During my younger years, I worked as an outdoor instructor around Europe, enjoying life’s great adventures, travel and camaraderie. One of my favourites was mountain biking in the Belgium forest with over-energetic school kids… hitting the hills, trails, mud pools and river crossings. After a day on the bikes, we’d be exhausted, filthy, aching and thoroughly beat. I’m left with wonderful memories!
Following the great Adventure HQ catalogue shoot, we got together to shoot a new Ozzy bike brand called ‘Fluid’, prior to their launch in the region. As always, the preproduction is the most important element of any shoot… knowing what, where and when to shoot, scouting to find locations that match the brand and give a strong selection of backdrops. One of my scouting trips found me at the Hatta Mountain Bike Trail Centre, which completely blew my mind.
Awesome technical trails surrounded by glorious mountains. I hadn’t even known it existed. I rocked up at sunrise but I wasn’t having much luck. My bike had a flat tire and I found my spare also had a puncture. After scouring around for my repair kit, I found that the patches were dried out and no good. But alas, I had my trail running gear and my two feet so off I went! I don’t want to be seen to be promoting running on mtb tracks but it was my only means of getting the job done.
Back in Hatta for the actual photoshoot, we all set out on bikes to get to our chosen locations. My style is very much real people in real locations and we worked with some very talented bikers, which brought back great memories.
Anyone who owns (or rents) a mountain bike should go and visit the place. The trails are marked based on different skill levels and it’ll be a guaranteed great work out.
How to summarise a stunning year in one word? … Blessed.
It is a true blessing to work with so many amazing clients seeking to go that extra mile, athletes who are at the top of their game and so many interesting, inspiring and courageous people. Yip, 2015 has been a pretty awesome year and I’m very grateful for all that’s happened.
The last five or so years, I’ve written a recap post reflecting back on the twelve months behind me and every year I make the same observation about the speed of our lives. Consumed by the digital rat race, we play a constant juggling game between family, work and play. So much happens that unless I sit down and recap, I forget about all the great opportunities that have landed on my plate… and I forget, I realise, to often appreciate it all and say ‘Thank You!’
This year, I decided to keep my post short and sweet by sharing my six lessons from 2015. They’re in no particular order…
Nothing happens in isolation.
Simply nothing happens in isolation. Nothing. An idea might come from a quiet place but only grows once it’s out in the open. I built my own Studio//73 with the help of others. I work with creative talent to build greater books and deliver amazing shoots. As a brand ambassador and influencer, it’s about sharing the buzz about our industry. My behind the scenes videos is about giving back. We attract what we put out in the world and great ideas are worth spreading.
Be open to new things.
In 2015, we finally wrapped up the Falcons of Arabia book project… something we’ve worked on for 2 ½ years. Sure, we’ve produced over a dozen books but the sport of Falconry was new to me. Why it landed on my plate, I still don’t know, but I grabbed the opportunity. New topics require a great deal of research, study and learning… and in the process you evolve personally and connect with an entirely new crowd. This project meant immersing myself into the Emirati world of Falconry which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m grateful for this opportunity and for being raised in a culture where exploring new things was always encouraged. And thankfully, I still have all ten fingers!
Turn thinking into doing.
In March, I spent a week solo in The Empty Quarter, which is the second biggest desert in the world. An entire week ‘off the grid’… self sufficient and without any digital connection, it was a week of pure quality time in nature away from the digital rat race that consumes us. I named it ‘Project Pause – The Empty Quarter’. I thought about it for twelve months or so but once I’d made the commitment to just go, there was a complete shift in my mind. Suddenly, I found myself saying, “In March, I’m going on…” and as luck would have it, brands, friends and clients all picked up on it and wanted to support. Wow. With a bit of cash, my thinking was to produce a cool film about the experience, with the aim of inspiring others to find a Project Pause of their own. And so it happened…
Be patient. Good things will happen, when you least expect.
A gig that pushed the boundaries in 2015 was shooting two big Hollywood stars. Two weeks prior, I got a call… “Are you available on the 5th of November. Please say yes”. Euan and I had worked on a gig in 2012, shooting the world’s biggest golf players in the world’s biggest bunker. This time he pitched a similar idea to do a shoot of Margot Robbie in the same stunning desert landscape. We did just that and the results were amazing. One led to another and the next day, I found myself on the Hyatt hotel’s rooftop helipad shooting Orlando Bloom. Clearly the story isn’t quite this short as there was all the pre-production to think about, but the message is there. Creating great work leads to new work. Yes it might take time, but when it does, it rocks! This story is just one of a few. In March, I flew to Kuwait for ten days to shoot some amazing fast cars. This opportunity came out of the blue, but it also sort of didn’t…
Create from who you are… and do what you love.
