Behind the Lens: John Rathwell

Photographer travels with an elite crew to document first descents in Michoacan and Vercruz, Mexico.

Dane Jackson in golden light, Veracruz, Mexico Dec 4, 2013

Dane Jackson in golden light, Veracruz, Mexico Dec 4, 2013

The Shot:
Canon 5D MKIII with a Canon EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM at 45mm
1/640 sec. at f/3.5 – ISO 1000

What is it like working as a still photographer on a high-profile video shoot?

Working with a big media crew can have its challenges. At times we had Chat and Matt of Interpret Studios the Univision TV crew, Lucas Gilman shooting stills for Sports Illustrated and a drone pilot. The typical plan for lifestyle shooting is that we would start far back from the scene and shoot wide as we all progressively moved closer. For action we would all discuss our ideal shooting position and confirm we could be there and not be in each other’s shots. Of course there were a few times I couldn’t shoot in my ideal spot, but that was far outweighed by the chance to work with so many creative and talented people.

Tell us a little about the adventure

Paddling in Mexico has exploded with the exploration of Veracruz, where the eastern Sierra Madre has some of the best whitewater rivers of the world. Michoacán state is on the other side of the Sierra Madre, and its rivers had never been explored. When Joel Kowalski showed me some of those untapped rivers on Google Earth I said “yeah man, looks sick, when do we leave?” I was pretty fired up.

Then he told me about the drug cartels and other dangers of the area. I went home and did some research right away. Foreign Affairs Canada had a “do not travel” advisory for the area due to violence and drug trafficking. Kowalski and I chatted more as at this point I was pretty nervous about the plan. Joel told me he had been watching this area for years and that the drug violence seemed to be at a low ebb. Now was the time to go.

We had a safety plan and took all the necessary precautions while in the Michoacán area. We got to run some amazing new rivers, but had to leave a few more on the table. The one we’d left for last had its take out on cartel land. We first got suspicious by the airplane landing strip we saw on Google Earth in the middle of the jungle. We asked some locals about the place and everyone gave us the same answer: “Don’t go there, they won’t ask questions, they will just shoot.” So we walked away. It was a tough call to pass up such a beautiful river, but safety is first. We are all looking forward to the time we can go back and get on that last river of Michoacán.

There was a silver lining though. Because we skipped that river, we had time to dash back to Veracruz for a huck-fest, and that’s when I captured this photo of Dane.

What do you particularly like about this image?

The warm backlit water particles in the top left make this image for me. I have personally never seen this before. The funny thing is I almost didn’t go to make this shot. Lucas Gilman and I made the long hike to the base of the drop while the athletes repelled in from the top. We had to wade across what we were told was a knee-deep creek to get to the island we wanted to shoot from. When we got there it was closer to chest deep with a good current to it. We could just see the drop from where we were before crossing the creek and it looked backlit, pretty much un-shootable. While we debated the risk of crossing this creek with all our camera gear our driver Israel was setting up a great rope system to help us cross the river. Once he’d done that for us, and knowing the athletes were working hard to rappel in from above, we thought it would be pretty uncool not to show up. So we got across creek and as soon as we reached the falls the sun came around just enough to illuminate the mist and throw beutiful side-light on the falls. Conditions like that don’t last, and both Gilman and I started yelling like crazy to get an athlete to run the drop ASAP. Dane Jackson went first and I captured the moment. By the time the next athlete went the magical light was all gone.

What are your biggest challenges when photographing whitewater?

During this particular trip the biggest challenge for me was just simply keeping up with the athletes, both when exploring on land and on water. These guys just got so stoked to explore they would take off and move through the thick jungle in a hurry. Trying to keep up while carrying 40 lbs of camera gear and shooting along the way is hard. I also planned on boating with the crew but due to a very busy summer of shooting I didn’t get as much boating time as I wanted (only about 6 days on the water compare to the 100+ a year I did the last few years) and it quickly became apparent to me and the crew on the first day that I wouldn’t be able to keep up after I had a swim. All was good though. From that point on I would plan to hike in and meet them at rapids to shoot. I only ran into one snake.

What’s next on your list of photographic adventures?

Well I am writing this now as I am on my way to the airport from shooting skiing in western Canada as paddling season back home in Ottawa is going to be starting soon. We have a good snow pack and it is looking like we will have another epic spring stakeout with Ottawa XL and Whitewater Grand Prix both happening in my backyard the next couple months. If I was a betting man I’d say keep your eyes open for some big water surf action on C&K.com and my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/JohnRathwell) in the next couple of months!

More of Rathwell’s work can be seen at: johnrathwellphotography.com

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