Full interview with Joel Caldwell
A few month ago, we sat down with photographer and adventurer Joel Caldwell in his bright Brooklyn apartment. The full interview continues below.
How did you first get into photography?
I’ve been interested in photography for a long time, starting with film back in high school. But growing up in the town I grew up in, it wasn’t very realistic. No one encouraged you to try to make a living taking photos, probably because it would be impossible. So, it was a slow realization that maybe this was something I could do.
When I met Hailey, she’s always been kind of the exact opposite. She’s never had a job where you trade “X” number of hours for “X” amount of dollars. She’s always done something creative. That was really eye opening to me. This was around the same time when I was at the point of barely being able to drag myself out of bed to go to work in the mornings, so the decision ended up being a very conscious one. I had to figure out what I wanted to do that would continue to be interesting and would allow me to have a lot of different experiences—a lot of variety—where I’d be able to tell stories. I kind of settled on photography.
How has cycling played a role in your adventures?
Riding bikes and travelling by bike is something I’ve always been really drawn to. I did my first tour, down the California coast, when I was in college. The speed of travel, having to earn the miles and ending up in the interesting in-between places, I really love that. There’s something about the pace of riding a bicycle. It allows you to really get to know a place. When I came across bikepacking, I immediately fell in love with it. It’s such a combination of things that I’m interested in; it’s self-supported, it’s adventurous. With fat-bikes now you can go anywhere. You can make your own trail using google maps or even thirty or forty-year-old soviet maps. You just travel on a bicycle carrying everything that you need to survive in the middle of nowhere.
Bicycles can also act as a universal language. People all over the world are interested in bicycles and can relate to them. If you’re in a pretty remote part of the world where you don’t speak the same language, people can understand a bicycle—even if it’s a pretty crazy looking one like a fat-bike.
What do you think draws people to bikepacking?
I think a lot of the attraction, especially for people who were originally backpackers, is to get out into the middle of nowhere. This is something that maybe wasn’t available as much with traditional touring. To be able to go off the beaten path and into wilderness areas and not have to contend with cars flying by, to be able to get out into the mountains with the added experience of riding a bike, ripping it downhill, I think that is the attraction.
The first bike-packing trip I ever took—which I still think is one of the best bang-for-your-buck trails—is the Kokopelli Trail from Western Colorado into Utah. It was three or four days riding the trail from outside Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah. It’s the home of adventure, blood red sandstone country. It’s got Canyonlands and Arches National Park. From there, we spent another two days exploring the outback. The landscape is just breathtaking.
A bit more extreme was our three-week trip through Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. It was a lot more travel and super remote—high elevations and a semi-nomadic culture. It’s just such an exotic place and an amazing place to ride bicycles.
Can you tell us about your use of photography as a tool for conservation?
Specifically, I use outdoor adventure as a way to tell conservation stories. But if you take a photograph or write something for a conservation magazine, you’re sort of preaching to the choir. If you can introduce an element of outdoor adventure—cycling, skiing, motorcycle riding—then you end up with a much wider audience.
I spent time bike-packing in Kyrgyzstan, but I’ve also spent time documenting snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. On the last trip, in March 2017, I brought skis and had the opportunity to ski after a herd of Marco Polo sheep, which are one of the three core-species of prey for snow leopards. Being up on the Pamir Plateau skiing after this herd of giant sheep in such a remote location, it was a very unique opportunity. To be able to come back and share that with an audience through Ski Journal and Patagonia’s blog, it really helped to open some communication channels having that outdoor adventure aspect to it.
Recently you experienced a rather large change in your life. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
I had a job that I’d pitched to a motorcycle magazine. Air Canada had a deal where you could fly from Montreal to Frankfurt with your motorcycle for 800 extra dollars. So, I packed my motorcycle, flew to Frankfurt and rode down across the Alps to pick up my then-girlfriend, Hailey, and we rode around Italy for ten days. I proposed to her in Tuscany. When we came back, we started thinking about what we wanted to do and decided on a small wedding in Tuscany, as we’d just fallen in love with it. So, in June of 2017, I flew to Germany to pick up my motorcycle and ride down to Italy again.
I made it about half a day when I had a really bad accident. I spent a month in the hospital, missed my wedding—all of my family and friends were already in Italy at the time. Hailey obviously missed it as well. She was up in the hospital with me in Germany. Ultimately, I had a pretty bad concussion. I had double vision for two months, a broken arm and ended up having to get my left leg amputated below the knee. It was a pretty big shock. There was too much damage in the foot and ankle. The opportunity to try and save the foot through a series of reconstructive surgeries was offered to me, but the likelihood of chronic pain and a fused ankle was not an attractive option.
The surgeons and healthcare professionals in Germany were amazing. They told me that if I wanted to continue to be an independent and athletic person, a below the knee amputation could still allow for that. That was eight months ago.
The last time we spoke, you were out in Colorado on a ski trip. How was it the first time back on skis?
It was interesting. I had applied for this adaptive ski program at Purgatory Mountain in Southwest Colorado. I had applied for a scholarship and they gave it to me, so I got four days of skiing with it. I show up, but a prosthetic leg isn’t going to fill out a ski boot the way a real leg does. So, when I got there, they were literally cutting chunks of a foam pool noodle to layer around my prosthetic leg. Two of us cranked the boot down as tight as it would go while thinking there’s no way I’ll be able to ski with this. We went out and I fell on the bunny slope. I started thinking that it was going to be a long four days, but instead within four hours my brain kind of figured out the balance and I was skiing groomers almost as well as I ever had before. It was amazing because it was the first athletic thing that I’d done since the accident. It was amazing to do something like that.