As many of you know, I’m a big outdoor and adventure guy. For that reason I tend to attract like-minded lifestyle brands as clients. Attracting them is one thing but turning their briefs into real, RAW imagery is where the real challenge comes in. I put it simple, you have to work with real people in real places. With Adventure HQ, we went on a five day photo gig, touring the best locations and shooting the best possible content. Yes we got fried, dehydrated and sleep deprived but hell did we capture the real stuff. For Lululemon, it was all about creating the unstaged moments with their pro ambassadors. Creating the unstaged isn’t easy but if you can bring passion and positive energy to the shoot, it’s certainly do-able. My love for the great outdoors has been with me since childhood but turning it into a source of business has required patience and the constant seeking of opportunities.
Learn to let go.
I normally start a gig with a clear vision in my head, knowing what imagery I want to get out of the shoot. Most of the time this works but not always. When you find yourself swimming upstream, there really is great value in letting go and leaving the shoot to chance. Just letting it flow. I’m not saying to settle on anything less but to allow something different to pan out. Just let things happens as they are meant to be. I’m a big believer in this and it works. Try it.
So there you have it. My lessons from my humble observations working as a photographer, a producer, a storyteller and an aspiring filmmaker. Our futures lie in our own hands and are transformed by the actions we take day in, day out and by the people that influence our lives. 2016 will bring amazing opportunities so make sure you’re ready to grab them with both hands.
What do you pack for a week of solitude in the desert?
I’m referring to my recent Project Pause. For those not in the know, Project Pause refers to a week I spent in the Empty Quarter this last March. I lived for seven days, off the grid (no wifi, no email, no phone, no social media) and fully self-sufficient in the second biggest desert in the world. The idea evolved around wishing to spend some quality time in nature away from the digital rat race we live in. I felt curious to discover what the experience would give me. With the support of a few great brands I’ve now got an awesome short film (30min) to hopefully shift a few minds. Check out the 90 second trailer at the bottom of this post.
Back to the packing question. For me, it didn’t seem like a big task to prep and pack for such a long gig but I’ve had so many questions so here’s the lowdown. Do note this post title features the word ‘essential’. Could I have done with less? Absolutely. But I wasn’t on a Bear Grylls survival expedition. If you read my previous posts here and here, you’ll see there was more to my adventure.
Below edit has the full walk thru video I took in camp the day I left. Just to talk thru all the gear and toys I brought along. It’s a basic edit but feeds the gear freaks out there…
Think duct tape, cable ties, knives, my Petzl head torch, a Black Diamond LED lamp, bike repair kit, small rope, mini first aid, snow shovel and my Suunto Ambition 3 GPS, as with all my solo desert running, I knew navigation would be a big thing for me. I ventured deep into the desert yet kept a pretty good sense of where I’d come from and where I was headed. My Suunto, which had the campsite location safely stored, provided the navigational back up I needed and gave me the confidence to explore more and go deeper into the dunes. I’m a bit of a coffee addict too so never go far without my Handpresso. There’s no need to forgo real Latte’s when on a desert adventure!
I was truly amazed how well my Yeti Coolbox functioned in the heat of the desert. I still had ice on day five and coolish drinks on day eight when I drove out. The secret is to pack it smartly, with all the last-to-use items at the bottom and to minimise the time the lid is open.
With the sand storms throwing my plans around a bit, I didn’t get my Fatboy hammock out till the morning of day four. But once I did, it was amazing. Imagine a tropical white beach with two palm trees holding up a comfy hammock. Lying in it, I had that totally chilled feeling of not having to do anything other than absorb the moment and relax. Bliss!
We simply can’t survive without water. I took 80 liters of drinking water with me, intended to last seven days plus extra emergency days. I also took a full jerry can of tap water for cooking, washing the dishes and mini showers. I had to be pretty sparing by the end so in hindsight I would have brought a second jerry can.
I took the luxury of taking two tents, the first being my big-ass base camp tent (Marmot Capstone 6), which I used as HQ tent and the second (Marmot Limelite 2) which served solely as a sleeping tent. I kept this one closed to keep out creepy crawlies and on warmer nights, I removed the fly and just slept beneath the mesh.
TECH GARMENTS + FUEL
Marmot is, hands down, my brand of choice when it comes to time out in the wilderness. Their technical gear kept me nice and dry even when highly active and their down vest, which I love, kept me warm and comfy during the cooler evenings. Nobody performs without fuel and I stocked up heavily on GU hydration tablets, gels and recovery shakes. For longer runs, in particular, I use gels to keep up my energy levels. I wore Salomon trail running shoes, same as I wear for all my races. They’ve never let me down.
