myths and rites that still survive today in far away valleys and remote landscapes, in Carsten Peter’s home Bavaria as well as in Switzerland, Austria and South Tyrol. 220 pages, 39,95 euros, Globetrotter order number 21.38.25.