I haven’t ridden a road bike yet, I’ve just sort of “gotten around”. Riding my townie bike, without the clip-in pedals is not that bad. I think ultimately it will be one of the easier things to get back into, as it’s just the same motion over and over again. But once the weather gets better in New York I’ll get back to it, and I’ll definitely get back to bike-packing as well. There’s no question about that. It will be a little bit more complicated with a little bit more gear to bring along.
I think it’s important to mention that a below knee amputation is very different than an above knee amputation or up in the pelvic region or missing an arm. With time to build muscle and access to the right equipment, you can come back from a below knee amputation and do most everything. The others are such greater obstacles to overcome. They shouldn’t all be under the same title of amputation.
What role can cycling play in conservation?
A big issue in the States right now is public lands, with the current administration teaming up to try and privatize public land, some of which has been public since the 1930s. If people don’t get out and enjoy their public lands, then there will be no call to advocate for it. There will always be people who want to mine and privatize and develop these areas, so it’s important that people get out and recreate and use these areas, whether they’re riding bikes or skiing or hiking or hunting or fishing. We need people to be engaged with wild and public lands in order to keep them that way.
What can an average person do to aid in daily conservation efforts?
Simply paying attention is super important. Especially with the current political climate. Even living in a city, as I do, if you value the fact that we have wild places in our country and in the world, you need to take advantage of them, not only by getting out and enjoying them, but by voting. Your vote matters. We need to get some progressive leaders willing to make the hard decisions.
How did you first get into conservation?
It’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time and have paid attention to. I went to rallies and Greenpeace and Sierra Club, stuff like that. But as a photographer, I suddenly had this concrete thing that I could do. Going to rallies, volunteering and all that stuff is easily as important as taking photos, but as a photographer, and if you’re willing to write some stuff, you can really pitch in. All of these organizations need photos. They need documentation to show what’s going on.
So, I got involved and started photographing some stuff for Greenpeace, and then I started photographing stuff for 1% for the Planet—it’s a bunch of companies and corporations that donate one percent of sales to conservation causes. It’s probably the cause that I’m most passionate about. For me, work is much more enjoyable when it’s meaningful and this is what I think is the most pressing issue.
And also, selfishly, to be able to travel to some place like Central Asia to document snow leopard conservation—travel with purpose is so much more enjoyable than just travel. You get to know local people, you pitch in, you visit people’s homes, you eat with them—it’s such a deeper dive. It’s good to have purpose.
In conservation, how vital is engagement with the local communities?
Everything hinges on the local community. It’s all based on local involvement, and that’s what makes the work worthwhile. We get to know people. We get to form relationships with people. Three weeks ago, one of the rangers in Tajikistan, Mahan—who lives in a town of like a thousand people literally in the middle of nowhere on the Pamir Plateau—was on his way to Montana. That’s where the conservation biologist that I work with lives when she’s not in Central Asia. On his way back, Mahan had to overnight in New York. So, I picked him up at the airport and we took him to his first movie in theater he’d ever seen. We rode the train in, walked down Broadway and over the Brooklyn Bridge. I think it blew his mind. It will be something he talks about for a long time. I think by the end he was ready to get the hell out of New York City.
What’s on the horizon?
I’m trying to put together a trip to Senegal. There’s an estimated twenty lions remaining in Senegal. I’m hoping to find a local Senegalese filmmaker to work with and create a campaign that builds pride in the Senegalese lions. That’s through the Wildlife Conservation Network and the Leonardo DiCaprio fund.
I’m also trying to go back to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to make a film about the conservation model there. It’s so interesting.
And what’s the model?
It was actually pioneered in Africa, but it’s community-based conservancy. Local people are encouraged to stop hunting all of the animals that the snow leopard hunts: ibex, Marco Polo sheep, and markhor—these giant, Lord of the Rings looking goats.
The local people stop hunting and instead become rangers, patrolling the area and preventing other people from killing these animals. When these animals start coming back, the snow leopards start coming back.
It all hinges on trophy hunting, which is a little bit controversial. Once these sheep, ibex and goats reach a sustainable level, there’s trophy hunting permitted. A foreign trophy hunter will come in and pay, for example, $40,000 USD to kill a single, mature Marco Polo sheep. This is usually a trophy animal, so it has big horns that they can hang on their wall, but it also means that it’s an old animal, kind of past its prime and unlikely to be significantly expanding the population. The money is then divided, with some going to the government and the majority going directly to the local community in the form of access to clean water, access to better education and healthcare.
I’ve been there and seen the impact. It’s increasing wildlife populations while benefiting the local communities. It’s a pretty amazing thing. I think in the 21st century it’s hard to tell a positive conservation story and this is definitely one of them.
Some animal rights activists don’t like the idea of trophy hunting. I don’t particularly like the idea of trophy hunting, but the truth is, you have to incentivize people to protect these animals. This is a very effective way to do it. You can argue with the way it happens, but the results—you can’t really argue with those.
What’s the one thing you always bring on a bike-packing trip?
Probably Starbucks Via packets. I’m not really a Starbucks guy, typically, but those packets are fantastic. To drink a cup of coffee of that strength first thing in the morning, it’s like the most luxurious thing and it weighs nothing.
Ready to get involved? Head over to www.onepercentfortheplanet.org to find out how.