Back in the 1990s, a cable TV series called “Eco-Challenge: The Expedition Race” broadcast teams of hardcore guys and gals competing in a rugged, multi-day adventure race. The pioneering show, invented by Mark Burnett, aired on TV from April 1995 to April 2002. “Eco-Challenge” is considered to have established an entirely new genre of television that we now know as “reality TV.”
Straight out of college, I got hired to shoot the still images for several of the Eco-Challenge adventure races, including the last one that aired in 2002. I was working with an incredible cast of characters, including Kevin Gilbert, Reed Hoffmann, Porter Bings, and Tommy Baynard, to name a few. Needless to say it was an incredible, life-changing experience for me. I also met lifelong friends on this production, such as Rebecca Rusch, who was one of the adventure racers in Fiji, as well as Lisa Hennessy, the show’s executive producer, and Kevin Hodder, the race director.
It’s amazing how things come full circle. Last year, 17 years after the last Eco-Challenge aired, I received a call from Lisa Hennessy to see if we could get the band back together. She said Mark Burnett was reviving the adventure race in “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji,” slated to become a 10-episode series on Amazon Prime. I also learned that Bear Grylls—a friend from the past, and, FYI, I wrote about the first time we met in my book STORIES BEHIND THE IMAGES—was going to host what would be the biggest, baddest, and toughest adventure race to date: a 671-kilometer expedition over mountains, jungles, rivers, oceans, and swamp.
Of course, I was in.
It turns out that just like its predecessor, the “World’s Toughest Race” would also break new ground. This was a massive production, with something like a 1,000-person crew!
Novus Select was tasked with managing the still photography production of “World’s Toughest Race,” which would involve close to 30 days on the ground in Fiji. It was a real honor and a wonderful challenge to be tasked with leading a production at this scale. We assembled an incredible team of talented photographers who we knew would be up to perhaps one of the most physically demanding still productions of their lives. That team included Christian Pondella, Tara Kerzner, Krystle Wright, Andy Mann, Bligh Gillies, Peter Poby, Idris Solomon, and Wynn Ruji, my very best friend and business parter at Novus.
All of these photographers are specialists who brought a unique skillset and creativity to the table. These photographers are super comfortable climbing, rigging ropes, riding bikes, running, bushwhacking through the jungle, and scuba diving into dangerous waters—all while capturing an incredible body of photography.
Though not from adventure backgrounds, per se, Idris and Wynn are each unique and incredible doc photographers who really rose to the occasion. In fact, Wynn was the guy who nailed the shot of a river crossing that became the key art image for adventure. Meanwhile, I shot the key art portrait of Bear.
Every photographer on our team surpassed our expectations and delivered strong, creative, and compelling work each day. Perhaps even more important, everyone in this crew brought a great sense of humor and friendliness. I can’t tell you how important it is, especially during a nearly monthlong production, to be surrounded by people who you like and want to be around.
I was tasked with the unique role of photo captain, which meant I was overseeing and coordinating the photography team to ensure our storytelling goals were met. That was a real treat because it meant working closely with the race directors, Bear Grylls and his team, Lisa Hennessy and the TV production team every day. We relied on helicopters to scout locations and angles, and shoot photographs and move people. Each morning meant working through complicated logistics, and making a strong plan.
On the backend, Brett Wilhelm and Greg Kendall-Ball built out the image archive, processing a total of 226,598 frames, roughly 15 terabytes of data, over those 30 days!!! And our producer Josh Marianelli ran all of the logistics for the photographer team. Brett, Greg, and Josh were the true unsung heroes, who spent most of their time in Fiji in a dark room in front of a monitor. But without them, none of this would’ve happened so smoothly.
I remember thinking 18 years ago that “Eco-Challenge” had this unique ability to assemble badasses, and that was no different with this new show. It seemed like half of the embedded crew had summited Everest or were 5.13 climbers themselves. And during the month in Fiji, we got to meet new athletes, filmmakers, and friends such as Pablo Durana, an amazing DP who is carving out a big name for himself in the adventure space and, more importantly, is my new neighbor and partner in backyard BBQs in South Lake Tahoe.
HUGE thanks to Mark Burnett, Lisa Hennessy, Kevin Hodder, Bear Grylls, Tyler Adams, and everyone at Amazon Prime. And thank you to our team at Novus for your creativity and hard work! Can’t wait to do this again!