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Getting By with a Little Help from His Friends

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Among the people helping Peschak on Aldabra were Dr. Dennis Hansen, Research Associate at the University of Zurich; Catherina Onezia, Senior Ranger and Assistant Training Officer; and Terence Mahoune, Head Ranger.

“The right assistant is worth their weight in gold. The wrong assistant is shark food.”— Thomas Peschak

For the past month, Proof has been sharing the stories behind Thomas Peschak’s photographic expedition to Aldabra atoll—a remote island group in the Indian Ocean that’s part of the Seychelles. Aldabra has undergone a unique resurgence in its marine and terrestrial life after many species were on the cusp of extinction.

But while Peschak’s byline will appear on the pages of National Geographic, many of the people who helped make his pictures possible will remain unnamed in print. Here, he pays homage to the assistants, scientists, and rangers who were indispensible on his photographic journey.

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Assistant Steve Benjamin shines a studio light on giant tortoises sheltering under a bush on Aldabra’s Grande Terre Island

“I get a lot of emails every week from people who want to be my assistant,” says Peschak. “They want to carry gear and work for free. And while I certainly understand the desire to be part of a National Geographic assignment, being an assistant is very hard work. It’s a tough and very important job, which is critical to the success of the story.”

For this shoot, Peschak took veteran assistant Steve Benjamin and rookie Otto Whitehead with him to Aldabra. Both are emerging photographers as well as scientists—Benjamin is a professional diver with a marine biology background, and Whitehead is studying penguins for his PhD in zoology. And, says Peschak, “they can carry heavy stuff, but they are also easy to get along with and both have a intimate understanding of the natural world.”

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Senior Ranger Catherina Onezia leads the way as Peschak’s assistants ferry equipment through the swamps on Grande Terre Island on Aldabra.

It turns out carrying gear, while not the most glamorous part of the job, is one of the more important aspects. To get to remote camps, the team had to carry all their photography and living gear through water and across harsh terrain. A day of shooting might include hours of hiking, and Peschak also needed someone to constantly maneuver his lighting rig while he rolled around on the ground shooting pictures. “Having a tight knit group to back you up makes creating challenging images possible,” he says. “Otherwise on Aldabra you would spend all your energy on logistics and trying to survive.”

The scientists and rangers on the island were also indispensable collaborators. Although Peschak did as much research as possible before traveling to Aldabra (reading more than 200 scientific papers and 10 books, engaging in 200 email exchanges, and making more than 100 phone calls), he relied on insider knowledge of the island’s ecology to help make pictures that have never been seen before.

“You can read about it all you want, but nothing beats being in the field, sitting around a fire and having a glass of wine or a beer with inspirational people who know what they are talking about—that’s when great ideas happen,” he says. “That’s when you find out stuff that nobody else knows about.”

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Scientists Rich Baxter, Dr. Dennis Hansen and Wilfredo Falcon Linero pose as tortoises so photographer Thomas Peschak can test his lighting and composition set-up on Aldabra.

As well as learning from the scientists and rangers, Peschak also regularly shows them his work-in-progress to see if he’s on the right track.

“I want to capture the essence of the atoll they are protecting and translate their science into photographs that will tell their story to the rest of the world. If they love the images I make, then that’s a massive validation for me. A lot of the places I visit on assignment are wild, and to make photographs that are beautiful isn’t too hard, but if you can make photographs that move the people that spend every day there—with content that really represents what they have dedicated their lives to—that means I sleep really well that night.”

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The team on Aldabra in April 2014 was composed of visiting scientists, rangers, logistics staff and student interns.

“Every waking moment on Aldabra I thanked my lucky stars, but I was also constantly on edge. It’s a massive weight on my shoulders that most of the world is only ever going to see Aldabra through my eyes, so I can’t get it wrong,” he says. “And having been entrusted to showcase a very special place by the Seychelles Islands Foundation (SIF) who manages the island, is quite a responsibility and one that I don’t take lightly.”

“Ultimately every one of the photographs I made on Aldabra was a collaborative effort between myself, SIF staff, scientists, and my assistants. None of my pictures would have been possible without them.”

*****

Thomas Peschak’s photographs will be published in a 2016 National Geographic story about marine and terrestrial resurrection in The Seychelles.


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