It feels nearly impossible to stop looking at this one photograph in Vlad Donkov’s Stories portfolio. Rows of white wooden crosses in the foreground. Flowers and stones lovingly arranged at the base of each one. Splayed over the mountains and water in the background is a spectacular orange and yellow sunset mingled with charcoal gray clouds.
The interview with this outdoor photographer and wilderness travel specialist must begin here, with the story of this cemetery at sunset.
“How do you know it is not a sunrise (laughing)?” Donkov writes via email from Malta. “There's no way of knowing, really, it's just that most people take the symbolic meaning of the crosses and assume that it would be a sunset. It actually is.”
Donkov, a Bulgarian native who has worked as a professional photographer in five countries in the last 12 years, went on to give context for the remarkable photo.
“This image was shot in a small Inuit village in South Greenland back in 2010 when I lived with the Inuit people for a while, “ he writes. “I had just finished a grueling two months-long solo expedition in the wilderness and had grown really accustomed to solitude. For a whole month I didn't meet a single human being, then met a German man, chatted for about 20 minutes … and then again didn't meet anyone for another 10 days. So at the end I felt that I just couldn't go back to city life in an instant.”
Instead, he hitched a ride on a boat and returned to the only village on the “massive” fjord, one that while beautiful has a sad history. It was inhabited by 14 people in the 19th century, all of whom starved to death after a bad winter. After being desolate for nearly 70 years, there are about 80 residents living there now despite the struggle to sustain themselves.
The majority of us don’t come across the word ‘fjord’ that often, let alone step foot on one. But Donkov and his colleagues at Vertical Shot Expeditions don’t spend their lives like the majority of us do. To say their business tagline “Where photography and adventure merge” is just the tip of the iceberg isn’t even cliché in this context. They know their icebergs. On their website, the description of what they do goes like this:
Real photography expeditions in remote wilderness areas -- using yachts, kayaks, dogsleds ... Led by a team of hardcore outdoor photographers, sailors, mountaineers and kayakers. Groups never larger than 6 photographers.
Don’t, however, mistake that for neat little journeys where they stop at some pre-marked spot for tourists to get the best shot of the day’s sweeping vista. No, no.
“I realized at the time [we started our business] that the state of photography workshops is a lame one and wanted to do something far better and more authentic,” Donkov says. “So for the last couple of years we expanded the team a lot and I have been guiding some amazing expeditions. I really enjoy tutoring participants who share the same passions as me; it is much more fun than working on a commercial brief. And a job should be fun and interesting. That's when one is doing their best work, isn't it?”
But people who come to this realization rarely begin their careers in that place. For Donkov, the road to this point began in a van in Minnesota, one “borrowed” many nights by him and Wojciech Jarosinski, now partners at Vertical Shot Expeditions. At that time they were European students traveling across the United States in an old van and a trailer, working for a portrait photography business.
“The job required us to travel across 11 states and work 14-17 hour shifts every single day,” Donkov says. “It was grueling, underpaid and usually very boring. We had very strict work permits and quitting this job would mean deportation. But we still needed to feel alive. So at night instead of sleeping we would often ‘steal’ the company van, fill gasoline in the tank out of our hard-earned money and drive 100 miles away just to photograph the sunrise at some pristine wild place, before going back to start work at 8 a.m. The constant travel and mutual interests in adventures resulted in a very strong friendship.”
It took years, but eventually VSE was born of that friendship and that drive to feel alive. Donkov always knew he’d be a photographer, but in his native Bulgaria he only saw fashion and advertising photography as a possibility.
“There was not a single full-time outdoor photographer in the country,” he says. “So it looked unthinkable to even try that, but eventually at some point I couldn't resist the need to spend more time outside in nature and be away for extended periods of time. I started going to the Arctic. I had no money in the beginning, but boy I was spending two months at a time living in my tent and trekking around vast wilderness areas.”
Soon international companies began licensing his work and sending him on assignments, but simultaneously he kept up personal projects as well.
“I realized that I had become … a fine-art outdoor photographer who goes on commercial assignments a couple of times per year and I liked that way of working and living far better,” Donkov says. “Then a couple of years ago I nearly died in Pakistan on my way to K2 and after a glacier rescue on horseback I rethought my entire approach to life.”
In an account he wrote for Outdoor Photography magazine, Donkov describes food poisoning leading to a brain infection, frequent lung failures in the high altitude, and the sudden onset of arthritis making it difficult to walk.
“Riding on the steep glacier is an insane rodeo,” he writes of the rescue. “After [a day] of trying to stay balanced on the horse for 14 hours … we reach the porters’ village of Askole. The following day is spent in a jeep on a winding road to Skardu.”
He begins to feel better, but he is still far from home. The road he took to get to the mountain prior to being sick requires 30 hours of driving and, that same day he had traveled, the Taliban shot dead 12 climbers; the road is now closed. Through his guide’s connection he secured a seat on a flight out of Pakistan, but a misspelled name caused further delays and stress before he was finally safely home and healing.
This happened in 2013. When 2014 arrived, he shared this summary of the year before on Facebook:
Looking back at 2013 - it was one of the hardest years in my life.
Nearly died twice, escaped from Northern Pakistan riding a horse on a glacier and then flying under a mistaken name, lived in 3 countries, struggled to recover from a brain infection.
Yet, I managed to publish in a few major magazines, completed a Masters Degree in Photography in the UK, moved to Malta, released a movie and photographs shot in the Arctic for HASSELBLAD and started what turns out to be my most exciting project to this day - the website is coming next month!
“During the rescue I promised myself that if I made it home in one piece I would share those wilderness experiences with more people,” Donkov says. “That's why we founded Vertical Shot Expeditions.”
Begun in March 2014, their options for the hardy and the curious, the nature lover and the explorer, range from photographing whales in Vancouver Island, Canada to the Patagonian Ice Field in southern Argentina.
“I believe that as long as I breathe, I will be traveling and exploring places,” Donkov says. “There is no better personal development tool than traveling for me.”
He says he lives riveted to his backpack and that travel lets him stay in touch with his creative self.
“When I am on expeditions I often return home with a whole notebook filled with ideas and projects to complete,” he says.
It’s easy to tell Donkov could go on and on describing why he does what he does and what he’s learned in the process. It’s heady.
“I can keep telling you stories for hours from long encounters with such people living far away from the world we know and I can assure you that in most cases they are far happier than we are,” he says. “Their health is better, their souls are at peace with their surroundings and they know how to survive when money is gone or there is no way to resupply.”
Applying that to a Western way of life, Donkov is dismayed when he thinks of most people not feeling it’s realistic to love what you do with your life. He knows differently.
“We live in the best times for individuals to thrive and inspire, period,” he says.
For him, clearly it all begins and ends with photography.
“Have you heard of a really good photographer who turned 65, left the camera and said, ‘That's it, I can finally retire?’ I haven't.”
It certainly won’t be him.
By Nancy Colasurdo