After the Avalanche: Life as an Adventure Photographer With PTSD (Part 2) | Nat Geo Live


In the field, I feel so
connected to everything, but then I’d come home and I
would feel so disconnected and I started to
hate coming home because I wasn’t stimulated. I’d have to sit in this
quietness and feel this pain and I didn’t know where
it was coming from and I felt myself
withdrawing further, and I had a beautiful wife
who genuinely loved me, but you know, in the field,
I felt like I was in a tribe. I felt like I was together. It was egalitarian, we
cared for each other, there was responsibility,
we took care of one another, and then I’d come home and
I’d feel completely alone, and I’d feel a nothingness,
and I think those elements of tribalism are really
important in our lives. We are better when we are with people who hold us accountable. We are better together. Not just with one person. As a group, we are
better together. And I literally
couldn’t reconcile the noise of this urban
life that I’d come back to, going to Whole Foods
and have literal… I could have anything I want. What kind of chocolate? What kind of organic
whatever do you want? And having just come
home from a place where people are out
farming every day. I couldn’t get over the
noise that I was hearing. It was a very distracting
hum and I’d think, I’d get up in the
morning and I’d go, I can get through the
day today, I got this. I don’t have to drink
tonight, I can just… And by noon, it was so much
that that’s when I would, you know, have my first drink, and I never drank to get drunk. I just drank to calm it down
because I was screaming inside and I didn’t know
how to stop it, because the only places
that helped me were the places where
I was distracted, I was in the field, and
I was part of a tribe, and I couldn’t be
disassociated out there. I had a singular focus, and I think it was more to the
point that I felt cared for. I’d come home and we’d
gloss over everything and there’s this
event, this avalanche, going back to it started
to appear as the event that sparked this great
divide in my life, because it had shot me
in one direction upwards. My career had taken
off, and yet inside, I was completely
nosediving towards some sort of vacuous rock
bottom that I couldn’t define. The reason I put this
up here is because my wife and I were not
communicating about it. We weren’t talking about it. There was such a
space between us, and I love this shot because
it’s so typical of us. It’s trying to get the
camera above all the (bleep), just to get the pretty stuff, and that’s not what
human relationships are. That’s not what life
is; life is the (bleep). It’s not just the skyline, and there was too much
distance between us to sustain, and I found myself
completely alone. Oftentimes surrounded by
people, but completely alone. But the best part is, in my
job, there’s always a way to go distract yourself, so
the next assignment came. It was to northern
Burma or Myanmar. It’s changing at
a very rapid pace. My life was changing
at a rapid pace and I felt like this
was a perfect way to reconcile all
those differences. I was gonna solve
all the problems. This country is steeped
in mystery and antiquity. It’s one of the most beautiful
landscapes I’d ever seen, but the northern regions,
specifically, are… They’ve just emerged from
decades of bloody civil war. It’s a very impoverished nation. The northern reaches have
been, the Kachin State has been off limits to
outsiders for decades, so our access was incredible,
and that’s actually something we do very well
here, is we get access, and that is a very
huge privilege. It makes the stories richer. It gets us into places that we would not
otherwise be able to go. But it’s interesting too,
when I look at my photography on this trip, specifically
in urban environments, it was changing as well. I was running so hard from
everything that was happening in my life, it was pushing me
outward with my photography, and I was trying to get closer and I was trying to be more bold and I was getting more
and more in people’s faces, and I thought it was
because I was able to get away from all
that pain, and in fact, I think it was because I
was carrying it with me and they recognized,
I think, when we bring our baggage with us,
people recognize that. It’s a non-verbal
thing, but people say, okay, this person’s
human and they let you into your space in a
much more profound way. When you are equal, when
you are not a different guy, you know, you’re not the white
dude with the big camera, you’re the broken guy
who hurts all day, they’re like, oh,
give him a shot. We’ll let him go there. The point of the trip
was to go overland for 60 days through the jungle to measure the highest
point in southeast Asia. We were trying to solve this
big geographical mystery that had been
created by the war. The war creates
holes in the map. If you can’t go there and
