Nikon D3 / AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED / 1/250th second / f/4.0 / ISO 200
Years ago I got a call from the Discovery Channel. They asked if I wanted to go to Panama and shoot with Bear Grylls, the star of a television show called “Man vs. Wild.” Going to the jungle of Panama to do a photo shoot with some guy named Bear sounded cool to me, so I said yes.
As my knowledge about pop culture was (obviously) nonexistent, I Googled this guy Bear to see what he was all about. Expecting to see photos of a large, bearded man, I was instead surprised to discover a rather debonaire-looking British guy who might best fit in at a yacht club, drinking martinis. I was also interested to see that “Man vs Wild” was the number-one show on the Discovery Channel at the time.
I was not surprised, however, to read the rather typical online banter about the show, calling it staged and claiming that Bear wasn’t the real deal. I left for Panama, having no idea what to expect.
I arrived in Panama City late at night, and rendezvoused with the driver who had been arranged to take me from the airport to the “hotel,” which was actually the barracks of an old U.S. military base situated right on the Panama Canal. The old military base was a jungle-style barracks with wood walls and a tin roof. My room was spacious and bland, containing nothing but a table, a bed and a large creaking ceiling fan. I knew that the plan was to leave from the military base tomorrow morning and head into the jungle for the shoot. I arrived well after midnight and found a note taped to my bed that said:
“Wheels up at 5 a.m.!”
Cool. I rolled my eyes, crashed onto my cot and tried to get some rest.
A few short hours later, I emerged bleary-eyed and was greeted by a dense fog and the unbelievable humidity that drives high-alpine mountain folk from California (like me) crazy.
Across the courtyard, a strong-looking shadowy figure stood under a halogen street lamp from the 1950s. Was that Bear Grylls? Hmm. No … actually, it wasn’t. I caught a glimpse of his face, and obviously it wasn’t Bear. However, whoever this guy was looked a lot like Indiana Jones! He had a big floppy hat, jungle fatigues and a machete hanging from his belt. I walked over toward this Panama Jones and decided I would put my three years of Spanish class to the test.
“Buenos días! … Umm … Es un buen dia, no? … ¿Cómo estás?”
Panama Jones responded to my elementary Spanish in perfect, flawless English, and said: “I’m good, man. Are you the photographer who just flew in?”
Turned out this guy was our security guard; not only that, but he used to be el presidente Noriega’s lead security detail. Well, this was encouraging news! All of this made me feel very, very safe.
Within 20 minutes the crew arrived. There was Simon, who introduced himself as the DP. There was a director, a story producer, a producer who handled logistics, and a production assistant. There was also a biologist who would follow us around and make sure Bear didn’t eat anything poisonous.
Bear arrived shortly after them.
I don’t get star struck. Maybe it’s because all my heroes are climbers, who are also friends—and who are all also just prototypical dirtbags that no one but other climbers even know or care about. Or maybe it’s because I don’t really give a rip about Hollywood celebrities in movies or on TV. Either way, I decided to treat Bear like I would any other person and just be normal. Just be myself.
I quickly noticed that Bear and his crew were super close. In fact, Simon, the DP, was Bear’s childhood friend. The way that they were all joking around with each other showed that they not only liked one another, but that they also spent an enormous amount of time together.
Except for the director; he was kind of a prick and no one liked him.
For me, you can imagine how it might be to crash a scene like that. I was the odd man out. The new guy. The freshman pledge just taking his first steps into the lion’s den of the fraternity.
As we waited for our cars to arrive to bring us out to the jungle, an impromptu pull-up contest took place on a rafter nearby where we stood.
“Let’s see how many pull-ups you can do, Mr. big-time TV star!” Simon said, jousting Bear.
“More than you!” Bear quickly fired back.
“Not unless we cut all your individual pull-ups together into one seamless clip,” the producer said.
It was on.
Bear went first.
Then all the producers and the biologist went.
Even Panama Jones put down his machete and took a turn.
Finally, it was my turn.
