Recently, BlueHillco Brand Ambassador Rebecca Gaal embarked on a one-month endeavor with a band of committed volunteers into the most remote regions of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau to provide medical and humanitarian aid. Gaal is an environmental and humanitarian photographer specializing in healthcare, conservation, remote medicine, and nature. During her time in Dolpo over 700 individuals from the Kathmandu earthquake refugee camps to the far reaches of the Himalayas were helped. Find out how Gaal prepared to document the challenging humanitarian relief effort, what gear she chose to bring along to some of the highest inhabited villages on earth, what challenges she faced, and ultimately how she succeeded on bringing back a descriptive account of the time spent helping those in need.
The Good, the Bon, and the Dusty: Notes from Nepal
by Rebecca Gaal
In September of 2015, a group called The Nomads Clinic set out on a one-month endeavor to make their annual journey into the most remote regions of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau to provide medical and humanitarian aid. Their mission is to work with and assist local health care practitioners by setting up several day clinics that offer a variety of treatment modalities for a range of ailments. Dolpo was just opened to foreigners in 1989 and receives a fraction of the visitors that other parts of Nepal see. These individuals live in some of the highest inhabited villages on earth with only footpaths by humans, yaks and other hoofed animals to connect villages.
Fossil fuels are a rarity in this part of the world, thus there are no roads into the region or from the Chinese border. The only way to access the region is by plane that drops you onto a dirt runway far from anywhere.
Preparing for a trip like this takes great consideration of the environment and what little access there is to modern technologies that facilitate digital life, including photography. I opted for the Fuji X-T1 in an effort to combat the plethora of challenges including steep altitude, thin trails, stairs, cliffs, big horned animals, and trekking poles, all while using a camera.
My Complete Kit
2 Fuji X-T1 Camera Bodies
1 Fuji XF 10-24mm f/4R Lens
1 Fuji XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS Lens
1 Fuji XF 50-140mm f/2.8R LM OIS WR Lens
12 Extra Batteries for the Fuji (NP-W126)
1 Battery Grip (VG-XT1)
1 GoPro HERO4 Black Edition Camera
8 Batteries for GoPro HERO4
Over 10,000GB’s Worth of Memory Cards
Joby Gorillapod Tripod
2 Battery Chargers + Spare AC Cables for Fuji and GoPro
Goal Zero Sherpa 100 Solar Charger with AC Converter
Circular Polarizers and UV Haze Filters
Peak Design Backpack Clip
2 G Tech Portable HDs
A good sense of humor was also something I had to carry along since things were bound to not go as planned! Space was limited and dictated what had to be left behind. I opted to leave my laptop, card reader, and portable hard drives in safekeeping at the hotel before we took off on foot to Dolpo.
Once we started for remote regions, I learned a quick hack that bags of trail mix is a great cushioning for gear, not to mention bulky clothing. The small pelican case that contained my backup kit (a second X-T1 body, 18-55, 4 batteries, and a handful of cards) was rarely opened but provided me peace of mind in the event of an accident or problem.
As one would guess, good walking shoes were vital but many in our group failed to protect their hands! Proper finger wrapping was a major conversation piece to shield against a combination of sunburn, wind and cold that cracks your fingers while on the trails. Even gloves that only expose your fingertips were not enough. However, another more experienced photographer on our trip had the best solution: Freehand’s stretch gloves that cover all fingers except the one used to depress a camera’s shutter.
Places to charge batteries are few and far apart in this environment. A pro tip is to bring extra money to charge batteries in a home with electricity if you run into desperate times. Speaking of batteries, I used a thick, clean sock to keep them stored in my sleeping bag to avoid depletion of charge due to cold temperatures.
When packing, let your gear be easy to get to. Label everything clearly and use zip lock bags to stay organized and protect gear from dust, which gets everywhere. A Luci light is also worth keeping on you once the sun sets. They have a long charge life and can be hung with a carabineer in a tent for light that won’t hurt your eyes and will help you reorganize for the next day.
In normal circumstances I enjoy the weight of a good-sized DSLR but this particular situation begged for something light and understated. The ability to have what I needed while not being weighted down was priceless compared to having multiple DSLR kits. In addition to the decreased weight of the Fuji X-T1, entering a clinic environment felt much less intrusive with a small camera and lens. People tend to feel more vulnerable in times of need, so when interacting in the clinics I ditched the battery grip and lens shade, mounted a good portrait lens, and got started.
The Fuji X-T1 turned out being perfect for my needs! The batteries held up well in the freezing climate and the camera was durable and weather resistance with no technical malfunctions when going from one extreme environment to another. One drawback, however, was the lack of options for battery charging. The lightest weight compatible solar charger required an AC converter which was about 10-12lbs. I had to follow a strict 40lb weight limit that included gear, clothing, snacks, medications, and sleeping bag. Trading carrying the solar converter for, say, trail mix space was a sober reality.
