“Photography helps you to compare what is, to what was,” George Steinmetz says to me at The Indian Photography Festival, Hyderabad. Also known as 'the flying photographer', he is famous for his trademark low altitude aerial photography. “When I’m flying in some of the remotest parts of the world, I’m seeing things that were never really seen before. The contrast with the other regions becomes very apparent,” he adds.
Mato Grosso, Brazil. A low hanging cloud of smoke envelopes the trees from a fire set to convert the virgin Amazon forest into farm land for growing soybeans and corn.
Steinmetz pioneered aerial photography and much of his early work was done with a foot-launched motorised paraglider, which he piloted while taking pictures. It started in 1998 when he was supposed to do a story on the Sahara and met a pilot who introduced him to a paraglider, only to vanish later on. The self-taught photographer explains, “I had no choice but to manage it myself as I had already proposed a story to National Geographic. It seemed crazy to do piloting and take pictures at the same time, especially in remote areas where if something goes wrong, there is no help at hand. But then, I saw what I shot and really liked the output.”
With a motorised hand glider which can fit into a truck and which essentially consisted of a seat, a sail, a tank of gas, a propeller and himself, Steinmetz felt it was the ideal means to traverse a desert. “Deserts are ideal for paragliding as you can take off and land anywhere. In a densely populated city like Hyderabad, it is really dangerous, but in deserts it is perfect. I always want to take one more picture and that’s not the best thing if you are both the pilot and photographer,” he says with a chuckle. Having worked for 15 years in the deserts, he says that it was fascinating to “see the world with its skin peeled away”.
Heilongjiang, China. The first day of the rice harvest in Heilongjiang Province becomes agricultural propaganda for China's main staple. China Central TV organized 18 large combines to harvest the grain for a live broadcast on the national holiday. Despite efforts to increase productivity, China is the world's biggest importer of rice and the gap is increasing.
His paragliding days have resulted in four books: African Air (a collection of a decade's worth of photography in Africa), Empty Quarter (focused on Arabian landscapes, wildlife, and people), Desert Air (on extreme deserts) and New York Air (capturing New York City's five boroughs over four seasons by helicopter).
As a young man, a restless Steinmetz dropped out of Stanford when he was about to graduate as he wanted to see something different. Africa seemed as different from California as it could get, and armed with a one-way ticket to London, he hitchhiked to Zaire, Congo learning a little French, Arabic and Swahili on the way. He didn't take much with him: a snakebite kit, a small stove, a 35mm camera. His first story was on oil exploration.
Africa was a revelation as it showed him that pictures were his medium to explore the world; it ignited a life-long passion for photography. “Photography in Africa was very different then,” he reminisces, “I was using Kodachrome film which couldn’t be processed anywhere in the African continent. I sent them to my mother and could only see them after a year. Now, we are spoilt and look at images instantly. Digital is flexible, you can make mistakes and correct them instantly, while film is unforgiving.”
Mato Grosso, Brazil. The largest egg farm in Latin America, Granja Mantiqueira, produces 2.7 million eggs a day from 4 million hens. 26 hens share a small cage, and are given unlimited supply of food and water. The eggs roll down the floor of the cages to a conveyor belt that delivers them to an egg elevator, and then they roll hundreds of metres more to the packaging building.
Steinmetz explored subjects ranging from the remotest stretches of Arabia's Empty Quarter to the tree people of New Guinea (his favorite subject) resulting in over 40 major photo stories for National Geographic. He explains, “I was the first person from the outside world to contact the tree people of New Guinea. They were/are cannibals and it was very challenging. To me, the stories which propel me to extend myself are the most memorable ones.”
He was particularly struck by the impression of the Sahara, the biggest hot desert in the world which he refers to as ‘the last great wilderness left on the planet’. He remarks, “It’s a huge wasteland which is a great ecosystem in itself. When you speak with the local people there or see the differences in ecology, you see that a lot of animals – ostriches, gazelles and cheetahs – have all gone.”
Over the course of his travels spanning many years, Steinmetz has recorded many changes – vanishing trees, soil erosion and depletion of aquatic life as the human population explodes, consuming all the resources of the planet. He remembers the experience of photographing an ancient church in Ethiopia which was first shot by the legendary Swiss photographer Georg Gerster in the 60s. “The structure was carved from the ground, and I went there just a couple of decades after it was first shot. All the trees were gone and soil was eroded. A lot of old people talk of entire ecosystems vanishing by the day,” he recalls.
The change is nowhere as visible as in Africa, where the photographer has spent a lot of time. While Hemmingway writes of elephants on the outskirts, today the Nairobi national park is almost a city park with disappearing wildlife and forest land converted to plantations. “The changes are very visible. As a young man when I visited Africa, it was less populated. When I went to Kenya ten years ago, I saw parts of Nairobi which never existed before. Huge slums which house hundreds of thousands of people have come up, owing to urban growth and population pressure.”
Fujian, China. Small boats head out to harvest seaweed at sunrise at the north end of Funing Bay, just outside of Xiapu harbor. The seaweed, called "tsai", is eaten in soup.