modern science hasn’t gone there for decades, how are we
gonna know what exists there? So we were actually mapping
and trying to measure the highest point
in southeast Asia. Like I said, it was
an overland journey and we were going first
by overnight buses. It was great, like
it was amazing. First, the bus barely starts,
then all the seats are full, and then you’re like,
oh, that’s pretty packed. Like, three people to two seats, and then they start bringing
in the little chairs that you put your kids
in at the kids’ table and they just put ’em down the
aisle, right in the middle, and they get full grown
men to sit down in those. It’s a really great scene. Don’t try to go to the
bathroom; it doesn’t work. Then we took a 24 hour
boat up the Irrawaddy River We took what’s called
the death train. You guys should YouTube it. It’s a train that
hasn’t been cared for since the British left,
so you’re literally, you’re just waiting to derail. It’s like 24 hours
of waiting for death, so if the avalanche
didn’t traumatize me,
I’m sure that did. At least my back
was almost broken. I had about 50 spider
bites on my leg when I got off
the train somehow, and finally, planes, and then
the last form of movement that we were taking
were motorbikes, and we were gonna
take motorbikes 80
miles into the jungle before we started our walk,
and these guys were awesome. As the rider called them,
the Baby’s Hell’s Angels, well actually, because
their bikes are tiny but they were pretty
awesome, they were legit. One morning, I
remember waking up and the bikes are loaded,
overloaded, really, and this one guy grabs a beer. It’s like seven; it’s
fine, no judgment. I’ve done it, you know,
we’re talking about this. Let’s be honest,
and cracks his beer and then he pours some out. I’m like, that’s cool,
some for the homies, good. No, then he takes a
little bottle of whiskey and just fills it back up. I’m like, I’m riding
with that dude ’cause that’s gonna be fun. Anyway, I did ride
with that dude that day and as soon as his bike
fell over with me on it, I was trying to take pictures
falling off the side, but then we decided, well,
now that we’re done with this, let’s walk into the
jungle for 150 miles. For those of you who haven’t
walked through a jungle, you don’t need to, it’s fine. Stay home, don’t
do it, it’s awful. It’s like walking inside
a green ping pong ball, which is cool, you can get
some neat images, kind of, but it’s very monotonous
and it provides you with a lot of time to think,
and what do I do when I think? I get super uncomfortable
because I have to focus on what’s happening in my life. It was a long, long walk, and I started to think about
some real serious things. But sometimes I could get
distracted by crossing bamboo bridges that
have zero metal on them. That’s just all lashed together. Three people could
cross at a time over these incredibly
beautiful rivers. We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t see the
mountains at all. It was one of the craziest
walks I’ve ever done ’cause you’d come
into these washes and literally, if you fall
here, you’re just gonna die. It’s like the most dangerous
walking you’ve ever done, which feels so silly, but
there’s still no mountains. We can’t see anything. We’d get to these villages
and I was so amazed. I was taken back to one of the
very first photos I showed, of the woman sleeping
on the bench. We think of that life as so
wrong, and yet these people, that is their life, every
day, and yet they’ve managed to deal with it in a
much different way. This place is untouched,
except by war. It’s completely
subsistence living. There’s no roads here,
there’s no helicopters. There’s no medical,
no dentist, no store. You need food? You kill
it or you harvest it. You need medical? You
pray or you figure it out or you get sick or you die. I mean, there is no help,
and I was taken by that. The self reliance is
something we’ve lost. And then after 30 days of
walking, 150 miles of walking, this mountain sort of erupts. We’d walked through the
thick, dense rainforest and then we got to the deciduous
trees and then the pines and then all of a sudden,
we’re into the rhododendrons and we can’t see anything,
and then all of a sudden, the day before the
mountain, it just pops up, and it’s right on the edge
of the Tibetan plateau. It sort of rose out of mystery. We were kinda like, is there
really a mountain here? Climbing a mountain by a
new route is interesting because there is no path. People are like, well,
you just go to the top, but it’s actually
very technical. Getting to the top
is not a clear thing and I love that because
that is just like life. I talked about
that as I started. There is no path. We think of things
as very linear, but
things aren’t linear, and when we put ourselves
in that linear box, we tend to lose focus. We made all sorts
of wrong turns. We’d climb up, we’d realize
we were cliffed out. We’d have to go down. We blew hours trying
