Join some of the world's top explorers as they share their work in the field ... and the tales of adventure, danger, and discovery that go along with it. This panel kicked off National Geographic's Explorer's Symposium, one of the year's most highly anticipated events.
Jason De León
Jason De León, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, directs the Undocumented Migration Project, a study of clandestine migration between Mexico and the United States. By using a range of anthropological methods, such as documenting what migrants leave behind in the desert, he seeks to provide insight into their experience.
A spiky cholla cactus bristles in the scorching Sonoran Desert sun. Caught on its thorns-a baby diaper. Miles away, a tattered backpack contains one roll of toilet paper, a love letter, and a prayer card. Beside it, a tiny child's shoe. Until Jason De León arrived on the scene, it was all considered garbage, or never discovered at all. But since 2009, the anthropologist has directed a project to collect, catalogue, and interpret nearly 10,000 objects left in the desert by migrants making the treacherous, undocumented border crossing from Mexico into the United States.
De León's Undocumented Migration Project, through the University of Michigan, seeks to provide a more long-term, nuanced understanding of the immigration experience, exploring the process from myriad perspectives: American, Mexican, migrant, citizen, law enforcement, and smuggler. His novel approach applies rigorous, systematic anthropological and archaeological techniques to a highly politicized issue. "We use archaeological surveys, linguistics, forensics, and ethnography to document how people prepare to cross the border, who profits from helping them, how they deal with physical and emotional trauma during their journey, and what happens to those who don't make it," he explains.
His interest goes deeper than just the scientific. De León's grandparents were born in Mexico, his mother emigrated from the Philippines, and he grew up watching migrants swim across the Rio Grande. "Being raised on the border in a bicultural household with a long immigration history makes me very attuned to issues of cultural identity and discrimination," he says.
Migrants may shed objects to lighten their exhausting load, to evade border patrol agents, or to blend in after reaching a U.S. city. "As trained archaeologists we don't cherry pick the items we collect," says De León. "We inventory mundane survival-based items like water bottles, food wrappers, and first-aid supplies as well as very personal belongings such as letters, baby photos, Bibles, and rosaries." Traditionally, archaeology examines the distant past, but De León's project captures a snapshot of the modern day. "Immigration is an active, unpredictable, moving target; things can change overnight. We're fighting against the clock to collect items before they're destroyed by sun, weather, or animals, or taken to a landfill." His latest efforts tackle the grisly forensic question of how quickly migrant bodies decompose in the desert, data not previously reported in a systematic way.
Bethany Ehlmann is an Assistant Professor at Caltech and a Jet Propulsion Laboratory Research Scientist. Her research interests include:
compositional analysis of planetary surfaces; environmental change over
Mars history; chemical and physical weathering processes on terrestrial
planets; infrared spectroscopy and quantitative radiative transfer
modeling; habitability, rock-microbe interactions, biomarker
preservation; early Earth surface environments; environmental science
and applications of remote sensing; science policy.
Sandesh Kadur creates award-winning wildlife documentary films and photography books exposing the need to conserve threatened species and habitats around the world.
Sandesh Kadur has been sitting in a concealed blind, camera trained on a rhino carcass, for six uneventful days. Silent, back-aching, ten-hour, hundred degree days. The rhino died of natural causes and should be a mouthwatering magnet for a hungry tiger, but so far only buzzing flies have come calling. The decision to return to the blind for a seventh day seems irrational but is hugely rewarded. Not one, not two, but three stunning tigers arrive and feed-behavior never before captured on film. The week epitomizes the "three Ps" Kadur lives by: patience, perseverance, and passion.
Kadur hopes his photographs, videos, and documentaries will reveal places and species people rarely see and will inspire new passion to protect them. His work spans cloud forests and endangered sea turtles in Mexico, rain forests and king cobras in India, the breeding cycle of threatened birds in Indonesia, and orphaned clouded leopards being rehabilitated back to the Himalayan jungle. "I help people connect emotionally with the beauty of the wilderness, bring conservation issues to light, and raise awareness in a way that fosters respect and concern. I don't just want to take pretty pictures," he says. "I also try to make powerful graphic images that expose how much we are losing."
