Photograph by Michael McRae
Bobby Model goes to extremes. Camera in hand, he has documented mountain ascents, ancient desert ruins, war zones, and some of the world's most isolated cultures—braving remote locations and challenging conditions on five continents.
"I grew up in Wyoming, one of the most isolated areas of the United States," he explains. "So hanging on ropes and moving around mountains just came naturally. It's also why I've always found it easy to relate to ordinary people who work the land. I really respect and appreciate those individuals and their stories."
A climber since age 15, Model was first inspired by adventure photographers and their ability to bring a human element into a natural landscape. "As a climber you find yourself in so many beautiful locations, often early in the morning and late in the evening when the light is perfect. It's an ideal perspective," he says. But after finishing college with a degree in environmental economics, Model's view of what adventure photography could be changed during an internship with Rich Clarkson, a former director of photography at National Geographic magazine. "Clarkson exposed me to legendary photojournalists who cover conflict and culture—topics I'm now drawn to explore."
Although physically demanding, photographing mountaineering expeditions had always been well within Model's comfort zone. "I worked with very supportive teams, people I'd bonded with through long-standing friendships." The opposite was true as Model moved into photojournalism. "When you cover issues in faraway cultures, you arrive as a complete outsider. It's essential to find something in common with people, some way to connect. One minute I may be having tea with a village elder and need to prove my knowledge of his culture and history. The next moment, I could be standing in a field with a local farmer. Only by forming friendships and earning trust, am I allowed to document truly powerful experiences."
Drawn to show the human face of Sudan's civil war, Model covered refugee camps, conflict zones, and field hospitals. "I remember a man who had been shot and was about to be flown over the border to have his legs amputated. He and his wife were holding each other on the floor of a little dirt hospital, knowing he might not return to Sudan for years. Moments like this make me realize that wherever we are, people have certain universal emotions. We're really all the same. I hope my work in these places will have some sort of meaning, bring new awareness, and help change situations."
Model has also concentrated on Baltistan, one of the world's most extreme and isolated regions. Caught in a border dispute high in the heart of the Himalaya, this culture was virtually unknown to the larger world. Model's coverage there reflects another tenet of his work: Develop long-term relationships, not snapshots. "This area will always be changing politically and culturally," he notes. "So it's important that I continue returning over the next decades to follow the stories of the friends I've made there. I don't want to be seen as a person who is only 'taking,' so I always try to bring back prints of my photographs to these rural villages. Often, they become the only work of art in a person's hut, and help peel away another layer in my relationship with these remarkable people."
Does the exotic ever become commonplace? "Sometimes I have to kick myself when I take my life for granted," Model reflects. "I've been fortunate to go so many places and witness so many amazing human moments."
Editor's note: In June 2007, while on vacation in Cape Town, South Africa, Model suffered serious head trauma when he was struck by a chunk of concrete that smashed through the windshield of the pickup truck in which he was traveling. The region where the incident occurred is known for such stone-throwing attacks, and police there are investigating it as a crime. After emerging from a long, deep coma, Bobby worked at regaining his strength and ability to speak at Craig Hospital in Denver, a hospital specializing in brain and spinal cord injuries. After being released a year ago, Bobby returned home to Cody, Wyoming, where he was going through rehabilitation with his mother, Anne Young, his father, Robert Model, and his sister Faith living nearby.
Bobby Model, a 2006 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, photographer and grantee, died Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009, in his hometown of Cody, Wyoming, at age 36.
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In 2007, National Geographic photographer Bobby Model remained in critical condition at a South African hospital after a chunk of concrete smashed through the windshield of a pickup truck and hit him in the head.
In Their Words
When you cover issues in faraway cultures, you arrive as a complete outsider. It's essential to find something in common with people, some way to connect.
Photographer Bobby Model and writer Kira Salak examined the ancient cities and remotest corners of this harsh land.
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