Award-winning photographer Peter Menzel has traveled the world in search of stories he can capture in images. And with those images, Peter and his wife, Faith D'Aluisio, have co-authored numerous books that do more than sit on coffee tables. Through in-depth narrative and stunning, thought-provoking pictures, readers reach a new understanding of the lives of people in places rarely seen by the average traveler
Curiosity was fortunate to catch Peter before he set off again to another remote corner of the planet. He talked to us about his favorite photos and revealed the story behind each image. Click ahead for some truly amazing photography and compelling commentary from Menzel.
This shot of lightning in Arizona was taken on top of Tumamoc Hill in the center of Tucson and it was part of a National Geographic assignment on lightning. This was one of my first large assignments for National Geographic and it's a time exposure of about four minutes. Because of the weather patterns, if you stay in Arizona for a month or so, you can get one of these once every two or three nights. What I did is set up on a hill over Tucson and drove my rental car through the picture to illuminate the foreground and then used a very powerful light to light up the backlight -- to fill-light the cactus a little bit in the right part of the picture.
Solar Plant 1
This is a self-assigned picture because, really as a freelance photojournalist if you wait around for the phone to ring and for people to assign you something, you're pretty much going to starve. I was really interested in alternative energy in the early '80s so I went out and researched as much as possible. In California where I lived, I photographed large solar arrays. This was an aerial view above a sort of experimental solar plant in Southern California outside of Warner Springs that used a lot of very large Mylar mirrors to heat water and create electricity. There are 700 concentrators and the geometric pattern is just kind of nice -- almost like fish scales.
This is from Somalia in 1991 and it's a camel that had been slaughtered for meat by the side of the road outside of Mogadishu. And maybe you know or don't know, but Somalia was once in a civil war in the early 1990s where 50,000 people died and the country just sort of fell into anarchy after Siad Barre, the dictator, was overthrown and the tribes started fighting each other. Pretty much the entire country was enmeshed in tribal warfare so that camels, goats -- everything was being slaughtered for food. It's one of the scariest places I've ever been in. Unfortunately, 20 years later it still is. They haven't come to grips with reconciling their tribal differences and forming some type of central government that could bring peace and stability to the area.
So the picture is a camel's head lying in a pool of blood on the desert sand after it's been slaughtered and it was cut up for meat right afterward. Camel meat is actually kind of good. It tastes a little bit like lamb -- a cross between lamb and beef and pork. It's kind of light colored and quite tasty.
Land Mine Victim
This is also in Somalia, in northern Somalia in the break off republic of Somaliland. It's a teenager in a hospital recovering from a landmine injury where his foot was blown off. I got really interested in landmines after seeing some rather unfortunate things in Kuwait and also in Somalia and tried to do a project on landmines, but really didn't get very far with it because not many people want to look at really disturbing pictures of people with missing limbs. I was trying to make the public aware of how much damage landmines can really do, how much they are still doing to the world and it's something that keeps on going. People are still getting maimed and killed and injured from landmines all over Southeast Asia and Africa where these conflicts have arisen and then calmed down, but the landmines still keep injuring people for years and years to come.
Al Burgan Oil Field Fire
When the Gulf War broke out, I was really interested in the technology of oil well firefighting so I talked my way into accompanying a group of firefighters. I spent three trips photographing oil well fires and this photograph right here is an aerial of part of Kuwait that was on fire. There were over 700 oil well fires that were set ablaze by the retreating Iraqi forces after they were routed by the allied forces. A huge portion of the country, which was the size Connecticut, was covered in flames and oil leaks and burning wells. The pressure of the oil and gas in that part of the world when it comes out of the ground is really, really high and it acts sort of like a volcano. There were times when the atmospheric conditions were right when it would actually be like midnight in the middle of the day -- if there were two layers of smoke covering the sun. It was mindboggling and kind of frightening and just very, very interesting at the same time because oil would be raining down and the sky would go black.
This picture, with my apologies to Francis Ford Coppola, it's called "Apocalypse Cow." In Kuwait, there's practically no natural food sources so there were dairy farms set up in the desert. The very little water they had was drilled and used to grow a little bit of alfalfa so that they could feed the cows and you'd have fresh milk. After the Gulf War, all the cows and different kinds of animals that were kept in Kuwait were just set free into the desert and they starved to death. This was a cow after about three weeks into the war, and behind it is burning oil wells that silhouette the cow and make it look like the cow is burning -- hence the name Apocalypse Cow.
