Ace Kvale: Photographing the Himalayan Cataract Project

Ace Kvale’s photography (www.acekvale.com) is a celebration of the human element—a study of rich cultures and extreme climates, a record of first ascents and descents. His images are powerful yet humble, and his passion for storytelling has translated into a remarkable talent for weaving a complete narrative through pictures. After thirty years, now one of the world’s top adventure photographers, Ace has traveled to more than sixty countries. He’s participated in twenty-five expeditions to Asia and the Himalaya.  His images have appeared in dozens of magazines, from National Geographic to The National Enquirer. He’s contributed imagery to dozens of books and movies, and shot portraits of celebrities from Jerry Garcia to Tiger Woods.  After multiple trips to photograph some of the world best cataract surgeons who are making progress in curing preventable blindness, Ace has a long history with the Himalayan Cataract Project, a support non-profit agency in the United States doing great things to end world blindness. We found him in Utah near Escalante, just before leaving on a five-day backpacking trip.  

Pictureline: Ace, will you give us a quick background on your relationship with some of these ophthalmologists and their non-profit organizations?

Ace Kvale: In 2004, I met with Rob Haggart at Outside Magazine (now from aphotoeditor.com), and I hit him up with this idea that we highlight this American doctor, Geoff Tabin now at the University of Utah and co-director of the Himalayan Cataract Project, doing cataract surgeries.  I originally knew Geoff by reputation through climbing because he was the fourth person to have climbed the seven summits. Outside sent me to photograph him in Sikkim in 2004, and it went over so well that it ended up launching a whole North Face/Outside expedition the next year with a film by Michael Brown.  Geoff is one of those people who changes people's lives through these eye surgeries, but he is also a person who has this incredible energy and can just get things done. He believes more in the mission statement more than his personal agenda or making money. I really fell under that spell and working with him has really become one of my life's projects, photographing these eye surgical camps around the world.  So that's how it started:  first through climbing and then through this great cause.

Pictureline: You seem to have photographed this group in many areas of the world.  How was your work with the eye care in South Sudan different that say, Asia?

Ace: I've been on six camps in five countries with Geoff Tabin and the other doctors such as Sanduk Ruit from Nepal.  Dr. Sanduk Ruit from Nepal is really the driving force behind these eye camps.   I've been to Sikkim, Nepal, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and now South Sudan.  A lot of the camps that these eye doctors go into have some kind of infrastructure in place, an outreach program, a camp, or something where the people have been seen by an ophthalmic assistant and screened beforehand.  The Moran Eye Institute as part of the University of Utah actually has an exchange of eye doctors from around the world where a doctor from Ghana comes over for a few months and then facilitates the exchange of doctors to their country.  Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Alan Crandall are always looking for the newest, wildest place to go and do their work because these places are often fairly neglected when it comes to eye care. These doctors are a different breed.  They're like climbers: they want to go to new places that are a little wilder, a little woolier.  They are mainly interested in giving care in places that have little or no eye care. They partnered with John Dow, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who lives in Syracuse, New York, who opened a clinic in South Sudan.  This gave them a place to go in the South Sudan where they could fashion an operating theatre, have some generator power, and use some school rooms as structures to work in.  We tried to go two years ago to John Dow's clinic, but some violence flared up, but we decided to go in December of 2011 during the dry season.

The Himalayan Cataract Project funds me to go on two trips a year, and this one to the South Sudan all came together late last year, and we flew into Nairobi and then took little Cessnas into South Sudan.  We had three doctors with us, and they did about 300 surgeries in a week. It was kind of like a M.A.S.H. unit, where you set up and everything happens.  We all eat, sleep, and work in the same areas, and even though the doctors do the bulk of the work, everyone is expected to help.  I help out in the operating room, I give patient steroid and antibiotic drops, I bring equipment in and out, and even though I am the photographer, I am expected to help with the "flow" of things.  Part of the reason I keep getting invited back is because Geoff Tabin thinks I contribute to the "flow."  He says people have "negative flow, medium flow, or positive flow."  Positive flow means that you bring a positive vibe to the situation and help everything work out in the best possible way.  This means that you have a sense of humor, you work well in bad situations, and you work well without a lot of sleep.  We all work the same hours, about 16 hours a day.  We all work hard, but we have such a good time.  It is so much fun.

Pictureline: Describe the relationship that you develop with your subjects (the patients and family) in South Sudan.  How do they react to you and to your camera?  Does this change over time with them?

Ace: Basically, they consider me to be like one of the doctors.  They're getting their eyes poked at and prodded.  They're get handled in numbers, so the movement of patients is fairly fast.  I'm basically another white guy with a camera, so I have access to patients that I wouldn't have normally.  I can take photographs at close range because I am trusted as the doctors are trusted.  By the second day, these patients are having their vision restored, and the air of the crowd turns into a happy celebration because they are seeing already.  The next patients then are seeing already the joy of their friends who have had their vision restored, and I get to record all of that on the camera.  The doctors will have their point-and-shoots and there might be a videographer, so I tend to blend into this celebration.  I have access that I normally wouldn't have as a just a traveler or a bystander.  This is a fantastic opportunity with work with people.

Pictureline: What is your role as a photographer in a humanitarian-type situation and how does the funding (from the organization, I presume) work out in terms of licensing.  How is licensing shared with Tandem?  How should photographers who shoot humanitarian work think in terms of "volunteer" work and "for-profit" work?

Ace: I've had features in National Geographic Adventure and Outside Magazine, and I give rights for web usage and for direct mailings.  Anything that they need, I will supply their photography. If it's a third party sale of any kind, such as a magazine, I had Tandem take over the day-to-day  sales of that.  So for example, a watch company wanted to use some of the photos for advertising, so I had Tandem negotiate that.  Tandem is so on-the-ball answering the phones everyday where I may be out shooting somewhere. They are such great people there.   With "non-profit" work, people feel the photos should be free too. That's definitely a whole subject we could have a whole seminar about. For any kind of company that wants to use it for advertising, they should pay the standard industry rates.  I try to be a little more lenient with the non-profit that I am dealing with, but that's a tough one.  That's a tough subject to deal with.

Pictureline:  How do you think about equipment when packing for a location like the South Sudan, when perhaps you are aware of electricity supply, storage needs, amount of equipment?  Do you have a go-to set of equipment that will always travel with you?

Ace:  I travel as light as possible. These are not commercial shoots; they are photojournalism shoots, and one of my jobs is to help carry the doctors' equipment and I help Geoff get everything he wants on the plane.   People always ask you what you do about power.  I just take a ton of charged batteries, and a ton of memory cards.  (I'm old school, and I worry about memory cards being corrupted.  I just take a lot of 4GB and 8GB cards.)  If the power source is available, then I can charge up.  I can usually get by for weeks with just having half a dozen charged batteries and thirty memory cards.  I travel with two bodies and four or five lenses in one bag.  I've been shooting on the Nikon D700 with a D200 as a backup, and my go-to lens for these shoots is the Nikon 17-35 mm lens, as I want a lens on that is more of a storytelling lens.  I carry a 60 mm Micro as well, and these are my main lenses.  I will carry a Nikon 80-200 mm, and sometimes later on in the day I will pull out a longer lens like the 300 mm in the evening when I am shooting across the landscape, but that wide angle zoom is my standard lens to start out the day on these assignments. I also have a Panasonic Lumix, and I've got my iPhone!

Stay connected to Ace:  Website | Marmot | Tandem Stills + Motion

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