The relationship between the human spirit and the natural world can bring an unparalleled peace and creativity to our lives. Sometimes, you just have to go outside and get some fresh air.
– Michelle Stauffer, 70 Degrees West
Currently investigating the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, writer Michelle Stauffer and photographer Justin Lewis are in the middle of a grand adventure, using their passions to share the myriad social and environmental struggles happening in 8 unique regions, located along the same longitudinal line of 70 degrees west.
Through multimedia, these two intrepid explorers are giving voice to the vital stories behind these distinctive environments. I had the pleasure of speaking with Michelle about their epic journey, and peeking into the indispensable lessons they’ve learned about our water and land along the way.
K: I know you’ve shared this story before, but can you catch others up to speed on how this epic journey came about for you two?
MS: “Growing up on the Mendocino coast [California], Justin has always been an outdoor and nature enthusiast. He knew from a very early age that his life and career would be dedicated to photography and exploring the natural world. I came to the project with a more humanitarian and journalistic slant, wanting to focus on how cultures relate to their environment, as well as changing global norms.
70 Degrees West was born out of our mutual desire to capture a wide variety of important issues, because to be honest, we couldn’t decide on just one. Following a single line of longitude from the North Pole to the South Pole gave us the opportunity to tie many different yet equally signiﬁcant struggles affecting both the environment and the communities.”
K: What have you learned so far about yourselves and our environment?
MS: “The planet is in constant ﬂux; evolving, shifting, and in a consistent state of destruction and construction. We are continually amazed by nature’s ability to adapt, and for that matter, humans’ remarkable will to survive in the harshest of places. The human spirit is a complex entity, yet we have found that basic human needs, desires, and personal aspirations truly do cross cultural and physical boundary lines.
The most beautiful yet troubling experience we have had working on the project over the last two years was living with the Inuit in Qaanaaq, Greenland. Essentially living as far north as possible, this small community used to live seamlessly with their stark and isolated environment. Although life still revolved around melting icebergs to create drinking water, hunting, ﬁshing, and preparing for the bitterly cold arctic winters, today’s version of daily life was gentriﬁed with Danish prefab housing, oil dependency, and imported foods.
Although there is still a deep rooted connection to the landscape, modernization and the indoctrination of a monotheistic faith is slowly scrambling their ancient culture and traditions. When we take the time to realize where our resources are coming from and how far they have traveled to end up in the grocery and drug stores, we ﬁnd that we are extremely disconnected from the natural elements of the world.”
This reminds me of an article I read recently in National Geographic, regarding mining in the Congo. Along with some incredible images from photographer Marcus Bleasdale, the story gives disheartening, undeniable proof of the tragic conditions of where our electronics come from. Likewise, it also brings to mind the devastating collapse of the factory in Bangladesh last spring, which shed light on the abusive conditions occurring in an operation where clothing and other goods were being produced for eventual sale in North America.
Michelle and Justin are right: the more we see the connection between our products — clothing, food, tech equipment, or otherwise — and where they come from, the greater our desire becomes to be wiser with our choices as consumers. When used passionately, the medium of multimedia storytelling promotes critical awareness of what’s really going on underneath the surface of our global socio-economic environments.
K: More speciﬁcally, can you share any insight you’ve gained about our relationship with water, and what we can do to improve it?
MS: “While we were in Maine focusing on dam removal and the importance of free ﬂowing rivers, I realized that water holds a mystery more powerful than any other substance on the planet. In the modern and ﬁrst world nations, most of us are completely separate from our water source as we simply expect clean running water to ﬂow out when we turn on the tap. In truth, water shortage is a rapidly growing concern, and access to potable and toxin-free water is a global crisis.
There is a common misconception that water is reentering the water table as fast as it is used, but in today’s paved planet, water isn’t able to seep back into the ground water system, and instead heads out into the oceans. Water conservation is the biggest thing you can personally do to combat the global water crisis.”
K: Film is one of my passions, and I’m really inspired by your video endeavors. Can you tell me how you guys started making videos? Did you have any prior training in ﬁlmmaking before starting?
MS: “Neither of us had any extensive training in ﬁlmmaking before taking on this project, but that’s not to say we didn’t have a head start. Justin went to Brooks Institute of Photography and has been working in the photography business for over 10 years, occasionally dabbling in video production. Using similar principles and equipment, he simply made the transition from still photos into video.
Our ﬁrst short was ﬁlmed in Greenland, where we were literally learning on the go, teaching ourselves how to do day-to-night time lapses in the freezing arctic night, conducting interviews, and composing scenics that would speak to the audience as we panned across the massive icebergs that painted the horizon.
Two years later, we are not only much more comfortable with cinematography, but have slowly been focusing more heavily on the ﬁlmmaking aspect of the project. We both feel that motion picture is an incredibly powerful tool to aid in social awareness and inspire people into action. As storytellers, the potential is limitless.”
K: Can you give some advice to people who might be feeling the itch to get out and try something they’ve always dreamed of?
MS: “If you don’t have the means to do something international, start locally. As glamorous as traveling to the ends of the Earth may sound, you can often ﬁnd an equally important story to tell right in your own backyard. Find something that really moves you, a topic where you feel passion and urgency. Sometimes the best stories are right in front of you, and you never know where your ﬁrst project may lead.
If the opportunity does exist to get out of your community and work on something more global, do a lot of research. Throughout the years, we have spent countless months doing research, fact checking, and working on developing the angle we want to deliver.
The story will always change; you can count on that, so we also remain adaptable and open to unforeseen factors and surprises. Justin believes strongly in taking the plunge and putting your heart and soul into your chosen endeavor. If you want it to be successful, taking risks is important, as it will probably become a huge part of your life and who you are.”
K: Overall, what do you hope to achieve with 70 degrees west? After the project is ﬁnished, what future endeavors are you interested in pursuing?
MS: “The mission of 70 Degrees West is to visually draw a line down our globe in an effort to show how similar yet unique our planet is. Culture and traditions come in different colors, yet community is still what keeps humanity thriving. As the landscape changes, and the environmental threat shifts, we must realize that each one is extremely important. Without an intact global ecosystem, human life can’t be sustained.
We also hope to remind people that the relationship between the human spirit and the natural world can bring an unparalleled peace and creativity to our lives. Sometimes, you just have to go outside and get some fresh air.”
Thank you so much to Michelle and Justin for sharing their inspiring journey. It certainly encourages me to consider more deeply what I personally want to offer our world.
How do our everyday actions at home affect the Sargasso Sea, or those living in Qaanaak, Greenland? Meditating on this question is made easier when we understand the stories shared by projects like 70 Degrees West. It also creates more incentive for us to be mindful consumers of eco-friendly, recyclable products. When we choose all-natural items like the Soma water filter, we not only know exactly where the materials are coming from, but we’re also supporting sustainable design — instead of putting more waste into our planet. Trusting the companies we give our hard-earned money to is a necessary part in cultivating a greater sense of respect for our environment — and for our fellow human beings.
The human spirit is a complex entity, yet we have found that basic human needs, desires and personal aspirations truly do cross cultural and physical boundary lines.
– Michelle Stauffer, 70 Degrees West