Socotra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site off the coast of Yemen, considered by some as the site of the Garden of Eden, and is renowned as a hub of biodiversity in the Arabian Sea. Its name comes from the Sanskrit word for paradise, and more than a third of its plant species are found nowhere else on earth. The jewel in the crown of this extraordinary plant life is the umbrella-shaped dragon blood tree, with a legendary red sap that is believed to carry the blood of the ancients. But as idyllic as it sounds, Socotra is caught up in the civil war in Yemen and has been inaccessible to tourists for years, with strong warnings from governments against travelling to the region.
What drives a landscape photographer to endure extreme conditions in a remote location, which is now also a war zone? Here is what Marsel had to say.
OK, I’ll admit it: I’m a tree lover. Many of my most popular landscape images feature trees. From the iconic dead camel thorn trees in Namibia, the giant baobab trees in Madagascar, or the cypress trees in Louisiana, I’m always inspired when I’m photographing them. I have a strong aesthetic approach when it comes to my choice of subject matter: beauty comes first. There’s been one special tree at the top of my tree shoot wishlist for years: the dragon blood tree. It has an amazing shape, it’s very photogenic, and it can only be found on the island of Socotra.
The journey there
Getting there was a huge challenge for Marsel. He’d tried for years to visit, exploring every possible option, but there were no flights and even boats were not allowed in. Suddenly, flights started operating again and he jumped at the chance. But to get there, he had to land in mainland Yemen, before travelling on to the island, which came with its own risks. So much had to be taken into account before even getting out his camera.
My country has no embassy in Yemen so if everything went sideways, I’d be on my own. There are no medical facilities on Socotra, which was another concern. I knew we’d be hiking a lot in remote locations and on very rocky terrain. And finding insurance for going to a war zone is another challenge. Also, if anything happened to the airport on the mainland, because infrastructure is always one of the main targets in any war, I could be stuck on Socotra for a really long time.
And, of course, in a remote region, keeping his equipment powered up over a two-week expedition was another major issue.
That also meant being economical with kit. Not just to ensure there’d be enough power, but also to manage the weight of his kit bag on long hikes up the steep Hajhir Mountains in search of dragon blood trees.
I knew I’d be shooting different landscapes and that I’d be hiking a lot. I usually travel with three bodies, but for this trip I decided to travel light and take only two: the D850 and the Z 7. For lenses I brought the NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED, 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, Z 24-70mm f/4 S, 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II and the 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR. On some of the more strenuous hikes I brought only the Z 7 with the NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S lens and the 14-24mm f/2.8G ED with the FTZ-adapter. Most of the time I actually had the Z 7 hanging from my neck during the hikes – that’s how light it is.
As you’ll see in the documentary of Marsel’s trip, reaching the dragon blood trees was the first hurdle, as bad luck dogged them on the journey, with flat tyre after flat tyre as they navigated the unforgiving, rocky terrain. Long hikes proved fruitless, with the trees seeming ever more elusive. And despite all the careful preparation, there were technical issues too.
Our challenges were mostly to do with power, as we were traveling in remote areas without electricity for days on end. I also wanted to do some night photography and time-lapse, which are both very battery-hungry. On my D850 I always use the grip with the rechargeable LI-ION EN-EL18c batteries, and they last forever. The Z 7 uses much smaller batteries, and being mirrorless, it uses a bit more power than a regular DSLR. But I’ve been impressed by how long those batteries actually last. They’re also very small and light, so I always put an extra two in my pocket and never had to worry. Travelling with two bodies also meant I didn’t have to change lenses constantly. Socotra can be very dusty, with no Nikon Service Centre nearby to clean my sensors.
Capturing dragon blood trees
And it wasn’t just about finding trees, it was about finding them with the right background. Marsel wanted to set the trees in context, shooting them on a mountain, in more complex compositions of groups of trees, or near the edge of a canyon. This image exemplifies his approach, with a super wide-angle perspective of a typical dragon blood branch leading your eye towards the canyon and mountains in the background.
In my photography I focus on powerful, graphic shapes that I can use in the landscape. The larger the subject, the wider you can make your compositions without it getting lost in the frame. That’s why I like elephants so much for my wildlife photography, and for my landscapes I prefer trees.
When asked to choose a single image that was his favourite from the shoot, he shared,
I shot this one at night with full moon, so the landscape is lit by the moonlight. The dark, relatively cool tones contrast nicely with warm light coming from my tent. I love that little splash of colour in the mid-ground as it pulls your eye there straight away. The idea was to have the warm light from the tent illuminate the dragon blood tree, which happens to be one of the most perfect-looking ones that I found. I think there’s a lot of depth and mood in this shot, and that little tent adds a sense of adventure. It’s also the image I used for the film poster for the Dragon Blood documentary.
We wanted to know what Marsel hoped the viewers of his film and images would take away from his Dragon Blood project, as it offers a lens on a part of the world that so few of us will ever have the opportunity to see.
We live in a time where people are traveling more than ever before. Places that were completely unknown ten years ago are now popular tourist hotspots. I often hear people say there are no wild places anymore on this planet, no places left to discover. That is not true – there are still so many places left where few people have ever been before, but that’s usually for a reason. Most of the time those places are too far off the beaten track and it takes a lot of effort to get there, or the political situation has isolated those places. Socotra is one of those hidden gems that few people have visited and few probably will. I hope Dragon Blood will give a good impression of the island and what it is like to travel there. There is also a conservation message in there – dragon blood trees are under threat and their future is uncertain. One of the major threats is climate change: the island is drying out and the trees are dying as a result. The trees are also threatened because farmers let their goats roam wild and eat the young trees. Successful conservation of any species starts with creating awareness, so hopefully this will help. Through the documentary and images, I hope people enjoy seeing what this special place has to offer.
Marsel’s tips to aspiring photographers
Finally, we asked Marsel for the advice he’d give to an aspiring photographer or documentary filmmaker taking on a remote challenge like this.
Safety first. There are a lot of destinations on my bucket list that I can’t go to because it’s not safe. You have to carefully evaluate the possible consequences of your visit. It’s great to be passionate about photography and not easily scared, but don’t be stupid. Spend serious time investigating the risks and prepare for the worst. It is also worth noting that the travel advice issued by your government may be completely different from other countries, and that travel advice may not be regularly updated. Read the news, ask locals what the situation is like, and stay on it – the situation in a country may suddenly change and you need to be prepared. And when you decide to visit a challenging destination, make sure you follow the rules at all times.
Find out more about Marsel’s work and his Dragon Blood expedition at https://www.squiver.com/