Bedouin and Oil Fire
This next one is sort of déjà vu. After the United States' invasion of Iraq in 2003, I went there because I had learned from the people that had been putting out the Kuwaiti oil well fires, that teams of firefighters were in place months before we invaded, just ready to put out any fires that might be started in the Southern Iraqi oil fields, which are some of the richest in the world. There were seven or eight that caught on fire and this is a picture of some Bedouin local Iraqi's riding their camels by one of these monstrously flaming oil wells in the desert.
Spontaneous Street Dancing
We're looking at a picture that's kind of historical. It's a spontaneous dancing in the streets in the old town square in Prague, formerly Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, right after the Velvet revolution. Because I was going back and forth between the Middle East, New York and California, it was kind of easy for me to stop off in Germany, East Germany and Czechoslovakia during that period and check on how the former Republics were doing after the Berlin Wall came down. And I was walking in old Prague in the wintertime and came around a corner and just happened upon this scene. I think they're students and they were probably from out of town and they just came into Prague and spontaneously formed a circle and began dancing in the old town square in mid-morning.
Prague at that time got most of its heat and fuel from burning coal so there's a tremendous haze; it's sort of like London in the late 1800s – the whole city in the wintertime had tremendously nasty smog – coal smog – and the winter lights picked up on this and turned everything amber. So it's beautiful in one sense and sort of ominous in another.
Material World: Bhutan Family
After I did about 20 years of photojournalism for some of the best magazines in the world, I decided that I would like to do a project or make some books that wouldn't be tossed into the trash right after someone read them. It was after Somalia and Eastern Europe and Kuwait and I was home listening to National Public Radio and I heard a report on Madonna and the marketing of her book on sex, which was sold in a Mylar cover and included just pictures of herself with, you know, different celebrities doing strange things. The book was getting a lot of attention. At the end of the program – the NPR report – they played a little clip from Madonna's song Material Girl and I got this idea of doing a project called Material World where I would go around and photograph statistically average families all over the planet and get them to take all their possessions outside of their house. Instead of taking off all their clothes, they could just show us what they have and then we could compare and contrast our own consumer lifestyles with people in other places. This was one of the first pictures that I did and it's in Bhutan in the Himalayas, high up in the mountains in a farming village. The farmer is with his family with a dirt house behind and with the most valuable possessions they've got out in front -- Buddhist writings and a few water vessels. Other possessions are laid out on the balconies of their home with the mountains behind. And that project turned out to be pretty successful. I couldn't finish the whole thing myself. I only did 12 countries and I got other photographers to help me, and we ended up doing 30 families in 30 countries and it turned into a book called A Material World: A Global Family Portrait, which started our global book project that we're still doing right now. We've done six other books since then on a very large global scale, but having learned from hiring other photographers to help me complete a project, now I only work with my wife and we work ourselves to death so we don't have to depend on anybody else.
These kinds of projects really give us an excuse to go into people's homes and really learn a lot about them and share some of ourselves with them and then bring back to the rest of the world examples of how other people handle some of the same problems that we're handling on a much smaller economic scale. We don't need two or three cars and all these gadgets to really be happy. A lot of people can't afford the consumerism anymore and it's a good idea to examine your own lifestyle and learn from other cultures. You know, we assume that we're number one all the time and that we have the best ideas about everything, but I don't think that is really true.
After we did Material World, we did a book called Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects and we traveled to 13 countries. This photograph, a close up of a woman eating a delectable grasshopper, which is called inago in Japanese – it's marinated in sugary soy sauce in a fancy restaurant in Tokyo – sort of epitomizes how eating insects sometimes becomes very fashionable. We all started as hunter-gatherers and we didn't start by hunting and gathering large animals. We started by gathering insects because insects have a huge amount of protein, they're easy to collect and they don't really fight back like a wooly mammoth. You can get a wooly caterpillar and sear it in the fire and you probably won't get hurt whereas a wooly mammoth might do some damage to you. We ate insects in 13 countries and supplied some recipes in the book and this was our first James Beard food-writing award, which was kind of a big surprise to us.
Modern & Traditional Dress in Dani
We were in Irian Jaya while photographing Man Eating Bugs, we went to a place called the Dani Highlands, which is really a very beautiful place where local people still don’t wear too many clothes and for men the traditional dress is just to wear a penis gourd. These gourds are grown in people's gardens and they find the right one to fit their member and then tie it on and that's all they wear. In the town, some of the people were wearing shorts and T-shirts in front of a movie theater. There's a man traditionally dressed -- correctly dressed – wearing just his penis gourd standing in front of some movie posters. You wonder where he carries his money, but they do have a little pouch of money when they go to market.
