Artists & Explorers

In Creativity and Inspiration, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory, Travel, Wilderness by David17 Comments

This one is a longer one, but I think it’s worth it. Put the coffee on, find a place to settle in. And then scroll to the bottom to see some images from my recent wolf expedition

A month ago, I found myself in a tuxedo, eating ants and mealworms (but not the scorpions, grubs, or tarantulas also on offer) at the 120th Explorer’s Club Annual Dinner in New York City.

It turns out the insects were not the most challenging part of the evening. Surrounded by people who have done some of the most extraordinary things with their lives (Explorer’s Club members have been to the moon, the summits of the worlds tallest mountains and the trenches of the deepest oceans), it was hard not only to feel an overpowering sense of imposter’s syndrome but also inspiration of the highest, brightest kind.

I will never explore in the way some of the people with whom I shared that evening have done. I won’t circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon. I won’t sail solo around the world. And the window for me to get to the moon is closing quickly. But it would be a mistake to believe—for any of us—that exploration is off the table as a way of living or a philosophy.

The heart of exploration is this question: what do we do with the unknown? What do we do with the fear of looking around those corners to find that which we do not (yet) know or understand? Those are questions of exploration, and it is the explorer who strives to answer them, not avoiding the unknown but seeking it as a starting place.

Exploration is first of all a posture of the human spirit. A willingness—even an eagerness—to engage the deeper questions. To push our limits in pursuit of the unknown, perhaps most especially when those unknowns are our limits themselves.

Explorers have been to the bottoms of the deepest oceans and the tops of the tallest mountains, but to my knowledge, they’ve not yet found the limits of human resilience or ingenuity.

I read a lot of books about exploration. I’m fascinated by the Amundsens, and the Mallorys, Pearys, Nansens, Cooks, and Earharts. What hearts they must have possessed to leap so willingly into the unknown and find an answer not only to, “Can it be done?” but “Can it be done by me?”

Do I have what it takes? Do you?

Do you have what it takes to find out what’s on the other side of the divorce that right now looks like it will destroy your family, your finances, and your heart?

Do you have what it takes to discover a life on the other side of bankruptcy or financial struggle?

Do you have the strength of heart to walk the path that takes you through the chasm created by the death of a loved one, an unexpected diagnosis, or the news that some piece of your life just no longer exists? What will you find in those empty places?

Do you have what it takes to explore what your life might look like if you made the change, made the art, or made the difference your heart is calling you to make, in full view of the risks (which might be very real or only perceived but form a terrifying barrier nonetheless) over which you’ll have to climb to find out?

To be human is to have those questions keep you up at night. To be an explorer is to willingly (though not fearlessly—that’s what courage is for) go looking for the answers, to move forward one step at a time, and, having not yet hit the limits of what we can discover or endure, to take another step. And then another. Not because we know what’s there but precisely because we do not. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s not.

My evening in New York left me wondering about the connection or similarities between exploration of the kind meant by the Explorer’s Club and the kind of exploration we do as artists. What we do rarely puts our lives at risk, though ironically, I wrote these words 13 years to the day since I fell from a wall in Italy while angling for a better photograph. That fall should have killed me. In the end, it left me an amputee. I lost a leg but gained the world and a story of which I’m proud—one that continues to be its own exploration, forcing me to map out the topography of my resilience and has yet to reveal its limits as it continues to lead me to new wonders.

Art-making is also a posture of the human spirit towards the unknown. It’s a willingness to inquire of life. To ask what we find beautiful, certainly, but it’s more than that.

It is a kind of exploration that asks important questions about what is important to us and what we’re willing to risk for it. It’s a challenging of our concepts of what we can and can’t do—a confrontation of our fears and our perceived limits. It’s the willingness to look at the maps we’ve drawn of our own lives and hearts and minds, the ones that have “Here be dragons!” written in the empty spaces, yet unexplored, and to go see what’s there all the same, either despite the dragons or because of them.