Even India, Steinmetz remarks, has been ravaged by the needs of a burgeoning population. “A century ago, India was a paradise, with the Himalayas and a unique ecosystem. Today, even the tigers are pushed to a few reserves,” he explains.
Currently, Steinmetz is using drones to capture change, from the Egyptian pyramids to the famous rice terraces of China. “Drones are similar to paragliding. From above, you can see the entire expanse of things. I like photographing not from a great height, but from a couple hundred feet up, so you see the scale. It’s much more intimate and we can decode what’s happening below. Flying helps you to get into areas you otherwise cannot.”
His advice to aspiring photographers is simple and precise: If you want to take interesting pictures, stand in front of interesting things. He stresses the importance of being in the moment. “Young people want to work for Nat Geo, travel all over world, but where you are currently is a very interesting place. Wherever I’m there, I’m there. It’s easy to think it’s going to be interesting in the next place, but for me, this is the next place.”
Jiangsu, China. A fraction of the 10,000 people who gathered around plastic tables to devour crayfish at Xuyi County’s annual crayfish festival. The fresh water crustaceans are farmed in shallow local lakes and production has tripled over the past ten years, to 100,000 tons.
He cites the examples of many prodigious Nat Geo photographers who looked within the places and cultures they came from and documented it. “Don’t chase after the horizon, look at your feet instead,” he says.
Steinmetz’s current favorite cameras are his phone and drone. Ask him about the privacy issues concerning the latter and he says it’s a basic judgement call for those wielding it. “You want to go into someone’s house, you ask to enter, you don’t kick your way in. It’s the same with drones,” he says with a smile.
Mato Grosso, Brazil. Largest egg farm in Latin America, Granja Mantiqueira, produces 2.7 million eggs a day without them ever touching a human hand. Here the conveyor system converges on the sorting, cleaning, and packaging building. The plant is located in a rural part of Mato Grosso where there is an abundant supply of cheap corn meal for chicken feed.
Mato Grosso, Brazil. Employee cafeteria at the JBS chicken slaughterhouse near Cidrolandia, with 650 people per shift, and 350 people on the main cutting/sorting floor.
Wisconsin, USA. Gathering cranberries on flooded bogs of an Ocean Spray co-op supplier near Cranmoor, Wisconsin. The berries are dislodged from the plants and float to the surface before being collected and pumped onto a truck. This farm has been growing cranberries since the late 19th Century, and production has increased dramatically from those early days.
Wisconsin, USA. 3,300 hutches shelter newborn calves of Milk Source, which stay here from their first week of life until six months old. The hutches provide sanitary shelter for the young cows and prevent the spread of disease. All of the calves were conceived via artificial insemination.
Jiadong, Taiwan. Fish farms divide up the space between houses and narrow roadways near the south coast of Taiwan. The concrete-lined ponds are easy to clean and prevent the spread of disease to their high-value fish, primarily grouper and Indian salmon that are exported to Hong Kong and China. With the vast majority of Taiwan's land being too mountainous for agriculture, their diet has come to depend on marine life for protein. One farmer told me he harvested 240,000 kilos of fish per year from 14.34 acres.
Hjorund Fjord, Norway. Sagelva salmon farm has 200,000 Atlantic salmon in each of eight pens. The fish are fed from a barge via tubes that spray pellets of fish meal, fish oil, and soybeans into the water. I was told that no antibiotics are used, but some colorants are added to the food to give their flesh the orange color typical of wild salmon. The fish average 18 months in the pens to grow from 200 grams to 5 kilos, and gain approximately 1 kilo of wet body weight for every 1 kilo of dry food. The fjord is approximately 70 metres deep underneath the pens, and goes to over 400 metres in the center, allowing the fish waste to become widely distributed with the tidal action, while the fjord protects the pens from wind and wave damage. After each generation of fish, the pens are left empty for six months to be cleaned and reduce the risk of disease and parasites. This farm is owned by Marine Harvest, the biggest grower of farmed salmon in the world, with approximately 25 percent of market share.
Juangsu, China. One of China's largest chicken facilities processes 10,000 birds per hour. All parts of the chickens are used, with the chicken fat being added to paint, and the feathers processed into powder for animal food. This facility supplies most of the major fast food brands in China, including McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and supermarkets such as Wal-Mart, Metro, and Carrefour.
Shandong, China. Seaweed is set out to dry on the concrete surface of an unused dock near Rongcheng. After drying it will be cut up and sold in the market for use in soups and stir fried dishes. Most foods in China need to be washed before eating.
Shandong, China. The world's largest pork factory has over 1,800 workers on the main cutting room and can process up to 30,000 pigs per day before holiday periods and averages 32M pigs per year. Over the past decade there has been a major effort to increase food safety by consolidating animal operations into large integrated facilities.
Shandong, China. Shandong Lanxiang Senior Technical School has 20-30,000 students, and almost 5,000 of them are in their cooking school, which is China's largest. Students come here for four-month to three-year programs where they learn to cook up to 500 dishes. The Chinese diet has undergone a significant shift with increasing incomes, and consumers now want more variety and more protein, baked goods, and diary.
— All photos by George Steinmetz; courtesy Indian Photography Festival.