Connecting with the Extreme
Renan Ozturk captures stories at the edge of the human condition. “I want to show humanity on the fringes,” says the photographer and documentary filmmaker. “Whether that’s high in the mountains or isolated on the edge of the earth, these cultures need their voices amplified in some way.”
Driven to show our connection to the natural world, the soft-spoken Ozturk faces extreme challenges: physical, cultural, and technological. He dangles thousands of feet in the air while shooting, hauls gear through the planet’s most extreme environments, flies ultra-light experimental aircraft to capture aerial shots, pilots drones during technical ascents of the earth’s most challenging peaks, and spends months slowly getting to know the people who live in the world’s most remote locations.
“That was a good example of high-angle shooting on ropes,” says Ozturk, “trying to capture one of the last remaining honey hunters in this village of a shamanistic culture that may not be around forever, basically documenting the last harvest. Stories like that drive me.”
BIG PICTURE, SMALL PACKAGE
Ozturk says his biggest technical challenge is figuring out how to get the highest-quality images with the smallest packages. “I only got into this because the cameras started getting smaller and you could actually take them on these climbs without feeling like you were going to die trying to carry them,” he says.
His time-tested workhorse is a Sony a7 Full Frame Mirrorless camera with a 24–70mm f4 lens and a couple of filters. “It’s half the size and weight of cameras just a few years older,” he says. “When you are truly at the ends of the earth, if you can just simplify to a single a7 and a few lenses, you can bring back something really powerful and still be moving through these environments in ways you couldn’t just five years ago.”
“I think the best example is this trip we did for National Geographic and The North Face to the Burmese Himalaya,” he continues, “where we were trying to figure out what the highest point in Southeast Asia was. The only way to do that is to climb these mountains with a sophisticated GPS. It was a really hard trip, one of the most remote places in the Himalaya you can travel to. We ran out of food, and we had to leave a lot of our warm clothing behind with the bigger camera gear. But the first-generation a7S lasted the entire trip from the jungle all the way up to 19,000 feet on the border of Tibet and Burma. It brought back stills that were double-page spreads in the magazine and an entire National Geographic hour-long TV special in that tiny little package. That was the first-generation a7S, and it’s only gotten better from there.”
A CREATIVE JOURNEY
Ozturk’s first love wasn’t photography; it was landscape painting. Born in Germany, he grew up in Rhode Island and got a biology degree from Colorado College. “After I graduated, I gave away all my stuff and went on the road as a climber and artist. I lived for about four years in climbing areas and national parks across the desert southwest, spending summers up through British Columbia. It was a really simple lifestyle, that’s what it takes to learn how to climb and move in the mountains, and learn different styles of rock,” he says. “I would climb and do artwork, and eventually that led to sponsorships. I started to do big international expeditions with The North Face, and through that the filmmaking started.”
Entirely self-taught, Ozturk parlayed his climbing films into more commercial work, documentaries, time-lapse photography, and National Geographic expeditions. He edits most of his films himself, using Adobe Premiere Pro CC. “I really like being able to edit footage in its full-resolution raw form,” he says. “A lot of the high-resolution time lapses that I’ve been shooting, you’ve got 8K video playing back natively. I use Warp Stabilizer to smooth out motion-controlled time-lapses or hand-held footage from boats or airplanes. And if it’s a short turnaround, I’ll just do my own color work with the Lumetri Color panel.”
Ozturk says his subject matter has evolved over time. “There’s a snowballing effect in terms of the stories you realize you can tell,” he says. “The beauty of the landscapes drove me initially, and the love for climbing as a community and the places that it can bring you. When you start doing these bigger expeditions, you interact with these cultures in Nepal or Pakistan or deep in the jungle. That made me want to shift my focus to telling stories that are more culturally focused, as well as contribute to positive change in the planet.”
This winter, Ozturk is back home in Park City, Utah, where he lives in a unique passive solar home with his wife and creative partner, Taylor Rees, and their husky-wolf-mix “dog-child.” He’s spending much of his time training for an upcoming Everest expedition for National Geographic. “It’s sort of a regimented plan that involves a lot of Zone 2 heart-rate cardio, so that your heart is stronger and assimilating oxygen better,” he explains. “You do a lot of the workouts fasted, so your body learns to burn fat, because when you’re up at high altitude you’re usually too nauseous to eat.”