The fear of those dragons—stand-ins for the monsters we imagine lurking in the unknown—has kept so many from exploring those empty spaces and discovering their absence. Not a dragon to be found. The same imagination that might drive one person to dream of new paradises might conjure for another person all the reasons to stay home. One person will go out, excitedly thinking, “What if we find DRAGONS?!” while another will stay behind, held back by fear. What if we find dragons?

What if gold? What if certain death? What if failure? What if glory? What if, what if, what if?

The explorer and the artist, equally propelled by courage and curiosity, respond similarly to the what-ifs and the possibility of dragons in the empty places—not with avoidance but with pursuit. They respond with, “Let’s find out.”

Neither do so because they are unaware of the dangers but because they learned long ago that safety isn’t a real thing in which we can reliably find refuge. They’ve learned that danger, if it’s there at all, usually finds us, no matter the precautions we’ve taken or the fears with which we’ve lived and found ourselves not so much safe as confined to smaller lives.

“Life,” said Helen Keller, “is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.”

Life is uncertain, and both the artist and explorer have found a similar way to engage that uncertainty. A practice. A way of living with and questioning that uncertainty, using the unknown to stimulate new ways of thinking and doing to discover new places, both without and within. I suspect both would agree that some of the greatest discoveries are not the depths or the heights to which we can go but which, because of the process, we have found within ourselves. The dragons, if they are there at all, are more within than without and more easily tamed for calling them out of the shadows. Both invite us to more fully engage—to be more fully alive—in this daring adventure, and I think that’s worth exploring.

Postcards from Vancouver Island

Speaking of exploration and art, I spent two weeks in May on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island for the most challenging photography expedition I’ve done. But what magic and wonder! I went to find coastal wolves (the same wolves from Netflix’s Island of the Sea Wolves), and though they did not disappoint, they made me work for it. Here’s a glimpse at some of the images that took me over 130 hours and 75km of hiking to make. They really do need to be seen larger, so click any of the images to see them full-size.

For the Love of the Photograph,


  1. My red line is household pets. In Peru our hosts offered us their regional specialty, which is, of course, guinea pig. We politely pointed out that in our households (all of which with daughters) our guinea pigs had names. We compromised and had chicken with the sauce they usually put on the guinea pig. Everyone was happy, including the guinea pig 🙂

  2. Mamma Mia, David!

    The images on your monograph blew me away! I probably can’t imagine the amount of time and effort it took
    you to capture and edit these amazing photographs, but the world is a better place for this. Bravo!

    Claudio Bussandri

  3. Thank you David. As always beauty and wisdom. The monograph is breathtaking and the words, well. something to ponder on over a cup of coffee.

  4. Thanks so very much for this wonderful monograph. Your dedication to getting there and keeping going is remarkable. And yet you have time to teach!!

    Inspiring <3 <3 <3 🙂 🙂 🙂

  5. David – your heart is as wide as the world! Thank you for continuing to inspire me with your words and images. This latest monograph is a great example of your teaching us to express what we feel when we have camera in hand. I can almost smell the salt spray and feel the mist on my skin. Hair-raising, indeed! Thank you; thank you; thank you!

  6. David, thanks for the wonderful monograph. It’s nice to see you practice what you preach. I just finished your “Shoot What It Feels Like “ course and I see so much of that in this monograph. Just to call out one of so many great images, I really enjoyed the silhouette of the seabird (I’m guessing a double crested cormorant) landing on the rock. The shape is lovely and quite recognizable. Really looking forward to “Develop What It Looks Like”.

    1. Can’t believe I screwed up the title of the course. It is “Develop What It FEELS Like”.

  7. David, you never cease to inspire me. I’m 67 and going through a very challenging point in my life and this concept of exploring is so helpful. Thank you!

  8. David – Stunning images – gorgeous, thank you for inviting us to your sight to enjjoy your wonderful work

  9. I am 57 and just going through a very difficult phase in my life. This was an amazing and inspiring read. I just hope I have the strength to come out of my situation.