A buddy of mine worked for Primus and every year when he came to stay at our place, he brought a new fancy piece of Primus kit. We’ve now got a pretty nice selection! For Project Pause, I cooked on their Easy Fuel and went through four gas cylinders. My tea was kept nice and warm in Stanley thermos flasks.
SHADE AND SEAT
My plan was to set up camp with a big canopy to seek shade during the day and create a sense of cosiness in the evening. Stupidly, I tried setting up the OZtrail Festival 15 in the sandstorm. Bad idea! Even if I’d managed to assemble it, it would have taken off like a parachute so it wasn’t until day four that it came into good use. The size and ease of putting it up is great but I’d love a few big sand pegs to make it more wind robust. Add to this a comfy OZtrail camping chair and all would be great!
I knew I wasn’t going to be caught out on super cold nights (which we have experienced before in Dec/Jan) so a lightweight down sleeping bag would suffice. I love the Marmot Helium, which makes for the perfect light duvet on warmer nights and when fully zipped up, keeps you snug during the colder, early morning hours.
Many asked what I ate during Project Pause. I took two crates of food. I love healthy, nutritious and fresh foods but for a week like this in the desert, you do need to be smart about what you bring. I took only hard fruit that would last well outside the coolbox… apples, pineapples, oranges and banana’s mainly. I also brought fresh veggies with short cooking times (to save gas) such as broccoli and other veg that doesn’t require cooking at all like avocado’s, cucumbers, carrots and peppers. I do think it’s important on trips like this, to keep your fresh produce intake as high as possible. Keeps you healthy and energised.
I had a crate full of dry foods like pasta, rice, crackers, dried fruits, mixed nuts, tinned fish, breakfast cereal and jam… foods I could survive on for weeks if I had to without having to worry about storage temperatures or expiry dates. Rather than bringing lots of herbs, I cooked with ingredients that are full of flavour like canned fish, cured meats, salami and pre-flavoured couscous. I also took some quick and tasty expedition meals.
Beyond a good tent and a warm sleeping bag, one item often neglected is a good sleeping mat. I’ve been sleeping on Thermarest mats for decades. Admittedly, they’re a bit of an investment but they last well and have great padding. A good night sleep leads to a great day in the outdoors!
SURLY MOONLANDER FATBIKE
My first experience on a Surly Fatbike surpassed all expectations. It seemed a little like ski mountaineering in the Alps when you spend hours getting to the top, which is an awesome workout alone, then experience the real joy of skiing down on virgin snow. Fatbiking in The Empty Quarter was no different… firstly, the challenge of cycling to the top of a huge sand dune and then the actual blasting down the dune. Hours of fun, exercise and exhilaration!
A first aid kit is one of those things you hope not to need and thankfully mine stayed untouched. My first aid kit is pretty well stocked with even an expedition first aid manual to answer any questions. Bear in mind that SIRI doesn’t work in the wilderness so you can’t google it even if not on a digital detox. I did have with me a Thuraya satellite phone (my thanks to Xtra link for their support) and I had Dr. Mike, a specialist desert doctor on standby, just in case…
I never go far without a camera by my side. For Project Pause, I took my Canon 1D X with a few lenses; 15mm, 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200. For the (self) filming I used the same Canon 1D X, their new Canon Legia Mini X and GoPro’s Hero 3+ and Hero 4. To keep life simple, I used the biggest SanDisk Extreme Pro cards (128GB and 64GB) so I didn’t have to spend too much time downloading. These cards are super reliable for storing files as well.
ADVENTURE PHOTO PACK
Nice and snug on my back, I had the fstop Satori EXP in blue with ICU’s to store camera kit. When hitting the world’s biggest dunes, you need a pack that sits comfortably and gives easy access to plenty of gear. I used the fstop mountain series with ICU’s to store my camera kit. What I love about the fstop packs is the gear access from the back pouch so you don’t have to place the sweaty backrest onto the sand to get anything out.
17. SOLAR CHARGING BATTERY PACK
I could simply not have done without the Goal Zero Yeti 500 and the boulder Solar Panels. I didn’t have much to recharge (camera batteries, sat phone, go pro’s, music) but the fact that I could be fully self sufficient and have my own power supply was awesome.
So here you have it. If inspired to stock up on some kit yourself, visit Adventure HQ, for pretty much all the stuff you need.
