Elaine Stritch Video Obituary

About 7 years ago at the New York Times we started a very interesting project called Last Word where we would interview famous people who were in their later years, post success, and talk to them about their lives. The premise was simple: let them tell us who they were/are in their own words. There would be some voiceover, but mostly it would them talking. We shot many of them, and most have not run yet. The person is aware, when we connect with them, that the video will not be released until they die.

I produced nine Last Word videos and none of them had run. Until now. This was my first one, actually, featuring the Broadway actress Elaine Stritch. We filmed in the Carlyle Hotel, where she lives until recently when she moved back to Michigan.

She was a larger than life character and so full of energy … and opinion. It was a blast spending time with her. She was intense and sometimes demanding, but ultimately very kind. When my daughter was born, she called me and left a message saying how happy that made her. I thought that was very nice. RIP Elaine.

The Bomb Collector of Ypres

I traveled to Ypres, Belgium to report on a young electrician named Stijn Butaye who lies on a farm with his family. The farm is the site of a major battleground during World War I, and where numerous German bunkers were built. Around Ypres and Flanders many bombs are still found every year from the First World War. Millions were fired or buried or just left to rot during the war and they are scattered over such a large area that they were never properly cleaned up. Farmers find them especially when they begin to till lands that have been fallow for decades or centuries.

Over the years, Stijn has discovered numerous World War I relics, including unexploded shells, on the farm, and a few years ago ,he decided to build a small personal museum on the family farm. I went and spent a day with him as he walked me around the farm and showed me the museum. There was a small cage behind the museum where he kept live munitions that are still being found on the farm. There were probably a dozen or more bombs in there. One of them was a mustard gas canister that was still live. Stijn said he was waiting for the Belgian civil protection corps to come ad take the bombs away for disposal and detonation.

Destroying Bombs From World War I

We spent a day out with the mine clearance squad of Verdun, France, where hundreds of tons of unexploded ordnance still lay buried in the soil. Verdun was the site of one of the worst battles of the war, a battle of attrition that took hundreds of thousands of lives. It remains one of the great horrors of modern warfare.

While out with the mine clearance crew we did two pick ups. The first was on an open field where about ten bombs had been found in nearby fields. The second was on a large farm where about eight rusting canisters were found, most of them live. The farmer walked us around his farm and showed us all sorts of debris from the war that is coming to the surface or lies just beneath. Belt buckles, shrapnel, horse shoes…it was like a raw, real museum of the war.

The bombs that we collected were detonated later in a large field. The explosion, which is in the final moments of the story here, was very loud.

The Neanderthal Inside Us

A piece I did with Svante Paabo, a Swedish biologist who studies evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. I spent a few hours with Svante in his lab, where ground-breaking work is being done to decode the Neanderthal genome and compare it to the human genome in hoe of teasing out the genetic differences that make us human. That is, how did we develop the ability to create and build cities, send spacecraft to mars and invent the Frito?

Berlin Rainbow
Shot this earlier from the window of my home in Berlin. That’s not a pot of gold at the end…it’s Germany’s Wal-Mart.

Berlin Rainbow
Shot this earlier from the window of my home in Berlin. That’s not a pot of gold at the end…it’s Germany’s Wal-Mart.

Bringing Back Europe’s Bison

In Bad Berleburg, a German prince (and the largest land-owner in the region) is leading an effort to reintroduce European bison into Germany.

They have started with a group of 8, that has since grown to 9 animals. It’s pretty neat. The animals are huge. In fact, the European bison is the largest land mammal in Europe. They almost went extinct in the early part of the 20th century. Now, places like Poland and Germany are bringing them back.

The effort is part of a larger program across the continent called Rewilding Europe which is seeking to take abandoned farmland, underused land, and to find ways to repopulate it with wildlife that has not existed in abundance in Europe for hundreds or even thousands of years.

I spent two days in and around Bad Berleburg, Germany, hanging with the bison, interviewing people and learning more about this fascinating project. My favorite character, by the way, is Jochen Born, the bison ranger, who has no fear of these massive animals and himself is rather bison-like.

Chang vs. Lendl: 25 Years Later
I went to Roland Garros for a day and shot around the famous Paris stadium to get a bunch of broll for this interview with Michael Chang. In 1989, few people thought the 17-year-old American would beat the No. 1-ranked tennis player, Ivan Lendl in a tennis major. We met Chang in a bar/restaurant in the Hyatt Regency in Paris and talked to him about the victory as well as what he has been doing with his life since then.