The external manual control dials on the Fuji X-T1 were a game changer! They made it so I rarely had to stop what I was doing to concentrate on changing settings. The articulating LCD screen was also an ideal feature to keep an eye on composition while maintaining a face-to-face conversation and simultaneously photographing my subject, commonly referred to as “shooting from the hip”.
The images produced by Fuji’s X-TI have an overall film-like quality with an added function to change film simulations in the settings. The camera’s ability to withstand a high ISO without compromising quality, coupled with the availability of fast prime lenses, was a huge benefit of the kit.
Shooting in dark rooms without a flash can take extra forethought and clinics can be chaotic places. There is, however, a rhythm within the disarray and figuring out how to go with the flow is essential to getting the shot. Knowing that we’d be setting up multiple clinics, I thought about the consistency of ‘scenes’ to pre-visualize shots I’d like to accomplish before stepping into the maze of people, in turn transmitting a contagious sense of calm.
Clinics are held in schools or tents and with that comes small, dark spaces and unnatural hues from the colored walls and tents. Cracking a window often led to many peeking children, so while window light was ideal, there always needs to be an alternative plan. Plans B and C included bumping the ISO or, in cases of extreme darkness, I’d place a small Luci light or head lamp up high to try and mimic the effect of natural light.
As the clinics were being set up I tried to walk by or take notice of the environment and type of lighting each would provide. That way if I needed to make camera adjustments I could do so before entering the room. The less I was focused on camera settings while shooting the more comfortable those around me felt.
When shooting in remote areas always consider what elements potentially harm your gear. In my case, it was dust and smoke from wood-burning stoves. There’s no sense in fighting it, rather, use it to your advantage to create a sense of atmosphere and storytelling. One in-camera trick discovered along the way was setting a filter ‘out’ during a meal or moment of rest to allow a thin layer of dust settle atop it. This layer of dust added an aged, muted, or even warming effect to images. There are so many filters and Photoshop actions that try to mimic this effect but there is a different magic to things that occur in-camera.
What do you do when when there are ten things going on simultaneously that all need to be documented? Switch up methods of capturing information. Often you could find me with a head mounted GoPro, Fuji X-T1 in hand, and iPhone set to video on a tripod.
And then there are days of shooting when you’re just too exhausted to care! On this type of expedition you’re constantly tired, yet always on the move. Sometimes it’s hard to fight sleeping an extra 20 minutes in the morning while warm in your sleeping bag. However, getting up first thing to catch the quiet, early morning magic hour presents unique image-making moments you’d otherwise miss.
Photography isn’t just about technical skills and gear. Talk to people, even if you can’t understand one another. Making an effort to communicate can lead to photographic situations and experiences you would otherwise never have the chance to capture.
Also, take note of everything. The clinics were just as important as the landscapes, homes, villages, animals, and food. A range of images creates a more immersive sense of atmosphere and story. The most overwhelming part of a journey like this is having an endless amount of things to photograph and learn about. I quickly adapted to thinking about it in terms of themes – something as simple as front doors, patterns, color scheme, shapes of mountains, or the morning view from my tent at every location.
With the Fuji X-T1 I did notice myself shooting manual most of the time. The top dials made is easy for frequent and drastic changes in exposure to quickly accommodate my preferred look and feel. High Performance Mode made a wonderful difference and I would recommend keeping it turned on. High Performance Mode increases focusing speed and camera start-up time. On your Fuji X-T1 (or the Fuji X-E2, X-E2S): Press the MENU/OK button, then left arrow (located to the left of the MENU/OK button). Now press the down arrow six times and select Power Management (located within the Set-Up Menu). Scroll down to High Performance and select ON.
Being in a group where everyone has a camera or iPhone can become an annoyance. It’s important to keep in mind that your photos are a reflection of your own perspective, which is different from the person standing just a foot away from you. The results are rarely similar. Being on a trail less than a foot wide means that if one person stops to take a photo, everyone has to stop. Translation: your personal photo bubble space is gone – either you accept it, walk in the back, or run ahead.
Nepal is one of the most stunning places on earth! The people, the mountains, and the traditions are beautiful in ways not even a photo can express. This journey was a success because of the immense support we received and the ever-giving nomads. If you are thinking of taking a trip similar to this, I surely recommend getting gear from BlueHillco. They provide gear at the right price for temporary needs, like a once-in-a-lifetime trip! Their service helped me tell my story.
Rebecca Gaal is a humanitarian and conservation photographer, painter, illustrator, writer and student of International public health studies. She is devoted to examining healthcare issues, environmental concerns and the connections between the two. Her work has taken her across the globe where she has been witness to the full spectrum of humanity. Gaals’ passion is long-term, in-depth projects where she can watch the progression or degradation between man, medicine, nature and its inhabitants.