OK. I’m not one to brag … But, in this instance, I just gotta tell it like it is:
I completely whipped everybody’s asses at pull-ups.
I beat Simon. I beat Panama Jones. I beat the producers, biologist and director. And I beat Bear.
With that single impromptu success, I immediately established some street cred with the crew. I was legit. I could hang. Bear and the team welcomed me into their circle.
The cars came, we hopped in, and my new friends and I headed into the jungle.
My background as a photographer is one in which I came up in the very tight-knit climbing industry. Over the years, being a climber myself, and working with world-class climbers to create the images for yet other climbers who own the climbing companies that need those assets to tell their brand’s story in the climber-owned magazines, I’ve noticed that all of us in this big happy climbing family seem to pinch ourselves on a daily basis—because we are all getting paid to do something we love. There’s an authenticity and an automatic kinship ingrained within that world.
On the car ride out the jungle, I started asking Bear questions about his background, as any normal conversation might go between two dudes who just met, had a pull-up contest and became friends. And what I realized about Bear is that he’s a guy who just genuinely loves being outside, having adventures—and somehow he figured out a way to turn this passion into a hit TV show.
That first day was a blast. We were deep in the jungle, filming Bear trying to catch fish with a “net” that was his shirt. He was eating leaves and other disgusting stuff, too—like dead, rotting fish. Sometimes Simon would ask if Bear could take just one more bite out of the dead fish so he could get another angle of the shot. However, I swear that Simon had no intention of even filming Bear; he just wanted to watch his buddy suffer through the experience of eating more dead animals.
And I guess if you’re getting paid 20 times the amount of the cameraman, maybe you do deserve to eat a rotten fish twice.
In between takes, I would hop in with my camera and go to work shooting storytelling stills. Creating a synergy with the film crew was challenging, but necessary. I had to be really quick and use my short windows efficiently. Every now and then, when I saw a shot that I absolutely needed to get, I’d whisper into Simon’s ear, “Hey, when you’re done, there’s a shot here I really need.” Then they would stop rolling, and I would get to do my thing.
Of all the pictures I took that day, this one is my favorite because I realized that when it comes to Bear, we all know only half the story: the one that’s bundled and dramatized for television. Bear might not be the best athlete in the world, but he’s pretty darn good, and more importantly, he has a gift for playing a role on television and a genuine passion for adventure and survival—whether that’s braving mosquito onslaughts or eating whatever it is he finds in the jungle.
After Panama, I ended up joining Bear and his crew in several other locations, including Argentine Patagonia. But it was that first experience in Panama that really opened my eyes on several accounts. First, I got to see that those Internet accusations about Bear not being authentic were false. In fact, on that first night, while the rest of us headed back to our army barracks, Bear spent the night in the jungle, cooking by fire and being out in the wilderness.
Second, I learned a lot about video productions. As this trip was prior to the release of the Nikon D90—the first video-enabled DSLR and the camera that changed my life, transitioning me from strictly a still photographer to now becoming a still and motion photographer, director and filmmaker—I saw how small-footprint productions could work. How a group of tight friends could go into remote situations and come away with motion storytelling content. More than anything, I saw in Bear that sometimes you just need to do what you need to do to tell a story, even if that means eating a dead fish twice. That’s video production. Call it authentic, or dismiss it as staged, or whatever. What I saw was a core group of friends who were making it happen in a big way.
I learned later that Bear and Simon filmed their pilot on a crappy hand-held camcorder. They started from nothing but being two kids with a love for the outdoors, and a love for creating visual stories together, to now making a number-one reality show on the Discovery Channel.
We live in a world where anyone who is creative enough, entrepreneurial enough, and talented enough can create a situation in which they get to do what they love, and on top of that, get paid to do it.
Say what you want about Bear Grylls, but don’t say that he isn’t doing exactly what he loves. Though “Man vs Wild” ran its course, and Discovery dropped the show in 2012, there’s no question in my mind that a guy like Bear will ultimately reinvent himself and create a new opportunity.
But in the meantime, Bear, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re spending your time wisely—by doing sets of pull-ups. I owe you a rematch.