Now check out the trailer and see where adventures can take you…
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions for a project pause of your own. Get out there!
That million-dollar question… how long will it take to shoot? Rock climbing, mountain biking, skate boarding, road cycling, kayaking, surf skiing, camping, trail running, yoga, fat biking, diving, fishing, BBQ… and the shoot list didn’t end there. I looked at the client and replied with “10 days”. They looked back, grinned and responded with “how about three days?” I laughed… and then we settled on five.
Five days… and I still don’t know how we fitted it all in. Days were jam-packed with crew call times at 3 or 4am making for 16hrs day. Pre-production was key, with extensive location scouting and setting up the shots at the best outdoor locations in both the UAE and Musandam in Oman. We pretty much crafted a minute by minute production schedule, making the best of the sweet early morning and afternoon light. I can’t remember how many brands were represented with hundreds of items and dozens of athletes / talent. But most importantly we all an amazing time in the great outdoors.
Why do I love shooting adventure sports? Because we’re all in it for memories, all keen to create stories. And stories are so powerful. It’s a great opportunity to work with amazing athletes and adventurers. And its a grand excuse to head out into the mountains, live it to the max and enjoy the great outdoors. For me, it’s pretty much second nature but for some of the crew it meant first-time camping or getting high up in the mountains. Seeing their enormous grins during those long days was super rewarding.
I created a mood board with images I’ve shot in the past or collected from adventure brands for years, just as a reference to dig into when stuck on site or to explain individual concepts to the team. In an ideal world, you’d shoot a real and raw adventure over a ten day expedition where gear, people and clothing naturally gets worn in and roughened up. Instead, in this shoot we sped up time by rolling in the sand and using other dirty tricks. At the end of the day, the images had to look genuine, unstaged, real and inspiring. I know that’s what we delivered.
Have a look at my main site where you’ll find the full image gallery and seriously check out the behind the scenes video on the top of this post, which besides the production side of things also shows the adventures YOU can have in our region. We do live in an amazing playground with unlimited access.
A big shout out to the crew at Absolute Adventure for keeping us out of trouble and being our partner in ground support. Anyone who gets inspired and is keen to venture off should contact these guys. They’ll take you outdoors, look after you and give you an amazing adventure experience.
I’ve got a few amazing brands that support me with the work I do. Many thanks to Goal Zero for keeping us powered up, fstop gear for their fab pack to haul our gear around the mountains, Aquatec for keeping my camera bombproof dry in the ocean, SanDisk for their fast and uber reliable CF cards and Western Digital for safely storing 100’s of GB’s of data on their HD’s. These are amazing brands to rely on when digging it deep in far away places.
Finally, thanks to everyone for bringing their energy and making it all happen! When tempted to buy some new outdoor toys and gadgets. Check out the Adventure HQ stores around the UAE… and when you’re there, pick up the new catalogue. I heard it looks really nice…
I ventured into Project Pause in the hope of making it a valuable experience and when sharing my ideas and objectives, I found that other brands were keen to be part of the story. With their support, it opened doors to record the gig and share what it stands for with a bigger audience. I really hope to kick some butt and shift some mindsets!
On drop off day, I had a film team join for an afternoon of filming but when they left at sunset, the rest of the week was self filmed. My photo gear has been able to do video ever since the Canon 5D Mark 2 got launched in 2008 but strangely enough, I had just never had the desire to flick the switch and shoot video. Thankfully, video pro’s, Alex and Maellyn gave me a quick 10 minute crash course before leaving the desert on how to set my Canon 1Dx to film mode. I also had the newly launched Canon Legria MiniX and a couple of GoPro’s to play with. On the last day I got picked up, Maellyn joined to film the missing takes.
I certainly had enough hardware to film the story and was delighted that there was such enthusiasm for me to document the project as best I could. Keep your eyes peeled for the Project Pause documentary video!
The timing for such a project is never going to be perfect and inevitably, it was really hard to find a week-long window amongst back to back shoots and my latest book project. During the month of March, I think I was only actually home for four days. Project Pause came right after an intense 11 day shoot in Kuwait leaving me with just 48 hours to pack and shop for my week of solitude as well as squeeze in some quality time with the family. In parallel, I’ve been working on an amazing book called ‘Falcons of Arabia’, scheduled to go to print mid April. Willingly cutting myself off like this meant I had to have a great team in place during my absence. My thanks go to all involved for making it work!
One of the brands that instantly embraced Project Pause was VW Middle East and they provided me with a brand new VW Touareg. Driving their latest model, packed with all my toys and desert survival kit was a real joy and undoubtedly the most luxurious thing I had with me. I’m working on a separate behind the scenes video with all the kit I brought along, sharing what gear works and what you may want to pack if you feel the urge to go on a similar adventure.
