Facing Your Fears
When I was a teenager, I had a fear of heights. I had gotten into rock-climbing, but found that I was never really any good at it because the higher I climbed, the more scared I got.
In college, our class visited the Empire State Building in New York City and we joined other tourists in admiring the breathtaking view over Manhattan. I was comfortable gazing ahead into the skyline and horizon, but looking straight down at streets below was petrifying; I remember being terrified.
My fear of heights inspired a series I made while in the college. At the time, I was painting giant canvases with oils, acrylics, turpentine, and linseed oil. I would lay the canvas on the floor and brush the paints around to create my art, which ultimately helped me creatively cope, understand, and express my experiences and feelings around my fear of heights.
I focused on the perspective, and exaggerated it ever so slightly so the viewer felt a sense of vertigo when they looked at my paintings on a wall, in an almost overpowering and unnerving way as they towered over the viewer. Because I spent so many weeks working on this art project, each of my paintings helped me overcome my fear of heights.
Years later I am now a cave photographer, where I often find myself suspended on a thin length of rope hundreds and hundreds of feet above the floor, concentrating on making pictures in total darkness. See the Editor’s Update for an example of a published photo from my first National Geographic magazine story exploring the Dark Star caves far beneath a remote mountain range in Uzbekistan.
We all have fears and it is only natural to find ways to avoid facing them. For this Your Shot assignment I’d like you to face your fear. Maybe you’re scared of spiders or snakes or the dark. Maybe you’re claustrophobic. Maybe you’re scared of talking to strangers. Direct your photography towards that fear. Use your photography as a creative canvas to understand and express your fears. Be thoughtful in your captions; describe and reflect on your fear because I’m sure many also share similar feelings.
It will be difficult, but I’m confident that once you become absorbed in the photography aspect of this assignment, you may find that this is not as difficult as it sounds. Don’t be afraid to be afraid.
Submission deadline will be April 3, 2017 at 12PM EST.
National Geographic photographer
Editor's Update 01
My fear of heights inspired an art series I made while in the college. At the time, I was painting giant canvases with oils, acrylics, turpentine, and linseed oil. I would lay the canvas on the floor and brush the paints around to create my art, which ultimately helped me creatively cope, understand, and express my experiences and feelings around my fear of heights.
It's been almost twenty years since I painted these two paintings (Vertigo 1, Vertigo 2) back when I was at Art School studying Fine Art at University — and thanks to this Your Shot assignment, to see them again with revitalized eyes that long since overcame their fear of heights is overwhelming.
During the past twenty years, my eyes have looked down into many scary, deep black voids in caves all over the world, that first appeared to never end, not to mention many floors on skyscrapers and big buildings all around the UK, while I worked as an industrial abseiler, cleaning windows and inspecting blocks of flats for signs of deterioration. However, there is something so very familiar with these two paintings and my cave photography today and that is scale. A sense of scale defines my work, because it is something that I was conscious of from an early age. These two paintings, which show the view looking down from the tops of skyscrapers show scale and how things get smaller and smaller the further they get to the road.
This is true of my cave photography. When I position figures and models either holding light sources or just posing, they offer the viewer the enormous sense of scale that would otherwise be absent in the photographs. It is this scale that helps make the photograph work on a more dramatic level. I found that as the scale grew and grew my vertigo got progressively worse and worse.
National Geographic photographer
Click to see Robbie’s story Dark Star: Into the Deep published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.