Jasper Doest had one last opportunity to capture the effervescent energy of 69-year-old skydiver and instructor Arnold Camfferman for National Geographic’s cover story on longevity. So the photographer strapped a camera to the helmet of Camfferman’s colleague and fellow skydiver, Aaron Molloy; attached the viewfinder; placed the remote in Molloy’s mouth; then hoped for the best.

The result was the perfect shot of the elder adventurer fearlessly soaring through the sky. Doest shares credit for the image with Molloy since it was Molloy who executed the shot—using only his tongue to hit the remote.

We spoke to Doest, a Dutch photographer who specializes in conservation photography, about the story behind the stunning image on the January issue’s cover—Doest’s first for National Geographic.

What’s the story behind the cover?

Doest tells stories that bridge the gap between humans and other species that share our planet, but for this assignment, Photo Editor Kurt Mutchler presented him with a different challenge: to capture human aging and the relationship between healthy life habits and longevity. The January cover story explores the strides scientists are making to understand the intricacies of aging and potentially slow it down.

The themes hit home for Doest, whose father had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Through photographing people in their 60s and 70s for this story, he says, he gained a new appreciation for what it means to be human, along with a full-circle understanding of the aging process. Growing old is not something to take for granted, he says; we should make the best of the life we’re given.

For projects like this one, Doest explains how important it is to humanize scientific research. Studies and papers can be too abstract, he says, and so it helps to provide visual examples of ways that older adults stay healthy and active. 

But first he needed a subject who would be the embodiment of longevity. After hearing that the sexagenarian typically makes more than 500 jumps a year—and  over 700 jumps this year alone—Doest says he knew that Camfferman was something special. 

“I wanted to show that this wasn’t some daredevil doing sports—this was his daily life,” Doest says. “He’s an incredible man.” 

One of the most important things Camfferman shared—a message that Doest hopes readers will walk away with—is to find something in life that you are passionate about and go after it. And, in Camfferman’s words, “Never ever stop playing.” 

What’s featured on the cover?

The vibrant photo shows Camfferman, wearing light clothing, skydiving gear, and a cool, calm demeanor, as he free-falls through a bright blue sky for the umpteenth time that year. Despite evidence of his age—Doest notes the air hitting the loose skin on Camfferman’s arms as he dives—Camfferman still lives life to the fullest. 

“I love this image because you see the expression on his face like, ‘This is what I do,’” Doest says. “I hope I have the same spirit when I’m 69 turning 70.”

Photographing somebody diving out of a plane posed significant hurdles for Doest to overcome. For one, he is not a skydiver. And even though he was willing to try it, he was warned not to. Strapped together with Molloy, it wouldn’t have been safe for the tandem divers to get as close to Camfferman as Doest would have needed to capture the proper frame.

Doest first tried to photograph Camfferman from inside the plane, with several GoPro cameras attached to its many nooks and crannies. But on their initial attempt, bad weather scratched the photo shoot. Then, on the second, one of the team members came down with COVID-19. Finally, a window opened for a third try—a day before the assignment was due. 

Camfferman had taught classes the whole day and was strapping up for his daily routine of taking his own final jump. This run would be all or nothing, because Doest had decided he didn’t want to take a photo of Camfferman from inside the plane after all. It would have to be on the jump. 

Doest fitted an extreme-sports helmet with a camera that he had rigged up with a cord leading to a remote, and passed it onto Molloy. After briefing him on how to use the viewfinder, Doest told Molloy that he would have to clench the remote between his teeth and activate it with his tongue to capture Camfferman in the frame from the perfect distance.

The free fall lasted only about 30 seconds, and Molloy and Camfferman were at different altitudes for most of it since they leaped one after the other. But somehow they managed to hang in the air together for a few seconds in order for Molloy to trigger the remote. 

“He nailed it while firing the shot,” Doest says. “He has no experience in photography and I have no experience in skydiving, so it was a true collaborative effort.”

What’s next for the photographer?

Doest says he will begin working on a story in the spring that will feature several rewilding initiatives in Europe. This story has been in the works for four years and was delayed by the pandemic. “I can’t wait to get into the field and see what stories we can find.”

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