December 1, 2010
Shooting the Unseen World
Sean O’Connor has seen things 95% of the rest of us probably never will: what the world looks like twenty-five stories up in the canopy of one of the largest Douglas Firs in America; a kiteboarder crossing the frozen landscape of North Dakota at midnight—not on an actual kiteboard on water, but with a kite attached to snowboard cruising across land; a petrified tree jammed inside a cave estimated be 15,000 years old. Lucky for us, he takes his camera with him.
Raised in Vermont, transplanted to Portland, OR and traveled just about everywhere in between, O’Connor has spent his life doing everything outdoors: rock climbing, backpacking, kayaking, canoeing, hitch hiking. You name it he’s probably done it. His physical know-how is what gets him into these way-out places. His ten years behind the camera is what lets him capture one-of-a-kind shots. But it isn’t just the mind-blowing wonder of the natural world that he’s trying to document; it’s the super hero efforts of people trying to change the world that drives him 200-feet up a rope with a camera around his neck. It’s that moment of connection that he wants to share with the rest of us.
Here’s how a day can go: O’Connor is working with a condor researcher who needs to determine habitats where the ancient birds may have lived. If they can find these places and prove that condors once lived there, then the few remaining birds can be re-released back into the wild from their current home in the zoo, hopefully populate the area and get themselves off the endangered species list.
O’Connor first reviews aerial photos of an undisclosed location along the Columbia River in Washington to find anchor points on oak trees he can use to climb down into a cave. They need evidence—bone fragments, DNA samples—anything that will prove that condors once lived there. It’s a sketchy situation because the landscape is mostly made of really loose rock. An oak tree is his only chance for a solid anchor. He finds one in the photos. They hike in. He uses over 600 feet of rope to climb down to the cave. When he gets there, he is neck deep in poison oak. But, they have to get samples so he gets situated. Just as he is re-anchoring his rope, the ground beneath his feet gives way. It just disappears below him, but he’s clipped himself in just in time. He helps the researchers climb down too. When they get inside the cave is when they discover the petrified tree with weird reaching roots that was buried under the mountain and then preserved for over 15,000 years.
This is what O’Connor considers one of the coolest things in the world: to know that his feet are likely the first feet on the planet to be where no human has ever been before, to get shots of what he sees there and then leave it just the way he found it, leaving no trace behind.
Photo credits: Drew Smalley, Jeff Snyder, Sean O’Connor
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