World Photography Day: A deep-dive into filmmaking with Jeffrey Garriock

Last week (19th August) marked World Photography Day! To celebrate, we caught up with an awesome cinematographer who knows all about life behind the lens. The saying goes a picture can speak a thousand words – and that couldn’t be more true for wildlife and travel filmmaker, Jeffrey Garriock. On a mission to bring stories from around the world to life, Jeffrey shares some of his best moments, valuable lessons learned and the unspoken struggles of working behind a camera for a living.

Image: @jeffreygarriock on Instagram

I understand you have a varied background in filmmaking including commercial, music and sporting events (not to mention wildlife and travel!) What makes documenting travel and nature special for you?

Getting to document travel and nature is a wonderful way to see the world, and it creates these great opportunities I don’t know if I’d have any other way. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work in the travel and conservation spaces as it’s opened doors for me into some incredible places that are often completely inaccessible to most folks, and so I also feel a great deal of responsibility when it comes to documenting some of these experiences, since sometimes it’s one of the only windows that the majority of the world will have into a specific place or experience.

Sunset in Antarctica
Image: Jeffrey Garriock

I was lucky to document an NGO that works with liquidators from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and we were allowed as part of our work to visit the destroyed Reactor #4 as well as a number of parts of the Exclusion Zone that are off limits to many, and so I count myself very fortunate that photography and filmmaking has created opportunities like that for me. I very keenly feel the weight of the responsibility to both represent people and events well in my work, and to try and bring these experiences to a wider audience authentically.

Jeffrey Garriock pictured in the Unit 4 reactor control room at the Chernobyl power plant
Image: Ron B. Wilson

We’ve been lucky to have you capture some awesome moments for us in Jangamo Bay! Do you have any standout moments or encounters from filming with us in Mozambique?

Oh, man, I’ve had some wonderful experiences in Mozambique! I think the one that really stands out is on our very first ocean safari there (I believe it was 2018) Francesca was cautioning us that it may wind up just being a boat ride, as you can never tell whether the wildlife is going to show up. We saw some humpbacks and switched off the boat’s motor and after a few minutes found ourselves surrounded by a huge pod of whales on all sides who stayed with us, breaching and playing for close to 45 minutes. It was pretty unbelievable. Francesca spent the rest of the ocean safari explaining that this is NOT what it usually looks like and not to expect encounters like that on the regular. It was pretty magical.

Image: @jeffreygarriock on Instagram

You’ve been able to travel around the world for your work. Do you think working as a cinematographer makes you see the world differently?

I think one of the things it helps me do is to ask better questions. I started off working for a tourism company and the work at first was very much about showing how beautiful a place is and how much fun you’ll have there, but it didn’t really tell you what a place was like, and as I continued to travel I increasingly tried to bring that feeling home with me. It’s easy to show a person a photo of a beautiful temple or an incredible animal and illicit an “Ooh, amazing!” sort of reaction, but I think it’s a lot more valuable if you can bring home a sense of the space or of the culture, and you do that with storytelling.

The route to storytelling is always through questions so I try and constantly practice asking better questions while I travel so I can try and paint a clearer or fuller picture of some of the places I get to go, rather than just showing the shiniest bit you might see on Instagram. Cinematography for documentaries is all about storytelling so I’ve stopped looking for pretty angles as a first measure and started looking for stories first instead.

How do you think visual storytelling can inspire us to get involved in conservation?

It’s a lot easier to connect with an issue that you can see. It’s very easy to say “The ocean is in distress!” but if you don’t live by the ocean, what does that really mean? We’re constantly bombarded by various issues and since we’re so globally connected, it’s hard to maintain focus on any one issue since by the end of the week you’ll have heard about another one, and unless it directly affects you it’s hard to invest emotionally, or financially, to try and take on that issue in a meaningful way.

Image: @jeffreygarriock on Instagram

Visual storytelling helps by bringing something more to the emotional side. If you say “The ocean is in distress because of devastating longline fishing” and that’s accompanied by photos of bycatch and a story about the threat that faces certain pelagic species (and ideally, something actionable that you can do to combat this) then it’s easier to take time to invest in that idea, and maybe do something about it. Even just to digest an idea, if you have the visuals to go with it, you can make that emotional connection and that’s a great way to get people to care in a landscape where many of us are incredibly jaded by a massive news surplus.

Who are your favourite nature photographers?

I’m a big fan of Paul Nicklen’s work, he does a lot of the types of things I’d like to be doing. I also really like Thomas Peschak, Michael Muller (who shoots awesome stuff of great whites) and I really like the aerials of George Steinmetz, who flies in a microlite to get really amazing perspectives of places…drone shots are just not the same as actually being up there.

Image: @paulnicklen on Instagram

Do you have a favourite photograph that you’ve taken?

