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TEDGlobal 2017

George Steinmetz: Photos of Africa, taken from a flying lawn chair

Filmed:
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George Steinmetz's spectacular photos show Africa from the air, taken from the world's slowest, lightest aircraft. Join Steinmetz to discover the surprising historical, ecological and sociopolitical patterns that emerge when you go low and slow in a flying lawn chair.

- Aerial photographer
Best known f­or his exploration photography, George Steinmetz has a restless curiosity for the unknown: remote deserts, obscure cultures and the ­mysteries of science and technology. Full bio

I have to tell you,
00:12
it's more than a little
intimidating being up here,
00:14
an old American guy
trying to tell Africans
00:16
something new about your own continent.
00:18
But sometimes, an outsider
can see things in a different way,
00:21
like from the air.
00:25
That's what I found by flying low and slow
all over the African continent
00:27
as I photographed
the spectacle of its diversity.
00:32
And I wasn't always an old guy.
00:35
(Laughter)
00:37
This is me in 1979,
00:40
a kid from California backpacking
his way through the Ituri Forest of Zaire.
00:42
I was on a yearlong hitchhiking trip.
00:47
I had just dropped out
of Stanford University,
00:48
and I went from Tunis
to Kisangani to Cairo
00:51
and learned how to live
on 10 dollars a day.
00:53
It was an amazing experience for me.
00:57
I spent about a week
in this Dinka cattle camp
00:58
on the banks of the Nile in South Sudan.
01:01
The Dinka taught me
how to tie papyrus into a shelter,
01:04
and also I observed
how they had adapted their way of life
01:07
around the migratory needs
of their beloved cattle.
01:11
It was a like a graduate course
in ecological ethnography,
01:14
and I got busy taking notes with a camera.
01:17
With no money for rides,
01:20
they often made the Mzungu
ride on the roof of the trucks,
01:22
or in this case, on the top of the train
going across South Sudan.
01:25
I felt like I was riding
on the back of an insect
01:29
going across the enormous
tapestry of Africa.
01:32
It was an incredible view from up there,
01:35
but I couldn't help but think,
01:37
wouldn't it be even more amazing
if I could fly over that landscape
01:38
like a bird?
01:41
Well, that notion stayed with me,
01:43
and 20 years later,
01:45
after becoming
a professional photographer,
01:47
I was able to talk National Geographic
01:49
into doing a big story
in the central Sahara,
01:51
and I came back with a new kind
of flying machine.
01:53
This is me piloting the world's lightest
and slowest aircraft.
01:57
(Laughter)
02:00
It's called a motorized paraglider.
02:01
It consists of a backpack motor
and a parachute-style wing,
02:03
and it flies at about 30 miles an hour.
02:08
With 10 liters of fuel,
I can fly for about two hours,
02:10
but what's really amazing about it
is it gives me an unobstructed view,
02:13
both horizontally and vertically,
02:17
like a flying lawn chair.
02:19
My hitchhiker's dream
of flying over Africa came true
02:21
when I spotted these two camel caravans
passing out in the middle of the Sahara.
02:24
The one in the foreground
is carrying salt out of the desert,
02:28
while the one in the background
is carrying fodder
02:31
for the animals heading back in.
02:33
I realized you couldn't take
this kind of picture
02:35
with a conventional aircraft.
02:37
An airplane moves too fast,
02:39
a helicopter would be too loud
with too much downdraft,
02:40
and it dawned on me that this crazy little
aircraft I was flying
02:43
would open up a new way of seeing
remote parts of the African landscape
02:46
in a way that had never
really been possible before.
02:50
Let me show you how it works.
02:52
(Applause)
04:35
Thanks.
04:39
(Applause)
04:40
This may seem a bit dangerous,
but I am not some kind of adventure dude.
04:43
I'm a photographer who flies,
and I only fly to take pictures.
04:46
My favorite altitude
is between 200 and 500 feet,
04:49
where I can see the world
three-dimensionally,
04:53
but also at a human scale.
04:55
