Jerry Stenger met Minnesota polar explorer Will Steger at a somewhat inopportune time. Steger was loading his cargo plane at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in 1989 for what became his historic International Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Back then, Stenger was supervisor of the University of St. Thomas television studio and he knew that Steger, like himself, was a St. Thomas alum. He hoped to interview Steger for a video broadcast. Steger had to decline, but encouraged Stenger to contact him when he returned.
Seven months later that encounter led not only to the interview, but Stenger eventually became Steger’s videographer for every expedition, training expedition and educational program thereafter.
“When Will says, ‘We’re going to do a training expedition,’ it’s 3,000 miles. To me, that is an expedition,” Stenger said.
Their relationship grew, and Stenger became a founding board member for the Steger Wilderness Center in Ely, Minn., and Steger’s foundation, now called Climate Generation.
As a communications student at St. Thomas, Stenger said his professors would assign 10-page essays. But sometimes he’d convince them that a video of the subject matter was a more effective way to display his knowledge. “I’m not a confident writer. I learned when I was in school that I could use these [photography] tools to help tell a story.”
Stenger, 56, lives in St. Paul, where he owns In Tandem Inc., a media development firm. He recently offered some thoughts on photographic storytelling from the outdoors. Here are edited excerpts:
On extreme photography
Batteries. Keeping them warm, keeping them charged, recharging them, is the hardest thing. My lenses would completely freeze to where I couldn’t zoom in or zoom out because their lubrication would gel. I slept with them. It was a lumpy night’s sleep. Everything was inside the sleeping bag. I had a vest made with pockets around like an artillery vest so my body heat would keep my batteries warm through the day.
On capturing the shot
As a photographer, I like when teams are struggling because that’s the most dramatic footage. When I say struggling, I don’t mean in a bad way. On Baffin Island, we were traveling up a frozen river and frozen waterfalls. Because the teams are going so slow, it gives me an opportunity to run around, get different angles and see the struggling in their faces.
One thing I never would do is stage a shot. It’s almost impossible to tell a dog team to turn around and do that again. You’re not going to get a second chance.
I’m not traveling on dog sleds for the entire four or five months of an expedition. Each was different. It’s all based on where we are and the difficulty of getting [footage back to media outlets]. I might be there at the beginning for the pack-out and loading planes. I’ll travel with them to the expedition launch, then spend a couple of weeks. I try to bankroll as much footage as I can, then come back and turn out the stories in a spaced-out sequence.
But the timing isn’t all that way. Sometimes we can’t get footage out for three weeks. Then we would have a resupply plane come in to drop off food and fuel. I would come in and out on the resupply plane.
I was at Baffin Island the entire five months, and we’d stop at villages. I was able to rent a snowmobile which gave me a lot of freedom. I could take it to mountaintops and get long shots of the team coming through a valley.
I never consider myself a team member even though I’m dressed just like everybody. I learned to at least get in one of the team shots so I can show my mom I actually was there.
On respecting the stories
What I’m experiencing isn’t important. I’m trying to tell somebody else’s story.
[Once we] had three Inuit hunters traveling with us. My goal was to share what the Inuit are doing and how they’re seeing the environment changing because of climate change. These Inuit elders have been living on the land for 60, 70, 80 years. They’ve seen lots of changes. You can fly up there and say, “Where’s global warming?” You don’t [immediately] see it. These people have been living it. They’re following traditional Inuit migration routes around the islands.
Will did the interviewing and I would shoot it. He’s been through these villages several times through the years. He was always welcomed with open arms by the elders, especially because he came into town on a dog sled. He didn’t fly into town.
On evolution of camera gear
If I was doing an expedition today, I’d have six GoPros strapped to the dog sleds at all different angles shooting up at the people who were skiing. I’d have a drone over them getting wild shots. I couldn’t do that back then. We didn’t have that kind of technology.
On the importance of outdoors
It’s good to get the city out of your head. In the city, you really hear within two or three houses around you. You [go into wilderness], you allow your ears and mind to open up. You can hear for miles. My favorite sound in the world is the first loon of the year.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.