Yes – I took a shot of a woman working in a textile factory spinning Lotus fibres into thread in Inle Lake in Myanmar and I still think it’s one of the best shots I’ve taken. I didn’t really have to do anything though, I walked into the room and it looked amazing and was already perfectly lit and composed. Just was in the right place at the right time.

“Spinning Wheel Woman”
Image: Jeffrey Garriock

What’s the coolest or most memorable thing you’ve ever filmed?

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant I mentioned earlier was pretty incredible; it felt like being face to face with history, and wasn’t a place I ever imagined I’d actually be able to access so that was pretty incredible.

Pripyat Bumper Cars in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Image: Jeffrey Garriock

In 2019 I worked on a film about Whale Sharks in the Galapagos islands and I had been trying to see a whale shark for my entire life, so to suddenly be in the water with a 12 metre long individual was pretty surreal. I went from never having seen a whale shark to seeing 31 over the course of 10 days. I’ve also been very lucky to get to work a few times in Antarctica, and everything about being there is unbelievable. From being followed around by a Minke whale to seeing (and smelling) 80,000 nesting pairs of penguins, those experiences are memorable indeed.

Are there any moments you’ve missed on film where you’ve wished you had your camera?

Oh, definitely, but I don’t get wound up about that the way I used to. There’s a really great moment in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” where Sean Penn finally sees a big cat he’s been trying to photograph for weeks, it walks into his frame, and Ben Stiller says “Aren’t you going to take the picture?” and Sean Penn says “Sometimes I don’t.” That really resonated with me, because if you spend all of your most incredible experiences looking into a tiny screen or through a viewfinder, you don’t really get to experience them, so I think it’s important to take time out to have experiences yourself. So now, when something amazing happens, rather than think “I wish I had my camera” I usually just try and enjoy it.

Jeffrey Garriock pictured on shoot with whale sharks in the Galapagos
Image: Sofia Green

From the outside, the work you do and the places you get to visit look incredible! But of course, it’s not all plain sailing. What are the highest and lowest parts of working as a cinematographer?

I think definitely the worst thing that nobody talks about is carrying stuff. You basically have to babysit 30 kilos of incredibly expensive equipment that can’t be dropped, can’t get wet, and you can’t leave alone or it might get stolen. Some shoots where you’re staying in a hotel you don’t have to carry anything as you can get a car to and from where you’re going, but if you’re on an expedition it all has to go on your back. I had a shoot in Jordan where we were filming at Petra and the plan was to go for a few hours in the morning, return home and rest, and then shoot a few hours in the evening. Everything we saw wound up being so amazing and we had hiked so far that we didn’t end up getting the chance to go home in the middle, so I carried all my stuff in the blazing sun for 17 hours, and walked something like 45,000 steps. I remember taking off my socks at the end of the day and feeling the bones in my feet shift apart slightly. That was a hard day.

Image: @jeffreygarriock on Instagram

Also for filmmaking, if you’re shooting handheld you have to hold the camera still, which is harder on day 9 of a shoot in the field where you’re exhausted and wet and hungry and have been hiking for days and days. So it can be really physically demanding. You’re also often under-resourced and alone, so it can be difficult to think through to the final product. If you get to travel in a team, having someone to talk things through with is an absolute lifesaver, but the budget doesn’t always permit sending two people. Especially working in conservation, there’s very little money to go around so you have to do the job of several people while you’re in the field.

It can be tough, but if you manage to come away from it with a good film, it can be very rewarding as well.

What would be your top tips for any budding photographers or videographers?

Go shoot! It’s the number one thing I have to tell people. It’s very easy to get hung up on having the latest gear, or the fanciest toy, or taking all the courses and the schooling in the world to try and be ready, but the best way to learn is to go do it. Make a short film. Do a documentary about your most interesting friend. Shoot the wildlife in your backyard. You don’t need an Alexa and a plane ticket to make something memorable, and nobody will give you either if you don’t have any work to show them. So go make a film, or go take some pictures. Sometimes you’ll make something great, sometimes it’ll be garbage and you’ll never show anybody, but I guarantee in both cases you’ll learn a lot and that’s how you get better.

Any exciting projects you’re working on right now?

I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about this, but I’ve just come back from quite a cool expedition working with microbiologists in caves on a very remote island. I’d better leave it there but a short film will be forthcoming from that expedition that I’m quite excited about. I’ll also be travelling across Africa over the next few months working with Giants of Africa opening up some community basketball courts they’ve been building as a substitute for their usual programming during the pandemic. I’m really looking forward to that too!

Image: Jeffrey Garriock

Feeling inspired to see what you can capture? Check out @jeffreygarriock on Instagram for more incredible photography content!

We’re also super excited to have a couple of drones up and running here at our base in Mozambique – follow us @lovetheoceans on Instagram for more exciting aerial shots coming soon!

Written by Lily Holbrook

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