Often his work provides a first ever glimpse of certain animal behaviors in the wild. He caught the 12-foot-long stars of his king cobra documentary courting, fighting, mating, and nest building-action rarely witnessed in the wild. The locations he explores, often for many months at a time, may be the only corners of the world where particular species exist. His latest quest takes him to remote regions of the eastern Himalaya in search of the clouded leopard, a cat so elusive and undocumented that Kadur calls it the holy grail of wildlife photographers. "I'm shining a global spotlight on rare animals most people will never be able to meet face-to-face."
No place holds more personal significance to Kadur than the site of his very first documentary, the Western Ghats. This ancient mountain range in southwestern India remains one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, home to hundreds of globally threatened species, crucial to the monsoon weather pattern, and a water source for hundreds of millions of people.
"It's very important to me to have opportunities to make films in my home country, India," Kadur notes. "In fact, the Western Ghats launched my career quite by accident." Kadur had never touched a video camera when he had the last-minute, mind-boggling opportunity to become writer-director-cameraman-editor for a Western Ghats documentary on which he was only slated to be an apprentice. He read instructions about how to turn on the camera, insert tape, and hit record on his way to the shoot. Four years later the film Sahyadris: Mountains of the Monsoons won worldwide acclaim, prestigious awards, and an international television audience.
More important to Kadur, the film and his accompanying book of photographs were part of the submission that helped convince UNESCO to name the Western Ghats a World Heritage site. "Using my work to help special places and species become protected and preserved is my ultimate dream." While pursuing that dream is anything but glamorous, he calls filming in extreme heat, monsoon downpours, and leech-infested jungles "a humbling privilege."
Ironically, his most vivid memory of the natural world happened without a camera in hand. "When I was a teenager, I had climbed up a big tree above a jungle trail that led to a watering hole. Suddenly, illuminated in full moonlight, a leopard appeared on the path directly below my dangling feet. That moment is etched in my mind more deeply than any photograph or video. I'll never forget it," he says. His passion bloomed. Given a camera, he took pictures of any creature he couldn't identify. Given a bike, he skipped school, cycled to a reserve, and observed elephants. Given a set of nature documentaries, he played and replayed them endlessly. "Those films I watched 20 years ago had such a profound impact on me. I just hope my work will have the same kind of impact on the next generation."
A lifelong Nebraskan, Joel Sartore brings a sense of humor and a midwestern work ethic to his National Geographic
magazine assignments. Over 20 years of experience (more than 15 with
the National Geographic Society) have allowed him to cover everything
from the remote Amazon rain forest to beer-drinking, mountain-racing
firefighters in the United Kingdom.
Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma,
Sartore graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1985 with a
bachelor's degree in journalism. He began his photojournalism career at
the Wichita (Kansas) Eagle in 1984 and rose through the ranks
to become its director of photography in 1990. He began freelancing for
the National Geographic Society in 1991 and became a contract
photographer in 1992.
Sartore's National Geographic
magazine contributions include "The Ghost Bird" (December 2006), "Fall
of the Wild: Alaska's North Slope" (May 2006), "Brazil's Wild Wet"
(August 2005), "All Fired Up: Tapping the Rockies" (July 2005), "The
Driest Place on Earth" (August 2003), and many others.
work has won acclaim at several photography contests. His first award
was in 1986, when he was named National Press Photographers Association
(NPPA) Photographer of the Year for Region Seven. He went on to win a
sweepstakes award for photography from Inland Daily Press Association in
1987. He has had a series of single awards from the Pictures of the
Year (POY) competition and received an Award of Excellence in the
Magazine Photographer of the Year category at the 1992 POY competition.
Sartore's work has also appeared in Audubon, Life, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Time, and numerous book projects including the Day in the Life series. His photos have appeared on several national broadcasts, including National Geographic's Explorer, CBS This Morning, NPR's Weekend Edition, and an hour-long PBS documentary, At Close Range.