Female Robo Sapien
The next images are part of a technology series. We sort of detoured from some of our global projects – it was called Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species. As part of a project for Stern Magazine in Germany, I photographed the best robotics in the world for about three weeks and then I turned that into a book after it won the World Press Award for Best Science Photos. And here in Tokyo, which was at the time, the center of world robotics, they were developing talking robots and robots with facial expressions. So in one of the labs at the Science University of Tokyo there was a shape memory actuated head that was installed beneath a robot's silicon skin that changed the face to different facial expressions, much like muscles do in the human face. And their idea was to actually have ATM machines where you would have a woman's head on the ATM machine and as you were interacting with it using voice commands or putting your card in, the machine would be a friendly machine, but that fortunately never came to fruition. And this face-actuated robot I think is still in the lab phase, but it's kind of weird because I lit the inside of it with a pencil light with a gel and then, because the lab wasn't a very interesting background, I took it out to a parking lot in a really busy side of Tokyo and photographed it at dusk with all the lights from the city behind. It was kind of an iconic image that became the cover of the book.
The Honda P3
And this image is of the Honda P3, which was a secret project that Honda spent a decade and millions and millions of dollars doing. I was able to talk my way into photographing it -- the first journalist I think to photograph this -- and this was back in, I think it was in 1996. They developed a robot that could actually walk and open doors and go up stairs. So we went to the factory and we were given seven minutes to photograph this robot. We set up some lights and the robot did a demonstration for us. This was the photograph that resulted from the robot right before he turned left and walked up those stairs. It was pretty amazing. It sort of made me believe that the next generation of robots really would be able to do a lot more than roll around like R2-D2.
The da Vinci Robot at Work
This is a da Vinci robot that's experimenting on a cadaver at Stanford University. The idea is that you can have very small surgical instruments go into centimeter long holes inside of a body and the operator, the surgeon, can actually be in another room or another state -- even another continent -- and be able to control this robot that is doing surgery on a person with minimally invasive techniques. With cameras and tactile feedback, the surgeon would have controls like a video game that actually had force feedbacks so he'd be able to feel what the instruments were touching inside of the body. So if he touched bone or soft tissue or was making stitches, he could really have a lot of control. This da Vinci system of robotic surgery is used all over the world. Right now we know that it's used all over the United States for heart surgery and for prostate surgery and for quite a few different types of surgeries because it's quite effective and you don't need to split open somebody's chest to do a heart operation. You can make some small holes and they recover quite quickly and it's quite a good thing although hugely expensive.
Autonomous Insect Robot
There are two different types of robots. There are the ones that are controlled totally by computers and digitally, and then there's the kind that I photographed here that Mark Tillman worked on, which was an analogue robot. This photograph actually is one of the very few I have that I just really don't understand how it happened. Mark Tillman built these insect-type robots that had all these controls and he would set them loose and they would interact and be able to move and walk on their own with their own feedback internally. So we took him from Los Alamos National Lab where he was working at the time in New Mexico up to Colorado to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument and he took some of his robots out of the case and just set them loose walking up some of these dunes and this one little robot walked up a dune and there was one flower that had come out after a heavy rain in a hundred square meter area. There were hardly any flowers around. This little robot on its own walked up to the flower and put its antennae directly in the middle of the flower and stopped and then I took the picture and I just can't really wrap my head around how this thing could have done that. He had some robots that would do crazy little things like that. It seemed like someone had an incredible remote control, but we know that he didn't -- so it's just an unexplained picture.
Greenland in spring is really, really nice -- beautiful, pristine, sunlight 24 hours a day. We hooked up through an eco-tour guide to go out dog sledding for a week with Emil Madsen and his family for the book called Hungry Planet: What the World Eats and we photographed 30 families in 24 countries with a week's worth of food. I always wanted to do someone in the very far north and see how they actually lived, who still had roots in hunting and gathering and Emil does that. He's a seal hunter. So we went out seal hunting with him for a week and even though he tried to kill a seal, he didn't get one and we ended up going out on his boat at the very end of the trip and shooting a seal that way. Here, we're going across the frozen Arctic sea where there are some huge icebergs that are at the water's edge. And Emil -- this was back in 2003 -- he was commenting on how even then the amount of ice was being depleted in the northern area where he lived on the eastern coast of Greenland and saying how the summers were getting warmer, the hunting was changing and how some of the icebergs that were there since he was a kid were disappearing and breaking off. They were using them for navigation and they were having to find new navigational points. But we really enjoyed this week of hunting and camping with him because we were able to fish for our meal and he was shooting seabirds and just pretty much living off, what to us, was an inhospitable portion of the planet, but he was able to extract food and sustenance from the air, from the sea and from the land. It was a terrific experience.
