Join Rick Smolan for an in-depth discussion in this video Opportunities down under, part of Creative Inspirations: Rick Smolan, Photographer.
(Music playing.) Basically the assignment that I was given was to photograph the first non-stop Pan Am flight to Japan and it was an assignment no one wanted to do because it was a press junket. Basically you get on the plane, fly to Japan, take pictures of guys shaking hands, get back on the plane and come home. So, what photographer would want to do that? But it was like "me! I'll go." Japan, never been to Asia. So, I went over there and Time Magazine one day called up and said the Prime Minister of Australia is coming to Japan on a tour and then he is going to China.
Would you like to go to China with him? So, I spent a week with the Prime Minister and I had hair down to here. I was like a real hippy at the time. I had love beads and leather bands and all the Australians wear these very close, short, professional looking journalists. One day we were talking, he has had one of his guards come get me and take me back to his car. We were in the bullet train in Japan. Then I said, "Oh God! What did I do?" The guards were coming to get me and he said "Sit down." I sit there. "Nice to meet you." He said "So, do you prefer the 24 or the 35 on the Nikon, because I am trying to decide whether I should zoom or..." It turned out he was a total photography nut. So he invited me to come to Australia and said the government had a program to bring journalists to Australia. He invited me to his home.
He said "Could you do like Christmas card?" So, again Time Magazine was just like-- I didn't do anything. It's not like I am not working with people. I am not trying to sell myself. I am shy guy who likes to taking pictures, but people seemed to just keep adopting me and then Time said, "Well, now that you are in Australia, would you like to do a story about aborigines?" So, I go to the outback of Australia. I check into my hotel. I walk out of the hotel on the way to meet a social worker who is going to take me to the aboriginal camps to get permission to take pictures of the aborigines and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life is washing the windows of my hotel, wrapped in very tight sarong.
So I take my camera out. I get off two or three frames and she turns around and she start screaming at me and telling me what I can do with my cameras and "What are you, some kind of a journalist?" and I said, "Yeah," and she said "You are probably here to photograph our aborigines, right? You are going to take advantage of these poor people and take pictures of them" and I said "Excuse me, I am really late. I am really sorry. I didn't mean to offend you" and I left. So I worked all day with a social worker, nice young woman and she said "Some friends of mine are having a party tonight in town, would you like to meet other people that work with aborigines?" and I said "I would love to." So she gave me the address and I got my rental car and drive to this little house way in to the town and I knock on the door, who opens the door but the woman in the sarong.
She said "Put your cameras down, you can't any pictures of my friends" and I said "Okay." So I walk into the backyard and there were four camels tied up in her backyard and I said to Robin, the girl who had been so unpleasant, what's with the camels? "None of your business" and apparently I learned that Robin had been planning for two years to walk across the outback of Australia with these four camels and her dog Diggedy and I said "Why?" and they all said, "We don't know, she is like obsessed with this idea." So, throughout the week I kept running into Jane or Robin and finally Jane came up and said "Look, Robin wants to ask you a favor, but she is too embarrassed because she is been giving you such a hard time" and I said, "What is the favor?" She said, "Well, she wants to write to National Geographic and ask would they would fund a trip that she wants to do through the outback and she thought maybe you could like introduce her to somebody at National Geographic." And I said, "Well, I have met the editors, I know some people there, but I have never worked for them," she said "Feel free to use my name." So I finally ended up going back to the United States. I have been away for 11 months and I was home in about a week and I got a call from Bob Gilka at National Geographic, who is the director of photography, and he said "We got a letter from this woman in Australia, is she like a nut-case or is she serious? I mean is she going to die out there. If we fund her trip, is this going to be an embarrassment for us or do you think she knows what she is doing?" I said, "She is very intense, I saw her maps, I saw her camels, she is very fierce.
She seems to have done her homework. I think maybe worth it," And he said, "Well, since you guys are such good friends, would you like to be the photographer to go and document her trip?" So, suddenly I am on this adventure, which went on for nine months. So, I flew back to Australia, I met with her and Bob Gilka, they agreed to give her $6000 to fund the trip. So, six times during the year, I had to fly out and find her in the outback. It was a very interesting year. I think I grew up a lot during the year.
I think I took some of the best photographs I have ever taken. She hated my pictures. She said I made her look beautiful. She hated that. The story became for a while I think one of the most popular stories in the history on National Geographic. It was a cover story. She hated the cover story, she hated the article and I kept saying that "If you hate it so much, you should write your own book." She said "Again, you're always trying to cash in that stuff." Then two years later she called me up and said, "You are not going to believe this, but I have written a book." I said "You are kidding me," and she said "I want you to read it, because some of that has to do with you and what happened to us out there and how hard I was on you." So I read the book and it was hard on me, but it was honest and she never kept a notebook. She never wrote anything down, didn't have a tape recorder.
She wrote the book, but she could remember the patterns that a bug made in the sand. There was no compression. Most people's memories get compressed with time so they only remember the highlights but she wrote the book as if she was almost like it was in real time. It's unbelievable, her ability to capture and recreate her memories and her feelings. The book was extraordinary.