Photographer Profile - Renan Ozturk: "As in climbing, so in art, so in life"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday October 6, 2015

One year ago, Renan Ozturk  was perched near the top of a mountain in a remote corner of Myanmar, carefully considering whether the summit could be reached.

With him were two other men, Cory Richards, a photographer from National Geographic, one of the sponsors of expedition, and writer Mark Jenkins. All three were experienced and highly skilled mountain climbers, and each had been pushed to the limits of his endurance getting to this brutally cold and lifeless place some 19,000 feet high, where misjudgments, even small ones, can reverberate with deadly consequences.

The moment of decision is captured in the short film Down to Nothing, released online this past summer. In the dramatic video, Jenkins, squinting and breathless, says simply, “We can see our objective, but it’s hard. This is real alpine climbing."

Shot by Ozturk for the North Face, another of the expedition’s sponsors, the film tells the story of the arduous journey to the mysterious mountain, named Hkakabo Razi, at the far eastern edge of the Himalayas. The film provides both a spectacular view of the Himalayan peaks at the roof of the world and an intimate view of the toll the dangerous the effort has taken on the climbers.

The stated goal of the expedition was to verify the exact height of the mountain, with the possibility of redefining the Seven Summits of climbing lore — the highest peaks on seven continents. “You can’t figure the height out with satellite data, even in this day and age,” said Ozturk in a recent interview. “You still have to stand on the summit with some sophisticated gear to make the measurement.”

Along with the three climbers making the dash for the summit, the expedition team included three other members, Telluride mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill, the team leader, climber Emily Harrington, and base camp manager Taylor Rees. All of them had suffered on the way to Hkakabo Razi, making an arduous trek of more than a 100 miles through what National Geographic described later as “a dense jungle filled with tigers, poisonous snakes, and bands of ethnic rebels fighting the Myanmar government.”

“It was so remote and forbidding, and once you were on the mountain, you had already lost so much weight,” Ozturk said. “And then you get up to those altitudes, and you’re dealing with the warm jungle air colliding with cold northern winds off the Tibetan plateau and creating conditions like the top of Everest."


Ozturk’s film follows the three men vying for the summit as they inch along a jagged ridge, braced against 70-mile-an-hour winds. Finally, Richards tells his companions he thinks the remaining climb is too dangerous. Jenkins and Ozturk decide to continue on, but they too soon decide to turn back without summiting.

Shooting with a Sony a7S mirrorless camera, Ozturk captures a tear in Jenkin’s eye as they begin their retreat. “I was a little heartsick to be so close,” Jenkins says in a voiceover.

Art and Survival

As a storytelling genre, high-altitude tales, like the one Ozturk tells in Down to Nothing, began to gain wide appeal in the 1980s and 1990s, as adventure-travel grew popular. Interest in mountaineering exploded with Jon Krakauer’s 1997 bestselling book Into Think Air, an account of a expedition on Mount Everest that claimed eight lives. A number of narrative and non-fiction mountain-climbing films have appeared since then, most recently the 3D disaster drama Everest and the documentary Meru, the story of three veteran alpinists who in 2011 attempted the first ascent of a legendarily difficult ridge on Mount Meru in the Himalayas.

Ozturk was one of the three, along with Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker.

The film, directed by Chin, received the Audience Choice Award for best documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and critical acclaim when it was released this summer — particularly for the vivid cinematography by Ozturk and Chin. With his follow-up short on the Hkakabo Razi adventure, Ozturk has emerged as one of the top adventure filmmakers working now.

Ozturk came to filmmaking, not unusually, by way of photography. And he came to photography by way of climbing. “I grew up on the East Coast, but not in the mountains. I discovered climbing in college and kind of went bonkers,” he says. After school, he gave away everything he owned and, as he puts it, “hit the road for six years, learning how to climb and doing artwork.” The art was landscape painting; photography came later.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, the stories that could be told about these crazy climbing expeditions in the Himalayas and other places. Painting is nice, but shooting them with a camera and bringing the pictures back is better, because you can show it to a wider audience,’” he says.

With changing camera technology, Ozturk began shooting video as well, creating commercial and editorial pieces for clients like The North Face, National Geographic and Outside magazine. He recently co-founded Camp 4 Collective, an adventure-sports production company.

Ozturk’s work, including Down to Nothing, is a good example of how sophisticated branded-content filmmaking can serve two masters, art and commerce. But it’s also an example of how adventure filmmakers and photographers must necessarily serve two other masters, art and survival. “On expeditions like these, you go into it with a dual role,” Ozturk says. “You are both a climber and a filmmaker.  But in the end you have to be climber first and a filmmaker second.”

Haunted by FOMAS

That can be hard at times. Especially when you’re haunted by FOMAS.

Fear of Missing a Shot.

“On Meru, it was pretty bad because the place is so beautiful, and there are so many angles and positions I would have loved to shoot, but they were impossible to get because you are strapped to the wall at a belay and can’t move,” Ozturk told National Geographic’s Beyond the Edge  blog in August.

In the interview, Ozturk described how he managed climbing Mount Meru while also capturing memorable footage. “Normally the most dramatic shots are ‘top-down,' where the cameraman climbs up first and then pulls the rope up out of the frame to get the…shots looking down…as the climber comes up the wall,” he said. “During the Meru climb, it was first-ascent territory, so we had to get creative with what we jokingly call ‘butt shots’ and then just focus more on the personal moments. Even then it was hard to juggle for filming during this particular climb.”

Ultimately, breathtaking action shots are just so much footage. Mountaineering feats are dramatic not only because of the risk involved but because they come with an inherent narrative — a past that frames the present, which in turn concludes in success or failure.

The story of Meru is not just about survival, but about how the three climbers aimed to overcome an earlier unsuccessful attempt to climb the mountain. Ozturk himself joined the second attempt only five months after a skiing accident in Wyoming’s Teton mountains left him with a severed vertebral artery and shattered vertebrae.

Likewise, Ozturk’s short film about the Hkakabo Razi expedition in Myanmar is less about overcoming danger than inner struggle. “It was one of the hardest, most demanding expedition climbs I’ve ever been on,” he says.

At his website, Ozturk posts this motto: “As in climbing, so in art, so in life. In all three the full spectrum of emotions come into play. At times there will be uncertainty, insecurity and fear. At other times there will be inspiration and things will flow effortlessly."


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