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Kelvin Trautman: The Cameraman

Action photographer and filmmaker, Kelvin Trautman, shares highlights, lessons and warnings from years spent capturing incredible athletic achievements around the world

'Last year, Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil contacted me with an idea for a project.'

My name is Kelvin Trautman and I’m an adventure photographer and filmmaker. Last year, Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil contacted me with an idea for a project. They wanted to use their platforms to showcase inspirational tales of people doing their part to change the world, whether through campaigning for causes, inspiring and empowering others through their achievements, or both. Mathieu and Mesut asked if I could find those kinds of people and share their stories. And with that, the Unity Challenger concept was born.

I’ve found and met some amazing Unity Challengers over the last year – from the man who ran every single street of his city, to the first woman to sail single-handedly around the world the wrong way – so I was surprised when Mathieu and Mesut came to me this year and asked if I wanted to share my story. Seeing as you’re reading this, you can probably guess what my answer was!

So, my story? The beginning seems like a good place to start...

© Kelvin Trautman
'Sport provided a great segue to hear of these broader stories of people living courageously.'

I was born in Zimbabwe. That’s where my love for wild places was instilled. I went on to study a natural science degree and then spent four years offshore yacht racing. In the 15 years since then I’ve worked as an adventure photographer and filmmaker. To start with, I was focused on telling stories of athletes and explorers breaking records - those who were going fastest, longest, highest. I think I was drawn to these people and stories because of the courage they displayed in pushing their physical limits. 

As the scope of my subjects grew, so did my appreciation for the courage it takes to challenge the status quo in so many other parts of life. Sport provided a great segue to hear of these broader stories of people living courageously. I now find myself planted at the intersection of adventure and environmental advocacy, documenting athletes and explorers who use their talents and voices to speak about global environmental issues - and I’m relishing it.

'Everything we do is a progression of what we desire most. This desire and the motivation that feeds it changes as we grow.'

I sometimes get asked how I turned a passion for adventure and sports into a career. To be totally honest, I’m not really sure how it happened. Looking back, what I do know is that it was unplanned, messy and convoluted. I think everything we do is a progression of what we desire most. This desire and the motivation that feeds it changes as we grow. 

When I started photography full time 15 years ago a lot of the drive was to find an outlet to keep exploring the planet’s wild fringes and pushing my physical limits. The assignments I pursued often demanded the storyteller to be alongside the subjects in the thick of the action, which suited me fine as I never wanted to be left on the sidelines documenting a story from afar, much preferring swimming, sailing, climbing, running with camera in hand. 

A big part of the early motivation was also to become financially independent. Adventure photo and film work was and still is a way to do all of this - and yes I’m still following my nose. 

© Kelvin Trautman
'Creating a memorable image goes way beyond pointing the camera and pressing the shutter.'

I love shooting sports where I’m alongside an athlete or explorer. If I had to pick a favourite sport to shoot it would probably be offshore yacht racing. The sea is the ultimate photographic muse. Want an example? Just scroll back up to the main image at the top of the page. That's not me swimming! It's a shot of UN Patron of Oceans and extreme cold water swimmer, Lewis Pugh, in Antarctica and it’s one of my favourite ever pictures of mine. Why? The task of finding a location/scene that is visually striking but which also has narrative poignancy is something that gives me endless energy.

Creating a memorable image goes way beyond pointing the camera and pressing the shutter. First, you need to find the frame that your camera captures. In this case, I spent two weeks with a couple of mountain guides looking for a suitable melt river on the Antarctic ice cap that was beautiful, but which also spoke to the ocean conservation/climate change story we were tasked with telling, and, of course, that was safe for Lewis to swim down. The end result? Judge for yourself.

'The most dangerous situations are not those alone in nature but those where people are involved.'

My job can be pretty risky, but I often find the most dangerous situations are not those alone in nature but those where people are involved. I’ve signed a few non-disclosure agreements that prevent me from talking about some of the closest calls, but one of the more unpredictable and thus dangerous situations I’ve been in was in Papua New Guinea. 

We were filming in a remote village in the highlands when a fight broke out between a few locals. We made a dash for it in our vehicle only to be chased and pelted by rocks. The road was really rough and we couldn’t go much faster than running speed. Then we rounded a corner to find massive boulders across the road. Our hearts sank. Somehow we managed to weasel our way through the makeshift roadblock. Who knows what would have happened had we got stuck there.

© Kelvin Trautman
'The desire, the desperation, and the destination creates the how, not the other way around.'

Physical fitness is vital for my job. My training philosophy has long followed the premise that it’s harder to get fitness back than to lose it, so I try stay active all year round. In truth, I seldom follow any long-term training programme. I just spend as much time as I can outdoors doing a myriad of sports. Fitness is just a byproduct of this time spent. If there is an expedition, assignment or race to that I need to train specifically for I look to simulate the conditions in training as much as possible. Besides the tailored physical benefits, you also get to mentally build confidence that you can handle the conditions to come and it’s a great opportunity to put your gear, mindset, nutrition etc. to the test. 

It’s a little dark, but this sums up my approach to training: if I throw you into a lake and you can’t swim I’m not going to have to teach you how to swim. You will flail your arms and kick your legs in desperation until you get to shore. The desire, the desperation, and the destination creates the how, not the other way around. 

'I hope the Challenger Stories provide some inspiration to personally dig a little deeper and unearth your own personal passion.'

Having seen first-hand the impact humans are having on the environment, I think one of the most pressing issues of our generation is climate change. We simply don’t know what will happen if we push the planet’s checks and balances past a tipping point and it seems a risk not worth taking. Photo and film is such a powerful storytelling tool and I’m always looking for opportunities to use my camera to put the realities of climate change in front of more eyeballs.  

Another way of describing a Unity Challenger is someone who is maniacal about a certain thing. I think we all want to find something to get completely immersed in and passionate about in life. I think most of us are, yet we just can’t see it. If that’s you, I hope the Challenger Stories provide some inspiration to personally dig a little deeper and unearth your own personal passion. 

Kelvin Trautman is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker based in Cape Town and London. Recognised for his creative direction, perspective-filled compositions and athletic ability with camera in hand, Kelvin has fast established a name in the outdoor industry. As well as finding and interviewing Unity Challengers, he has covered assignments on all seven continents for clients such as Patagonia, United Nations, Reuters, and Red Bull. Kelvin's images have appeared in various publications including New York Times and National Geographic.

© Kelvin Trautman