I find that a lot of what I'd done
over the years in Africa,
04:58
you could try to do with a drone,
05:01
but drones aren't really made
for exploration.
05:04
They only fly for about
20 minutes of battery life
05:06
and about three kilometers of range,
05:09
and all you get to see
is what's on a little screen.
05:10
But I like to explore.
05:13
I want to go over the horizon
and find new things, find weird stuff,
05:14
like this volcanic caldera in Niger.
05:20
If you look at the altimeter
on my left leg,
05:23
you'll see that I'm about
a mile above takeoff.
05:25
Flying that high really freaked me out,
05:28
but if you talk to a pro pilot,
05:30
they'll tell you that altitude
is actually your friend,
05:32
because the higher you are,
05:34
the more time you have
to figure out your problems.
05:36
(Laughter)
05:38
As a rank amateur,
I figured this gave me more time
05:40
to scream on the way back down.
05:43
(Laughter)
05:44
To calm myself down,
I started taking pictures,
05:46
and as I did, it became rational again,
05:48
and I was getting buffeted
by a Harmattan wind
05:50
which was coming out of the upper
right hand corner of this picture,
05:52
and I started to notice how it had filled
the entire crater with sand.
05:55
When I got to the north of Chad,
I found a different kind of volcano.
05:59
These had had their entire
exteriors stripped away,
06:02
and all that was left was the old core,
06:05
and in the middle of the Sahara,
06:06
I felt like I was seeing the earth
with its living skin stripped away.
06:08
Much of the Sahara is underlain
by an enormous freshwater aquifer.
06:12
When you go to the basin,
sometimes you can see it leaking out.
06:16
If you were to walk
through those palm groves,
06:19
you could drink fresh water
out of your footsteps.
06:22
But that green lake water?
06:24
Due to extreme evaporation,
it's saltier than seawater
06:26
and virtually lifeless.
06:28
In Niger, I was amazed to see
06:30
how the locals learned how to exploit
a different kind of desert spring.
06:32
Here, they mix the salty mud
with spring water
06:35
and spread it out in shallow ponds,
06:37
and as it evaporated,
it turned into a spectacle of color.
06:39
My rig is also amazing
for looking at agriculture.
06:43
This picture was taken
in southern Algeria,
06:46
where the locals have learned
how to garden in a mobile dune field
06:49
by tapping into shallow groundwater.
06:52
I also loved looking at how animals
have adapted to the African landscape.
06:55
This picture was taken in Lake Amboseli,
06:59
just across the border from here in Kenya.
07:01
The elephants have carved
the shallow lake water up
07:03
into a network of little pathways,
07:05
and they're spaced just enough apart
07:07
that only elephants,
with their long trunks,
07:09
can tap into the most succulent grasses.
07:11
In Namibia, the zebra have learned
how to thrive in an environment
07:13
that gets no rainfall at all.
07:16
These grasses are irrigated
by the dense coastal fog
07:18
that blankets the area every morning.
07:21
And those bald patches out there?
07:23
They call them fairy circles,
07:25
and scientists still struggle
to understand what causes them.
07:26
This is Mount Visoke, with a small
crater lake in its summit at 3,700 meters.
07:29
It forms the roof of the Great Rift Valley
07:34
and also the border
between Rwanda and Congo.
07:36
It's also the center of the reserve
for the fabled mountain gorilla.
07:39
They're actually
the big money-maker in Rwanda,
07:42
and on this side of the border,
conservation has become a huge success.
07:45
Rwanda has the highest
rural population density in Africa,
07:49
and I saw it in almost every corner
of the country I went to.
07:53
I've heard it said
that competition for land
07:56
was one of the things
that led to the tensions
07:59
that caused the genocide of the 1990s.
08:01
I went back to South Sudan
a few years ago,
08:04
and it was amazing to see
how much things had changed.
08:07
The Dinka were still in love
with their cattle,
08:09
but they had turned in
their spears for Kalashnikovs.
08:11
The cattle camps from above
were even more spectacular
08:14
than I could have imagined,
