Alister Benn: The Landscape Photographer & Chronicler of Himalaya

An Interview with the Adventurer at Heart

Solid Air, Photography by Alister Benn

Alister Benn, the landscape photographer from Scotland, loves travelling. He is also an avid bird watcher since his boyhood days. For years he crisscrossed the planet and climbed some of the most treacherous mountains in the Himalayan range. His photo album is full of frozen moments of many a menacing beauty such as Mt Everest, Mt Kailash and Dhaulagiri.

Slowly but surely Alister Benn started becoming increasingly curious about the mysteries of the night sky. He forayed into the night photography and started capturing the faint whispers of the blinking stars up. On his many adventures since 2000, his wife Juanli Sun, an accomplished photographer herself, has become his active ally. To borrow Juanli’s words from her poem ‘Once’, they are ‘picturing this mysterious illusion’ of life treading the path together.

How did the child, who always loved dreaming yearned to grow up and fulfil his visions? Did Alister manage to remain true to his vision and nourish the imagination of his inner child?

Thank you for the excellent question – I am not at all sure that the child ever did grow up, I have tried as much as possible to retain the same enthusiasm and love for life that I felt as a kid running through the woods near home in Scotland with a stick in my hand pretending to be Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.

Of course, as I have grown up I’ve matured and taken control of my life; dealing with what I call ‘The Fiscal Reality’ – in that we can’t live on air and hope.

My father passed away when I was 19, and I believe that sense of mortality at a fairly young age made me very much aware that life can be short. I made a strong conscious effort to try and do as much with my life as I possibly can, as I have a tangible fear of lying on my deathbed full of regrets at missed opportunities and the ‘was that it’ sensation.

Subsequently, my wife Juanli and myself are risk-takers; we rarely take the safe road and are spontaneous to the extreme. As a result, we’ve lived in 11 different homes in the last 12 years in 9 countries. We work together every day and share our goals and dreams’; having that sort of harmonious marriage goes a long way to keeping our lives whole and fresh.

Being able to work from home also allows for that, as we are not really a location–based company. Other things that allow us to nurture our inner child is taking control of every aspect of our lives – we work for ourselves, have boundaries that are only set by ourselves and they are always subject to change. We keep things relaxed, basing our business model on the things we love to do rather than what others would have us do. That enthusiasm to get out of bed like a school kid on Saturdays is pretty much how I like my working day to be.

Shangrila, Photography by Alister Benn

You are privileged to have been able to visit and picture many a ‘Shangri La’ through your expeditions to Himalaya and Tibetan plateau. How does it feel to come face to face with these mighty and majestic mountains? How does the adventurous spirit in you come to your aid in these picturesque yet extreme conditions?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as we’ve been putting a couple of Tibet Photography tours together for 2013 and writing a free eBook to be released shortly about the high, sacred mountains of Tibet.

The whole area is truly awe-inspiring, one feels a keen sense of life, and yet, death is a heartbeat away in the cold thin air. It is understandable that the local Tibetan people are so connected to their landscape through their faith.

With night photography as my main working medium, I get to be in these wild places alone, or at least with Juanli, and we get to witness beauty on a colossal scale. Surrounded by 8000m. mountains, glaciers, icy ridges and star-studded skies.

At over 5500m, the air is thin and it does take an effort to motivate us out of camp in the cold to make images. You need to really want to be there. But, as the first frames reveal themselves in the preview screen, you know why you’re there, and honestly, it’s a privilege.

Night photography in the Himalaya opens up a reality that is enhanced by our own perception, and we get to articulate something of that magic through our work.

Mt. Everest, Photography by Alister Benn
Mt. Everest

Birds have fascinated you and in fact, you yourself through all your journeys acted much like migratory birds. How did you develop this love of yours watching avian flight?

I am the youngest of three brothers, with 6 and 9 years between me and the other two, and I picked up a lot of my interests from them. The middle brother was introduced to bird watching at about the age of 9 by one of his schoolteachers, and as I was still a toddler, I would accompany the family to local nature reserves and on vacations. Birds became a part of the landscape, adding a dimension of interest that many people are blind to. I’ve never had a boring car journey since.

