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Extreme Environments Hold Extraordinary People

Former Royal Marine turned expedition photographer Ian Finch is drawn to people who exist away from the limelight – and he’s willing to travel far and wide to capture their stories

Native cultures have not fared well in the modern world; tradition is rarely compatible with evolving technologies and mass-production, nor are traditional ways of life – so dependant on the natural landscape in which they function – able to coexist with increasing environmental exploitation. Which is why expedition photographer, writer and filmmaker Ian Finch is committed to giving marginalised cultures a voice in a world dominated by those who shout loudest.

A former Royal Marine Commando, Finch’s photography work has seen him canoe 2,000 miles down the Yukon River, trek across the Tibetan Plateau and explore Inuit culture in Greenland. His passion for – and ability to withstand – the great outdoors means he’s able and willing to travel far and wide in order to meet those with stories worth telling.

Even around London you can find ancient forest that you can walk 10 miles through

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Q: Did your time in The Marines shape your love of adventure?
A:
‘I think I've always had that sense of adventure and curiosity – that desire to go out and explore different environments – but The Marines crafted my resilience to deal with harsh conditions. That kind of survivor’s mentality is what I mainly took away from it and that's allowed me to go away and deal with adverse conditions without grinding to a halt.’

Q: Is physical fitness a requirement for any expedition or adventure photographer?
A:
‘I think fitness is a requirement in some cases, because what you have to do a lot of the time is keep up with people. If, for example, you’re on an expedition where the activity in question is not your forte, that requires that you’re able to step up. So something like mountaineering or hiking is my area, but anything with a paddle board or a kayak calls my fitness into question. Also, in those occasions, when whoever I’m photographing is resting I'm usually still working. I've had occasions where I've been photographing paddle boarders and I've literally been running along the riverbank for 10-12 miles.’

Q: What personality traits make for a good expedition photographer?
A:
‘A lot of the stuff comes down to working with people: it's about being able to make someone feel comfortable. It’s also about creatively knowing how a scene might evolved and being able to pick up on that, but above everything it's about being able to get someone’s story across in a real, authentic way.’

Q: You’ve explored Greenland, Norway and Alaska, but have also travelled extensively within the UK – do you think the British Isles can be just as captivating as far-flung destinations?
A:
‘Definitely. We tend to neglect what's on our doorstep and think that you have to travel just to see wild terrain, but even around London you can find ancient forest that you can walk 10 miles through. Then you can go to Scotland and find stuff that resembles Canada – terrain that is really, truly wild – but ultimately adventure is a mindset; wherever you go adventure is what it means to you.’

Q: You’ve photographed remote Himalayan villagers, native groups on the Yukon and inuit hunters – has it been a conscious decision to make marginalised people a focus of your work?
A:
‘Yes, that's my true passion when it comes to photography. My dad was fascinated by native Americans and their story, and passed that on to me, so I grew up reading books about their history and culture. I decided, six or seven years ago, that marginalised or indigenous groups were going to be the thread throughout my work. I'm fascinated by how the modern world permeates through these traditional cultures.’

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Q: Your latest adventure was a canoe descent down the Yukon River – what motivated that trip and what did you learn from doing it?
A:
‘Again, it was about getting the native peoples’ story across. The river is 2,000 miles long and there are many native groups along it. I thought the only way to properly explore the place and the people was to canoe the river. That took three months and it was really just about stopping off at communities along the way. I was learning about traditional life in the villages and how the modern world is encroaching into those communities, but also linking to their relationship with the landscape and the wildlife.’

‘I think I went with a romantic view about how people are still living off the land, but what I found was that the modern world is forcing some of the cultures to slightly pull away from traditional means of living.’

Q: Many of your expeditions have subjected you to the extreme cold – Canada, the Austrian Alps, Greenland – do you prefer to capture cold landscapes?
A:
‘I think I'm drawn to cold places, without a shadow of a doubt. When I was in The Marines I learned to love cold environments and mountainous terrain. I quite like jungles, too – I spent some time in Indonesia so I don't mind the heat and the humidity – but I've never really been drawn to the desert. I definitely feel more comfortable in cold places.’

Q: What’s the purpose of your next expedition: a 1,200-mile trek along the Trail of Tears?
A:
‘The main driving force behind this trip is to tell the Native American story. It’s one that has been told, but I feel like it needs to be retold and really kept at the forefront of our consciousness. The Trail of Tears was the forced removal route of the Cherokee – it’s just one of many such trails where Native Americans were forced to relocate to reservations. Many Cherokee died on this journey; it's a very sensitive issue and one that we will handle with care, because we are white Europeans walking a route that is very sacred to the ancestors of those who walked it.’

‘The nuances are very deep and we have to tread very carefully. We're going to be walking and canoeing certain parts of it with younger, and hopefully older, members of Cherokee Nation so they can tell their stories and their connection to the Trail.’

Explore Ian’s work, past expeditions and future plans at Ianefinch.com. Follow him @ianefinch

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