Chang continued to play for many years following and managed the number 2 ranking in US tennis, though he never won another major.

My favorite moment in the interview (and in the video I produced with Vijai Singh), is when Change describes the “unbelievable commitment of heart” he experienced when he was down by two sets with Lendl. He told us that he thought quitting at that moment would be ok, that he’d gone to the finals at the French Open, far exceeding his own expectations. But then he realized that if he did quit, it would be something he’d do again, and something he would then be known for, and that thought spurred him on despite intense leg cramps and diminishing energy, to push on and win.

Chang was a nice guy, open and garrulous. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2008, and is now coaching Japanese tennis prodigy Kei Nishikori, who, I might add, was born the year Chang won the French Open.

Amazing shots.

magicalnaturetour:

Praying Mantis Rides Snail Through Borneo Jungle. (Photos by Nordin Seruyan/Barcroft Media)

Germans march in support of their energy transformation or energiwende, an extensive and expensive countrywide effort to convert energy use to renewables like wind and solar.

Germans march in support of their energy transformation or energiwende, an extensive and expensive countrywide effort to convert energy use to renewables like wind and solar.

The Animals of Chernobyl
I spent over a week in and around Chernobyl, Ukraine, the site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. I was there with science writer Henry Fountain to do a story about the building of a massive arch being built over the sarcophagus there, which is still very radioactive. I also got the chance to follow around a biologist named Tim Mousseau, who is studying the effects of the region’s radiation on animal life.

Although many people have written about the exclusion zone as a “restored Eden”, Dr. Mousseau has actually found that much of the plant and animal life has been slow to recover. Birds have a high number of deformities and tumors. There is a scene at the end, where we find a clump of European fire bugs near a building, and Mousseau shows me how they, too, have mutated. The color spot patterns on their backs have melded together, as Mousseau puts it, “in direct proportion to their exposure.”

Fascinating and fun story to report. And thank goodness I was wearing boots when I was out there because, yes, things are still very radioactive. You do not want to eat the mushrooms.

Istanbul, Turkey and Bodrum, Turkey

Some shots fro my recent trip to Turkey, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and other locations.

Submerged Douglas C-47 Dakota
Did a dive in Bodrum, Turkey where a Dakota C-47 was sunk two years ago. Although there is a depressing lack of underwater life in the area, and in the Mediterranean overall, the wreck is cool. It is new, so the salt water and invertebrates have not chewed it up too much.  

(shot with a GoPro Hero3 with a red filter)

Submerged Douglas C-47 Dakota
Did a dive in Bodrum, Turkey where a Dakota C-47 was sunk two years ago. Although there is a depressing lack of underwater life in the area, and in the Mediterranean overall, the wreck is cool. It is new, so the salt water and invertebrates have not chewed it up too much.

(shot with a GoPro Hero3 with a red filter)

Ai Weiwei Show Opens in Berlin Called “Evidence”

Got a chance to shoot and produce this piece about the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who has a show opening today in Berlin. I got early access which meant some nice time to see the art and film it. The works are quite political and some of them are very funny. Some have been seen before, but other are new to the show. My favorite was “Stools”, an installation featuring 6000 stools owned by people in villages across China who left these possessions behind to move to the cities (or were forced to move to cities).

The stools all bear marks of their owners whether by color of paint or other markings, thus creating a minimalist, but impactful commentary on individualism at a time when millions are moving from an agrarian lifestyle to an urban one….perhaps the largest single human shift in such a short time in history.

Meet Poland’s ‘Rathole Miners’

I traveled to Wałbrzych, Poland, which is actually not too far from Berlin (so yeah, I drove) to report on a small former coal mining town that is struggling with the fact that the coal mines have closed and very little industry has replaced them. So many of the men in town actually go out into the fields and the forests and the parks and on people’s personal property, and they dig deep holes in the ground, clawing and chipping out the coal. It is illegal to do this. They use pickaxes and shovels and they put the coal in burlap bags and then sell it to the local population.

The miners are called “rathole miners” because of the holes they make. To get several shots for this story I actually crawled down into one of the holes, getting very dirty in the process, to film one of the miners, a 17 year-old kid, digging out coal. This can be dangerous and it is not uncommon for holes to collapse on people. As you can tell from the piece some of the best shots come from that effort. We then went out at night (I reported with with Danny Hakim, a fantastic reporter who I have worked with before) and found a much larger group of men mining in the dark, when they say the police are less apt to come out and make arrests.