It became a really strong part of my identity and later, as an adult, my first real interest in photography was birds. The passion for photographing birds in flight was a mixture of technical challenge and the pleasure of being able to capture super freeze-frame images of intricate beauty.

In about 2006 I let the bird photography take a back seat to concentrate full time on landscapes. In the contemporary professional photography industry it doesn’t pay to be a generalist!

American Avocet, Photography by Alister BennAnna’s Hummingbird, Photography by Alister Benn
American Avocet and Anna’s Hummingbird

How big a revelation has your recent trip to Iceland been through your interactions with locals and the experiences of the rugged terrains?

I am no stranger to rugged landscapes, and I had a quite different agenda for that trip from what you would expect. Other than in shops and gas stations, I only had one interaction with an Icelander, at a remote waterfall in the interior, where she was hiking with her husband and children.

I was struck by how similar they are to their landscape – a little cold on the outside, but when the surface is broken you find a furnace of passion and friendship. Proud and passionate about their culture, legends and independence. Very much like Scottish people in fact, and we share many common ancestors.

My aim was to spend as much time as I could on my own – pushing myself and letting a new perspective wash over me and shape an evolution in my technique. Of course I bumped into a few photographers occasionally, but on the whole, tried to keep myself to myself.

Spending so much time with my wife we sometimes lose sight of where the ‘self’ ends and ‘couple’ starts, and for us, both to go off for 11 weeks on independent trips was a valuable experience. While I was in Iceland and in Scotland, Juanli was in Tibet, trekking into some very remote areas.

A huge challenge for Iceland was to create images that are fresh and unique from a location that is now pretty much the hottest draw in the world. The island has become massively popular and the iconic areas are often packed with photographers. As luck would have it, night photography has yet to achieve cult status, and as soon as the sun set I could return to the icons and shoot alone by moonlight.

Night Photography by Alister Benn
Night Photography

On your journeys and creative pursuits, how do you and your wife Juanli Sun complement each other? On a lighter note, does she offer her critique of your work often?

In a creative sense, we couldn’t be more different – Juanli has very little care for techniques and has a tendency to make it up as she goes along, with varying degrees of success. She is an excellent wildlife photographer as she has extraordinary patience, whereas I probably have the edge as a landscape photographer because of a better understanding of exposure and technique.

This doesn’t stop her critiquing my work! The beauty of her perspective on my images is that my technical input has to be invisible to her – the scenes still have to be totally consistent and well composed. So in that sense, her critiques are hugely valuable to me. If it passes Juanli, it’s usually good enough for public consumption. We’ve spent a lot of time recently helping her with her processing technique, and that has helped her to be more expressive in her landscapes.

Night photography can be a lonely pursuit, and having someone to chat to and share those extraordinary moments with can seriously enhance the experience.

You have collected many gems of experience over the years. Is there anyone in particular that you wish to share?

That’s a tough one – you’re right, there have been many truly memorable moments.

If I had to single out one, it would be the first time I went to Mt Kailash in western Tibet. Juanli had been there before while I was working in the Canadian Rockies, but we went together in September 2009. I had been studying the Ephemeris and knew the moon would be a little before the half and the Milky Way should be visible behind the mountain on a certain date. We travelled for about 5 days across the plateau (this is before the new road). It was a long, dusty trip, with day after day above 4500m with grim accommodation and food.

We got to the mountain and began to trek up to the high camp at around 5200m, the viewpoint for the shot in my head. For a silly reason, I had to run ahead to catch up with our guide as he was with our porter and they had all our water. As I ran up the rough trail I twisted my knee and it went POP. I’d dislocated my patella. It nipped a bit !!

I relocated it and strapped it up and continued uphill, but progress was painful and slow. We rested in a cold room for a few hours until darkness fell, and sure enough, as we went outside to take in the conditions, the Milky Way was indeed right over the mountain, which glowed in the moonlight.

It was insanely beautiful, and I captured some really unique images.

The next day, I had to make my way back down the 19km of rough trail and was pretty much in tears all the way: A really intense experience. After a couple of days on the flat, the knee was fine again!

The image of Mt Kailash, possibly the holiest mountain on earth, in conjunction with the Galactic Center was a really strong metaphor for me.