but things had changed there too.
08:17
You see those little blue dots down there?
08:20
The Dinka had adapted to the new reality,
08:22
and now they covered
their papyrus shelters
08:24
with the tarps from UN food convoys.
08:26
In Mali, the Bozo people
have learned how to thrive
08:28
in the pulsating rhythms
of the Niger River.
08:31
As the rainy season ends
and the water subsides,
08:33
they plant their rice
in the fertile bottoms.
08:36
And that village
in the lower right corner,
08:38
that's Gao, one of the jumping off points
for the major trade routes
08:40
across the Sahara.
08:43
At the end of the harvest,
08:45
the Bozo take the leftover rice straw
08:46
and they mix it with mud to reinforce
their roofs and the village mosque.
08:48
I must have flown over a dozen
villages like this along the Niger River,
08:52
and each one was unique,
it had a different pattern.
08:55
and each mosque was like
a sculptural masterpiece,
08:58
and no two were alike.
09:00
I've flown all over the world,
and nothing can really compare
09:02
to the cultural diversity of Africa.
09:05
You see it in every country,
09:07
from Morocco
09:09
to Ethiopia,
09:11
to South Africa,
09:14
to Mozambique,
09:17
to South Sudan,
09:19
to Mali.
09:23
The array of environments
and cultural adaptations to them
09:25
is really extraordinary,
09:28
and the history is pretty cool too.
09:29
From the air, I have a unique window
into the earliest waves
09:32
of colonial history.
09:35
This is Cyrene on the coastal
mountains of Libya,
09:36
that was founded by the Greeks,
in 700 BC, as a learning center,
09:38
and Timgad, which was founded
in what's now Algeria
09:41
by the Romans in 100 AD.
09:44
This was built as a retirement community
for old Roman soldiers,
09:45
and it amazed me to think
09:49
that North Africa was once
the breadbasket for the Roman Empire.
09:51
But 700 years after Timgad was built,
it was buried in sand,
09:54
and even then, the African climate
was wetter than it is today.
09:58
The African climate continues to change,
10:02
and you see it everywhere,
10:04
like here in the Gorges de Ziz,
10:06
where a freak rainstorm
came barreling out of the Sahara
10:08
and blanketed the mountains in snow.
10:11
I never thought I would see
date palms in snow,
10:13
but the kids that day had a great time
throwing snowballs at each other.
10:17
But it made me wonder,
how are Africans going to adapt
10:21
to this rapidly changing
climate going forward?
10:24
In a continent as dynamic
and diverse as Africa,
10:26
sometimes it seems
that the only constant is change.
10:29
But one thing I've learned
10:32
is that Africans
are the ultimate improvisers,
10:33
always adapting and finding a way forward.
10:36
Thank you.
10:38
(Applause)
10:39

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About the speaker:

George Steinmetz - Aerial photographer
Best known f­or his exploration photography, George Steinmetz has a restless curiosity for the unknown: remote deserts, obscure cultures and the ­mysteries of science and technology.

Why you should listen

Since 1986, George Steinmetz has completed more than 40 major photo essays for National Geographic and 25 stories for GEO magazine in Germany, exploring the most remote str­etches of Arabia's Empty Quarter to the­ unknown tree people of Irian Jaya. His expeditions to the Sahara and Gobi deserts have been featured in separate "National Geographic Explorer" programs. In 2006 he was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to document the work of scientists in the Dry Valleys and volcanoes of Antarctica.

Steinmetz began his career in photography after hitchhiking through Africa for 28 months. He then spent fifteen years photographing all of the world’s extreme deserts while piloting a motorized paraglider. This experimental aircraft enables him to capture unique images of the world, inaccessible by traditional aircraft and most other modes of transportation. He has authored four books, and his current project is documenting the challenge of meeting humanity’s rapidly expanding demand for food.

More profile about the speaker
George Steinmetz | Speaker | TED.com