Interview: Mark Clinton on extreme sports photography

We talk to the photographer who joined The North Face team's snowsports athletes Sam Smoothy, and Victor and Xavier de le Rue. His images capture them riding down an active volcano on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 2 Apr 2017, 16:00 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 14:11 BST
Mark Clinton.

Tell us about the project.

Video production company Colab Creative is known for devising outlandish schemes. For this project, the team approached me with the idea of 'skiing a volcano in Vanuatu' (a place more widely thought of as a tropical paradise). The plan entailed three The North Face athletes attempting to ski Mount Yasur, an active volcano on Tanna Island, Vanuatu, which has been erupting several times an hour for more than three years.

How did you plan the photography for the trip?

I didn't know what to expect, so luckily for me Colab tackled most of the admin upfront. They'd already assessed the majority of the logistics before I hopped on board. As none of us had been to Tanna Island before, we really just went in with an open mind. Ultimately, I had to assume it would be like shooting the same idea on snow; just this time, the slope was an active volcano, not a snow-topped mountain, and the snow was ash.

How did the conditions affect your choice of gear?

I was travelling with the new Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, and an array of weather-sealed lenses. As we were dealing with large amounts of ash blowing through the air, firstly I ensured my gear was ready to deal with the conditions, and that I had a lot of covers on me, and plenty of layers to prevent ash getting through. I think I still ended up the dirtiest I've ever been in my life, though.

Were there any unexpected challenges?

Our window of opportunity was limited by everyone's schedule, but right at the start a whole lot of equipment went missing — only one of the athletes had their ski gear. The missing baggage report must be one of the strangest ever to be logged in Vanuatu; missing items included skis, snowboards, everything you'd never need on an island paradise! Then, one of the athletes was delayed by a couple of days, so we were left with only a slim window to get as many shots as possible. The first job was to work out where to stage the project. The wind was covering one side of the volcano with lava, leaving us with the other side to determine the most appropriate ski route.

Mount Yasur's ash reached miles away, including our campsite, so everything was covered in coarse black ash. Regardless of where you were, you'd be covered. I remember trying to sleep on the first night, and waking up to what I thought was the sound of rain drumming on the tent — in reality, it was just another burst of thick ash from the volcano. So, there were plenty of challenges to contend with.

Describe a typical day of shooting on the volcano.

It was an early start every morning; it took an hour to get to the shoot location. Once there, it was really hot, as we were so close to the caldera, and the ash was at its most intense. After three or four hours, we'd have to leave to escape the heat. Then, when sunset approached, we'd repeat the process and spend another few hours shooting (ash and weather permitting). However, our plans to shoot at sunset were repeatedly thwarted by rain, which mixed with the ash to become a kind of falling mud.

You were photographing the trip for The North Face. How did you ensure you kept your own personal style?

The brief was generally free and flexible, which gave me a lot of creative control. I was approached because my style suited what they were hoping to get out of the project — I wasn't asked to alter my style in any way.

How did you protect your equipment?

While I'd planned as much as possible in advance to try to minimise damage to the equipment, in the moment I had to prioritise the shot. So I had the essential weatherproofed lenses, covers, etc, but there's little you can do to totally protect the camera in an environment like this, short of actually keeping it in your bag.

Since I was trialling the new Canon EOS-1D X Mark II at the time, I was extremely careful with leaving it exposed, but the body still got covered in filth. Once we arrived back at the mainland, I was looking at the camera under the hotel lamp thinking, 'Oh dear, what am I going to tell Canon?' My telephoto also took the biggest hit with both the zoom and focus ring sounding like sandpaper against wood. The glass itself also has a lasting reminder, with a handful of scratches courtesy of Mount Yasur's interior.

How did you capture the team riding down the volcano? Were you on skis too?

When everyone arrived, they did one run to work out the best route. After seeing how Smoothy rode it, I worked out the best position to be in — I was standing, as it was a lot easier than trying to navigate such a tricky surface, and shoot at the same time. The surface was really tough for everyone. What this photo doesn't show is that, moments before the capture, Xavier had fallen coming down the volcano, but he managed to find his feet just in time to get this shot.

What would be your top three tips for any readers thinking of tackling an extreme photography project like this?
1. Do your research. We live in an age where we have 3D models of everywhere in the world: Google Earth, Street View, Nearmap, to name a few. There are so many resources to tap into in advance of the project to make sure you're fully prepared.
2. Don't pre-plan everything, leave space for spontaneity. It's a cliché, but so true.
3. Get volcano insurance!

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Published in issue 7 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine

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