to figure things out, and you know, it’s
those ups and downs that actually makes the
climbing somewhat worth it, because you’re
learning as you go. Every time you make a mistake, hopefully, as in life,
you learn from it. Finally, we got to our high
point where we had to decide who was gonna go for the summit because we were a team of five and only three could
really climb above this, and we made the decision
and it splintered our team. It was very, very emotional. It was very high stakes at
this point, but we had to make a decision of the most
suited climbers to go, because the climbing
above is like this, and that’s actually
pretty mellow compared to some of the other
stuff that we were doing, which is interesting because
you see the rope there. That just makes sure
you don’t die alone, so let that sit in for a second. Took a minute, right? That’s just there
to kill everybody because if you fall,
nothing’s gonna… We were worried about frostbite. We were on the north side. Renan was losing
feeling in his toes. Finally, after 40
days of climbing, we popped over into the sun and we saw the summit
for the first time. 40 days, Renan is that tired. He’s not just chilling in
the sun; he’s that tired, and I was elated to see
that ridge ahead of us, until I realized
there was no way that we were gonna climb that. We kept going, ’cause you
have to try, you have to try, but in my brain, it
was so convoluted. It was so confusing, and
I just didn’t think we had the power to make it, and
sure enough, we turned around. We turned around at
that point of snow just behind Renan’s
left shoulder, so we were very
close to the top, but the idea was,
well, is this worth it? Because if we keep going,
we’re likely gonna die, and if we die, that’s not gonna make anybody back
home very happy. We were too depleted. We were too tired,
and we failed. This is us returning
to high camp, letting it sink in
that we had just failed on this huge expedition
for National Geographic and trying to evaluate, is there actual value
in this failure? I think there is; I think
there’s value in all failure. Only when you surrender to
it can you learn from it. Only when you give
yourself over to it can you learn for the next time. We failed to bring enough
rolling papers for the tobacco, so we started rolling cigarettes out of a book called Finding
George Orwell in Burma, and that’s what Renan
is smoking there. That’s actually a
map of the exact region we were in,
which is great. We’re just like, we’re done
with this, burn it down. But I also knew that coming out, this was the trip
where I realized, with all that time to think, that there were a lot
more failures ahead of me. I was just beginning that, and
it was the trip where I knew that, you know, my
marriage was over. There was no way to
reconcile what had happened. My despondence had
pulled us apart. My confusion, my aloneness,
my unwillingness to engage, my inability to engage
had pulled us apart. I was so disconnected, and that
disconnectedness had created a void, and a void that I had
filled with anything I could, whether on assignment
or at home, whether it was alcohol or women. I’m just gonna be
honest with you guys. I cheated and I lied
and I was a bad husband. I was a terrible person, and I was trying so hard to
figure out, how could I be a good person and a bad
person at the same time and I was ripped apart and
I did all the things wrong, and those actions,
they have consequences, and those consequences can
hurt, and it really, really hurt because I destroyed
something beautiful, and that put me in a
very strange place. That’s a pretty strange place. But I also started seeing
differently with my photography. I was looking for different
things, because I wanted to find a way out of what I was
feeling, and yet I felt like I was getting further
and further sucked in because this was how I left
the house the last time, and that’s a really, really
hard image to look at. It’s not something
I like to remember, but it’s something that’s
important to talk about.

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16 thoughts on “After the Avalanche: Life as an Adventure Photographer With PTSD (Part 2) | Nat Geo Live

  1. For someone who were homeless when he was 14 years he sure seems to be very slow at developing an identity, and insight into himself and others around him.

  2. is he talking about renan ozturk
    Renan is an excellent photographer check his instagram out
    Mind blowing ! !

  3. Such a powerful story!

    Recommended for those who want to understand PTSD, depression or any kinds of mental disorder that pull you away from human connection.

  4. Corrie not only is a fountain of talent but also honesty.. We all have parts of us that we are not proud of, to put it mildly. To admit it is a feat of courage and worthy of admiration.

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