SURFAID is a non-profit humanitarian organization whose aim is to improve the health, wellbeing and self-reliance of people living in isolated regions connected to us through surfing. SURFAID opened it's doors in 2000 with a core mission of helping increase the health standards of people in the remote Mentawai Islands, off the coast of West Sumatra.
In 2010, director Michael Lawrence volunteered to join with their relief team to photograph the aftermath of the massive tsunami that had just struck the islands. This trip changed his life - the images of the people forever ingrained in his mind, calling for a return trip to the islands and a way to help bring their story to the world. When Steve (from SURFAID) called in late January and asked to do a film for them, the only response was "Yes, when!?", and six days later we were on a plane headed for the Mentawais.
Over the course of 12 total days, Mike and I visited the three major islands, embedded with the local support crew, and made some of the best, and certainly most important, images of our careers. Inspired by the power of water - it's ability to give and to take away - we focused on both the macro elements of island life: water drops, trees swaying, and epic pacific sunsets; and also the people of the Mentawai - their smiling faces, determination, and humble appreciation of the most basic and human needs.
My goal was to create a cinematic image instead of the documentary, run-and-gun style footage one typically sees from that part of the world. I wanted to shoot with short lenses, so that closeups would get me in close to the native people and still be able to see the world around them. I wanted to capture everything in slow-motion so the viewer could take in the scene and see the texture and detail that exists in this part of the world.
To me, the choice of camera was a no-brainer: I needed something about the size of a dSLR that could shoot high-resolution slow-motion imagery with a wide dynamic range that could handle the tropical sun. Mike and I discussed using a variety of Canon cameras, and one that came close was the 1D C - the small form factor and rugged build were perfect, but the only thing it lacked was slow-motion in 4K.
So I turned to the RED Epic, and thanks to the wonderful folks at RED, who worked tirelessly to push my camera through repair and upgrade so I could have it back in time, we were able to take a cinema camera to one of the most remote locations on Earth. I managed to pack a lightweight RED Epic package and a set of EF mount lenses along with clothes for a week into a backpack and a Pelican case. This enabled us to shoot high speed 5K at 120fps, and using primarily the Tokina 11-16mm, I feel that we were able to bring a highly stylized and empowering vision to the spots.
Aside from the constant and grueling travel, the biggest challenge was just making sure we had power. I brought enough batteries to last an entire day of constant shooting (5x Anton Bauer Dionic HC 4x RedVolt), but charging them at night was a hit-or-miss prospect at times. Our first location was so remote that we were only able to hook up to a generator for a few hours each evening - there wasn’t even running water. Drives were bus powered, and I kept my MacBook powered down unless necessary. We were able to get about six dumps done on one charge without plugging in.
We hopped from island to island and trekked into the jungle to capture the various projects SURFAID is conducting all over the Mentawais - from rainwater catchment systems and other clean water projects, to mosquito net distribution and tsunami drills and local health education sessions. The most beautiful part of the journey was the unceasing kindness and happiness of the locals, who would smile and wave and invite you in for tea and to photograph them and their families. I was sad to go so quickly, having spent just under two weeks off the coast of Sumatra, and I hope to return soon.
The end piece, to premiere at SURFAID's annual Blackberry Ball in Sydney on March 15th, will bring this story to the world, who, in turn, we hope will help to improve the lives of those living in the Mentawai, and support SURFAID in their constant pursuit of preventing malaria, providing clean water, and improving women's and children's health on the islands.
Stay tuned here for the final spots, coming soon.