  10. Beautiful images but more importantly, images of YOUR courage. I, at 83, trying to keep my balance and not fall doing just the ordinary things is now very difficult. I am an accident waiting to happen, so I can somewhat understand what it took to start over. We are glad you did AND dared to do that. Best to you and looking forward to the next photos!!!!!

  11. David,
    As a relatively new subscriber,
    I open your posts with anticipation as you
    never fail to nail it.
    Both as a photographer, ( unbelievably moving work ),
    and as a philosopher writer, it is evident you take your life seriously with joy and reflection.
    We all have our own issues, adventures, troubles to bear, but through open eyes of the beauty around and within, we can truly make, of our brief, fleeting moments, a life of ever continuing memories .
    Thank you for your gracious devotion.

  12. OK, just checked out your Coastal-Wild-Monograph. All great images, per usual. My two favorites,
    #26 & #34. Just my opinion, but hey, gotta’ go with what strikes me the most.
    You do live in a truly beautiful place & it’s great that you getting to explore it.

  13. Pure inspirational Thank You For the love of Life and Photography 📸
    Life never has been fair and yet choice at some level is still possible. Opportunities occur dare you say yes.
    The Otters are a delight. Each is these images evokes a slightly different emotion. Very special x

  14. What a wonderful, inspiring article, David. This one really hit home as I emerge from a totally unexpected and surprising bout with breast cancer that has resulted in much introspection. These last few months have reinforced my outlook on life as an adventure to be fully explored and lived, with curiosity. Thank you for contributing to my positive outlook!

  15. Hi David. Your images from the sea wolves expedition are most spiritual in nature. You have captured their elusive mystery. When I look at them I know I am seeing something few others have witnessed.
    And it must have been an arduous journey and I am fully aware of the difficultly you
    must have endured to make these images. But
    like all explorers, if it was easy, everyone would be one. Thank you for showing us what the human spirit is capable of achieving

    1. David,
      When I heard you were at the Explorer’s Club dinner, I’m so shallow that my first thought was, “Did you see Josh Gates?” #fangirl
      But anyone who hangs a camera between a rhino’s knees to get the shot (or whatever the heck you thought you were doing) is hardly an imposter on the exploration front. You send emails to cheerfully invite me to answer “Heck, yeah!” To adventures I instantly say “Heck, no!” To. Exploration is definitely a calling, but all you adventurers know that on the other side are the armchair travelers like me consuming adventure media.

      But you extended the metaphor in ways that made me look inward. I just finished the remarkable book “Fearless Writing”by William Kenower (of Seattle), and your thoughts about moving through fear sync with his in such a strong ways that I just HAVE to pay closer attention to the stories I tell myself about not wanting to photograph black rhinos in this lifetime.

      Peter and I have been exploring Vancouver Island for thirty years as we collect NW Coastal Native art, esp. Kwakwaka’wakw. One drizzly late afternoon, we were driving south when we saw a large silvery wolf walking on the side of the road. The fine drops of rain were highlighting every hair tip. “Wolf!” I yelled because the sight of a wolf is so atavistic that there is never any mistaking it for any other canine.

      It was great to see your photographs of the Sea Wolves and to be reminded of my one lifetime sighting. We have A Sea Wolf mask by the great Kwakwaka’wakw carver Tsungani, too, to mark the memory.

      I am enjoying the class and have declared this the Summer of Shooting and Writing How It Feels. I would not normally have signed on to the editing class as they are almost always in Photoshop or LightRoom desktop and my eyes glaze over trying to translate to my own system—I’m learning LightRoom Mobile but also cobble together a variety of mobile applications. You said your approach will be to focus on universal tool language rather than one brand—so if you call for a brush or a mask, I will know what those are without having to see the buttons you’re using. That is BIG and the reason I put my money down.

      Thank you for so generously sharing your deep thoughts and mysterious portfolio of images.


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