Mt. Kailash, Photography by Alister Benn
Mt. Kailash

Through your frequent sojourns from an early age you have experienced east and west both geographically and culturally. How did these experiences influence you?

Another great question – My father was in the Merchant Navy, and we were fortunate as kids to get away on the ship fairly often. We travelled to the United States a few times, a lot of continental Europe and even down to West Africa to truly exotic places like Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. I think I had wanderlust from a really early age, and my interest in birds made foreign travel really appealing.

In the late 90’s I travelled to SE Asia for the first time and had a home in Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

I was hooked straight away. From a childhood in the Highlands of Scotland to the rainforests full of sensational birds and animals was such juxtaposition. When I met Juanli in Beijing in 2000, we obviously started to become more aware of our cultural differences, which have required a fair amount of giving and take over the years. She comes from a fairly poor rural family and her sense of value was quite different from mine, even though we were not exactly a wealthy family ourselves.

Seeing poverty all over the world should and must change one’s perspective on equality, racism and compassion. It is one thing to see documentaries about poverty on a flat screen TV while sitting on a leather sofa sipping a glass of Shiraz in a centrally heated home; it is quite another to be there and experience it first hand.

My most enduring feeling about this whole experience is that people are basically the same everywhere – we have a basic desire for shelter, food and love, no matter what our colour, race or faith may be. I have been welcomed into the homes of Tibetans in remote valleys and offered the only food they had – truly beautiful people.

On a landscape level, of course, they differ all over the world. I like to make distinctions between mature agricultural landscapes and wilderness areas, managed rather than natural, and of course, large swathes of developed countries are not natural landscapes. From preference, I like my landscape on the wild side.

If requested to reflect upon the year that is about to turn over the page what would be the defining moment, learning and/or experiences? Any specific exploration planned for the year 2013?

I like to look back on every year and think ‘that was a good one’ – as I stated earlier, life’s too short to kill time.

Most notably for me in 2012 was the publication of my first commercial eBook, Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night.

That was the product of 3 years of travel to make the images necessary to illustrate it, and finally getting it out there and for it to be very well received was really satisfying.

We have long-term plans, and the trips to Tibet, Scotland and Iceland were all part of that development. It’s satisfying to feel things falling into place and us moving forward as we hope to.

Our other project Whytake that we founded with Spanish Landscape Photographer Rafael Rojas and his wife had its first anniversary in November and is growing well. It has rapidly become one of the most inspiring collections of Nature images on the Internet.

Photography is such a super lifestyle that personal, technical and professional development all walk hand in hand. You can feel that evolution taking place every year. Yes, it’s been a great year.

2013 will be a busy one – we have our first Photography Tours in the diary, and that will put on hold our own personal exploration, although we’re hoping to return to Scotland for the winter.

If you are asked to name a place and a book as your favourites, which ones will you choose?

Tough one – Anywhere with Juanli in good light. If forced into a specific answer; the west coast of Scotland on a moonlit night after the snowfall or the Himalaya by moonlight.

Quite an obscure one – Alone in the Wilderness by Mike Tomkies. An executive who gives up his high life in London to live in a cabin on the coast of British Columbia and his adventures with Bears. I read it when I was about 14 and finally found the first edition a few years ago and it still inspires me as much as it did when I was a kid.

Lord of the Rings is obviously a classic, and I must have read it 15-20 times by now!

Do you have any particularly favourite movie? When it comes to music where do your choices take you?

I don’t hold a lot of long-term affection for movies – I can enjoy one, but they don’t captivate me as they once did. Perhaps as a kid, I was more emotionally drawn in because of the escapism associated with them. I did go and see the movie Grease in 1978 about 15 times when I was 11!!! – I am a terminal romantic!

Quite diverse according to my mood, from contemporary Estonian classical to heavy rock. My longest-term band though would be the Canadian Rock band Rush, for their intricate music to profound lyrics. Others would be – Marillion, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, David Sylvian, Genesis & Yes.

Portrait of Alister Benn

Alister loves,

Anything home-cooked. When I was in Scotland recently I ate lots of Haggis and Steak Pies – real Scottish food.

I do love Thai, Indian, Nepali, Italian, Mexican, Indonesian and of course Chinese.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Alister Benn