There’s only one place to do all your outdoor shopping for a trip into the wilderness and that’s Adventure HQ. The guys are super helpful and highly knowledgeable about the products they sell. I’m a big believer in technical clothing to keep me dry when exercising and warm and comfy in the evening. Marmot fits the bill perfectly and is my preferred garment of choice.
One thing I was keen to start during my week was the writing of my own book ‘1975 – connecting the dots.’ Eventually, I hope to see it as a printed book, filled with stories and images. Each story feeds to the person I am today, why I do what I love and how I choose to live my life. It was inspired by a blog post I once wrote in May 2013 after browsing two amazing photo books in the Yas Hotel lobby. I’m delighted to have made a good start with notes, anecdotes and the makings of a general outline. The book is very much about how opportunities have landed in my path, some expected and others far from it. I guess I’m keen to find out from where they originated from.
The big question, of course, is when is the right time in your career to scribble down your story? Never, I guess… so the best time is NOW. Don’t wait for someone to write your memoir knowing that you’ll never get the chance to read it. Read the 2013 post and you’ll find out how.
An unexpected highlight of my week was when my wife and two little boys joined the pick-up team on day seven. Total surprise! The kids where ecstatic about dune bashing and our family dinner in The Empty Quarter will be etched in my memory for a long time to come. My big thanks to Kiki for manning the fort in my absence and taking on the long journey to collect me.
To wrap up this post, I would love to leave you with two questions. 1) What would be your version of Project Pause? 2) Within the next six months, when could you spare a week to explore in solitude? From experience, I can tell you how great it feels not having the urge to pick up my iPhone and check my status, email or other stuff.
In pursuit of my Project Pause, on the 21st of March 2015, I drove into The Empty Quarter for a week of total solitude. The Empty Quarter, for those not in the know, is the second largest sand desert in the world, equal to France, Belgium and Holland combined. The desert landscape is truly fascinating. Think endless views of sand dunes and salt flats without a single soul in sight. Pure emptiness! It’s also home to the highest sand dunes in the world, rising to over 300 metres high.
The Empty Quarter certainly made for an inspiring place to call home for a week and grab some quality down time, particularly after six months of being crazy busy. With the aim of being completely off the grid and self-sufficient, I set up camp with enough water, food, shelter and powerful reading to survive. That’s it. No wifi, mobile phone, email or any sort of connectivity. Project Pause was all about stepping away from the intense rat race we live and work in, to do away with to-do lists and let the days take shape as they naturally unfolded.
I can honestly tell you that it was a most amazing experience. I managed to read great books without instantly falling asleep. I enjoyed every sunset, counted shooting stars at night, went for long runs, got hooked to Fat Biking and most importantly, the experience calmed me down. I came out feeling more relaxed and mellow than I’ve felt for a long time. Granted, it wasn’t until day five that I started to really feel at peace both in body and in mind.
Does feeling recharged and ready to combat life to the full again mean that I’m ready to return to the rat race with a vengeance or that I’ve had a change of mindset and am now capable of re-entering the rat race but taking things at a slightly slower pace? I’m not quit sure yet. You see, I live and work at a high pace and I can’t decide whether that alone is a good or a bad thing. All else considered, I have my own brand, I do what I love and it feels pretty awesome, most of the time anyway. I certainly don’t think I could slave away for a big multinational company, one who cares more about you reaching your target than about you on a personal level so I guess in that sense, I’m definitely in the right space. I’ve been so blessed over the years with an incredible mix of clients and a great diversity of work. But if I could slow down a little, it would be to spend more quality time with my wife and kids. I’ve been promising my kids I’d build them a pirate bed for months now and still haven’t started. It’s a fine balancing act many of us face, I know.
Was my entire week one of happiness? I would say yes. Back in the civilised world, any hardship quickly disappears from memory. I do recall days two and three being particularly hard as I had to sit through a crazy sandstorm. My Marmot tents held up really well but when stranded in a hot tent for hours or days at end, covered in sand and with gear constantly being thrown about, I did have to dig deep to find the enjoyment factor. Leaving the tent to the great outdoors was akin to having someone constantly throwing sand in your face. Not nice!
But storms come and go and this too eventually passed. By day four, I could finally set up my canopy to create a nice shaded space to assemble my Fatboy hammock. The remainder of my week was quite simply, paradise.
Stay tuned for more Project Pause stories… The Empty Quarter – Part 2