His is an age old story of someone following a dream, committing to what they love, and attracting success as an almost accidental byproduct.
Renan Ozturk can pinpoint the exact moment that inspired him to climb; “A lot of climbers in our era specifically saw this one National Geographic article on the Trango Towers in the Karakorum, Pakistan” he says. “The cover shot was this thousand-metre-tall spike of granite tower.”
It’s fitting that Ozturk was inspired by imagery, rather than the physicality of climbing or a desire to conquer. From a Rhode Island upbringing he became a renowned expedition climber, part of The North Face team of athletes, a visionary landscape artist, and one of the new generation of adventure film makers, pushing the boundaries of budget and technology in ways that nobody else can currently compete with. I wonder if Renan is short for ‘Renaissance Man’?
“I’d always been fascinated by photos of the mountains, growing up with no mountains around. When I was about 12 I got the chance to go hiking above the treeline in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and that really started to get me hooked. When I was in college I started climbing and started to figure out that it’s not just what you see in magical pictures, but there’s this whole community and lifestyle surrounding it.
“I transferred to Colorado College which is notorious for the adventurous spirits that go there. So I got lots of time to go to Zion, Canyonlands, Joshua Tree, Yosemite for all these crazy whirlwind road trips, and it was a further window into these communities of people living on the fringes in these places.
“I finished school, gave away all my belongings and had some friends drop me off in the Canyonlands in Utah. It was raining, there was nobody around, and I didn’t even have a tent. They said ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ So I just embraced this kind of vagabond climber lifestyle for 4 or 5 years, climbing and painting big landscapes of these places.
“Each place was like a fantasy land and when you grow up somewhere flat like the East Coast, these are pretty magical places.”
It is already apparent that Renan followed a passion, rather than chased success. Eventually his climbing exploits and unique landscape art attracted magazine articles, films and big name sponsors as he pioneered new routes across America.
It was climbing the notorious Shark’s Fin on Meru in the Indian Himalaya that sparked Ozturk’s interest in film. “The list of people who’d tried it was like a who’s who, and we were so close but in the end had this horrible failure. That was the turning point, I realised that to really tell that story and bring something back home, you have to go into this complex medium of film. So I went from art to film, kind of skipping the photography.”
Ozturk is well known for his series of “Dispatches” which he developed early on; shooting, editing and uploading from remote expeditions with super-light technology such as satellite modems, to create an almost-live reportage from the field. He compares this approach to the way he paints; “Artistically it pushes you to make something that’s real and in the moment without thinking about it too much which is how I do these landscape paintings. They’re all based on this initial gesture, this initial sketch of a place, and if you try to map it out all perfectly, sometimes that takes away from it. I’ll do a 15 foot long gesture in about 10 minutes, and you’re hardly looking at the canvas, you’re just looking around you – and that’s what I like about the Dispatches too. I always wanted it to catch on more but sometimes the sponsors feel it doesn’t quite fit into the structure of what they need. But I still do it.
Ozturk, along with Jimmy Chin, Anson Fogel and Tim Kemple, founded Camp 4 Collective; a production company grounded in adventure, and bringing high production values to remote location shooting. “The last few years I’ve been working on more long-term documentary projects. We collaborated with Sherpas Cinema on ‘Into The Mind’, and this year I’ve been filming a documentary on mountaineering from the Sherpas’ point of view. Things that are a little more artsy, concentrating on the culture behind the adventures, beautiful people staring into the camera, early morning light on religious buildings, and that kind of thing.
“I just came back from Nepal working on this Sherpa film. Nobody’s ever made a film about the Sherpa perspective, and we were there when the avalanche tragedy happened in April.”
It seems the media fallout after that dark day on Everest is completely at odds with the film Ozturk is trying to make; “The way that you make a powerful documentary is to immerse people in the characters and the story, there’s no narrator telling you what’s going on, you see the events for yourself and you make your own decisions. Discovery Channel made an hour-long TV programme a week after the tragedy with narrators telling you what to think for the whole thing.
“I wanted to give the audience a deeper look at the people of Nepal; you say ‘Sherpa’ to a person on the street and sometimes they don’t realise there’s a whole ethnicity beyond hauling loads up the mountain, so we wanted to demystify that. I’ve spent most of my life developing a relationship with Nepal and the mountains and the people there. That’s why I got involved in the Sherpas Fund after the avalanche.”
The Sherpas Fund began in the aftermath of the April avalanche. Some of the leading mountain artists affiliated with Everest have donated prints and artwork to raise money via the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, an organisation which preserves the late mountaineer’s legacy by providing support to humanitarian programs that help people who live in remote regions of the world. “They wanted to do something while it was still fresh in people’s minds and they nailed it – it made something like $400,000 in 8 days” says Ozturk.
So coming from an artist’s background, what makes Ozturk able to tell this Sherpas’ story? “My style is definitely to search out characters that are engaging, find people you can develop a close relationship with and get to the point they don’t realise the camera is there” he says. “And to invest in the culture, get a language book, be a little bit more culturally sensitive and try to embed yourself. If it’s an adventure story it’s important to know when you can direct athletes or when you have to just stand back, and even if it’s not the most beautiful shot, to make sure you are capturing emotion and it tells a part of the story, just be a fly on the wall.”
Trailer for Sherpa
This ability to tell an intimate, authentic story has gained Ozturk some very high profile commercial clients and brought a little adventure to the mainstream. “There’s no better way to get your work out there. And if someone like Coca Cola were to do a commercial that showed the natural world in a beautiful light or benefited the Sherpa people it would do so much more than the effort that we just did. The potential is there to increase the consciousness of how beautiful the wild places on the planet are and the wild cultures, and it’s hard to bring those things together with unlikely clients, but I think Camp 4 Collective is doing a really good job of that right now.”
It seems that everything Camp 4 Collective touches turns to gold right now, and given the totally organic, natural way that Ozturk’s career has developed, it seems likely to continue. His is an age old story of someone following a dream, committing to what they love, and attracting success as an almost accidental byproduct.
About the author: Daniel Wildey is a professional adventure photographer, currently based out of a van somewhere in Europe. A keen skier, climber and mountain biker, Daniel’s photography and writing has been widely published in the European outdoor press, as well as for big-name commercial clients such as Climb Magazine, SideTracked and Easyjet. If that wasn’t enough Daniel is also branching out into film making, with commercial and sponsored projects already underway. Follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook.