What fascinates you about photography and why have you chosen to take part in the Image Quest 2019?
Anyone who is active in the outdoor and action sports scene can hardly get past Red Bull Illume. I was thrilled by the pictures of the past editions. The level is incredibly high - all the more I feel honored to be a small part of it in the 2019 edition.
The combination of aesthetics and athletics is what makes it special for me. We see athletes at great performances in beautifully composed images. This is also part of the answer to what fascinates me about photography in general. Despite an epochal overload of images in the digital age, photography has lost nothing of its magic for me. However, with the incredible quantity of pictures, it has become more of an art not to press the shutter button or to take a picture only when I am convinced that I have something as unseen and valuable as possible in front of my lens.
Ideally you then make the difference between a good and a very good picture...
Your image of the athletes Caro North and Steph Davis on the famous Mittellegi ridge on the Eiger in the Swiss Alps made it to the final stage of the Image Quest 2019. Can you tell us a little bit about the shot? How did it come about?
As a mountain, the Eiger is simply an absolute knockout. The visual and historical dominance of its world-famous north face makes you shudder every time you approach it.
The impressive east ridge that is visible in the photo is probably one of the most beautiful ridge tours of the Alps. With regards to the ambiance, the shot is actually quite a "no brainer".
The photo was taken during a shooting for a Swiss mountaineering equipment supplier. We installed two camera teams to accompany Caro and Steph - one with the photographer Thomas Senf directly on the mountain, a filmmaker and myself for the aerial shots. On this second day of shooting everything was just right: We waited until late afternoon to get the perfect lighting conditions. That the fog in the south wall added to the drama was the icing on the cake. Such impressions stay with you - not only in the camera.
You worked with exceptionally talented athletes over the years. Have you learned something from them that also comes in handy for your work as a photographer?
To be in the terrain with such athletes is of course impressive at first: Their way of understanding what is going on in the mountains, their way of assessing the dangers but most of all their incredible athletic abilities to move on rock and ice leaves me speechless even after many years. Although it may sound trite, the respect they show towards the mountain is impressive.
In addition, professionals like Dani Arnold, Steph Davis or Jérémie Heitz know exactly what is important when it comes to illustrating their sport. It is therefore worthwhile to listen.
But what really impresses me is the modesty of these athletes: Someone who pursues a sport at the highest possible level in the world, gives everything for his passion and still never gives his environment the feeling of being too good for anything.
These are perhaps less the central skills that influenced me as a photographer, but as a human being I have really taken a lot of such personalities with me on my way.
What’s the biggest challenge when shooting free solo and speed climbing records?
You have to make a difference: Usually such pictures are re-enacted after a record. This applies to most of the famous records on the Eiger, Matterhorn, El Cap etc. For example, we also did it this way with Dani Arnold on the Matterhorn.
However, during his speed ascent of the Cassin Route on Piz Badile in 2016, we went a new way and made a documentation of Dani live during his record. This changes the situation for both, the athlete and the photographer, completely.
There is an aesthetic-planning dimension: What does the shooting process look like? In which passages do you absolutely want to have pictures? What possibilities for spectacular angles do we have, how quickly can we change from one position to another, etc.?
Then there's a technical one: Basically you have exactly one shot. During a speed ascent, the athlete cannot just turn around and climb a passage again. So you better make sure that you have the camera under control.
Finally, there is a personal level: Someone close to you is climbing and risks his life. If he makes even a small mistake, you will be watching him fall to certain death. I don't think that this can be answered conclusively, but you must ask yourself if and how you could live with it.
So it takes an enormous amount of trust on both sides. The athlete has to know that we do not put additional pressure on him in any way. He has to be able to rely on it, that everything works out and that we capture his exploit as professionally as possible. I, on the other hand, must be able to rely 100% on him not taking the slightest unnecessary risk because of the camera. That's where the dilemma comes from: Do you shoot during the ascent and risk putting the athlete under additional pressure - or do you shoot afterwards and expose the athlete again to an extremely risky situation, just to have nice pictures?
Can you explain how a shoot like this usually works? Do you climb next to the athlete(s) or do you use drones?
Without (massive) technical aids, it is usually not possible, because climbing along is definitely not an option. You can recreate scenes in the wall from fixed positions, but this is not really possible when shooting live. For this you would need a very large crew with many different teams in the wall. At best, you can do this in Yosemite in stable weather, but in an exposed wall in the Alps at 4000m above sea level, it's a logistical nightmare. As a lay person you can hardly imagine the enormous climbing speed - but in many places it is actually more of a running than a climbing. The whole thing advances so fast that you always have to be fully concentrated.
Drones are ingenious - of course I use them too. But with large walls there are still limits. For really good pictures, I'm afraid the helicopter is (still) irreplaceable in such terrain. The interaction with the pilot is then crucial, he must know the site very well, understand where the most important passages are and from which positions the view of the route is best. During the record attempt itself, communication with the athlete is not possible - so good planning is essential.
What equipment do you use when you shoot free solo or speed climbers? One would imagine it has to be rather light?
No, lightness is not the most important thing. Of course, I only take to the mountain what fits in a backpack and I can carry around with me without any problems. But absolute reliability, speed (like a fast, precise focus) and a certain redundancy are the most important things. Basically, I always work with two cameras with different lenses more or less parallel in such projects. It would really be most unfortunate if an athlete would make a phenomenal exploit and I would mess it up...
What are your goals as a photographer? Anything specific for 2020?
Photography is only one of my activities and passions - I fear that 2020 will be more about other tasks. Nevertheless: Some projects are definitely on the agenda this summer in the mountains. And of course: Slowly I will start to develop first ideas for the next Red Bull Illume Image Quest...
Where can we find more of your work?
Best is to visit my website atlense.com I'm afraid I'm a little too lazy to maintain social media channels - but sure, you can find me on Instagram @atlense_photography. Ok, with the latter, a few more followers would probably be nice...