Faith, my wife, didn't really enjoy it that much because she doesn't like cold, but again it was May so the temperature during the day almost got above freezing, but at night, you know, it would be below zero. But it wasn't that bad because we pitched tents and we wore polar bear skins on the dogsled that you could cover up with. When you got really cold, you could jump off the dogsled and run alongside for five or 10 minutes until you got really hot and exhausted and then jump back on. But traveling by dogsled through Greenland is something that I think a lot of people should put on their bucket list. And you can actually do this. You can go on the Web and find these kinds of tours where you can go out with people that really know what they're doing and spend a week or two. And they outfit you with thermal suits and feed you and it's great. It's $150 a day per person and quite reasonable I think.
Farming Family in Ecuador
So this picture is also one of the 30 families in 24 countries and it's 8,000 feet up in the Andes in Ecuador. A family with their eight kids -- and I think there are 10 kids now -- and they raise sheep and grow potatoes and a few other root vegetables because nothing else really grows at that altitude. They were really a warm, inviting, happy family. We stayed there for a couple of nights and slept on the floor. They put down clean straw for our sleeping bags and we went out with them while they worked and went to market with them and had a really good visit.
Apartment Blocks in Mongolia
We were in Mongolia and we photographed here a couple of times for a couple of different projects – for Material World and then for Hungry Planet: What the World Eats and you can see from this photograph these large Russian-built apartment blocks in the background in front of the snow-capped mountains. In the foreground is an entire suburb built of wooden fences and small houses and a lot of yurts or gers as they call them in Mongolian. The people from the steppes, nomads, would come into the capital and, because the apartment space is limited, they would bring their ger into the city or on the edge of the city and just set it up with a few animals and build a little fence around their place and then seek some kind of employment. So the city is full of these eight- or 10-storey apartment blocks and all the way down the ravines and up the mountainside are suburbs of indigenous people who have come to the city to seek their living. More people now are urban than rural in Mongolia and that's happening all over the planet. There's a huge influx of rural peoples to the cities because living is a little bit easier even if you have to live in a ger.
This image and the next were shot in India during Kumbh Mela, which is a festival that happens every three years on a different sacred river in India. Participants go there to cleanse themselves and spiritually bathe in the waters of the scared rivers and it's one of the largest religious festivals on Earth. It attracts millions of people from all over India. It's just mindboggling to see a million or two million people crowd into a not-very-large city and be bathing along the riverbed along with thousands of really aesthetic Hindus. They're completely naked and they're covered with ash. It's sort of a way to show that you're humble.
Kumbh Mela Close-up
This picture is a close up of some of these men [during Kumbh Mela]. They're all men, you know, smearing this ash on themselves before and after going into the river to take a dip into the holy waters.
Teens at Tea in Imam Square
Here, we're in Iran, in the southern part of Iran, and it's the middle of winter so there was snowfall. It was quite cold and we're up on the roof of a teahouse with a mosque behind us and there are three teenage boys that are smoking and drinking tea in the middle of the day. We found the Iranians all very friendly. The food is incredible and pretty much everyone expressed a little bit of reticence in the fact that the government controls everything. A lot of people wanted to have good relations with the United States, but, at the same time, when there's saber rattling on both sides, they tend to favor their own people. So, when we threaten somebody with sanctions or with military interactions, it's a tremendous way for the local government and the local powers to maintain power. All of our foreign policy seems to pretty much do the direct opposite of what we want to do.
A Rice Farmer's Diet
Our latest book project after Hungry Planet is called What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets and we decided that it would be interesting to continue the theme of looking at what people eat, but to do it on an individual basis. So, we decided to photograph individuals with their day's worth of food instead of a week's worth of food. Here we are in Vietnam for this picture, in former North Vietnam, in a village outside of Hanoi with a typical rice farmer who is enjoying a smoke after lunch. He's smoking tobacco in a type of bamboo bong that he would put a pinch of tobacco in and then get two or three tremendous big hits and then exhale. His diet is set out on a table in front of him and he's squatting on the wall in his courtyard. This is one of my favorite pictures from the book because it just really says a lot about his lifestyle and his ease of dealing with us and his daily habit of smoking tobacco. All the food that he is eating is right from his village so he's got rice and rice noodles and a little bit of pork and a little bit of fish. It's mostly a grain-based diet throughout Asia, Africa and a lot of the world. People who eat a pretty much grain-based diet with just a little bit of meat – sort of meat as a condiment – are much healthier than people that have a huge, meat-centric diet. In China now, which is kind of mindboggling, the average Chinese person consumes more meat per capita than the average European. So if you've got 1.3 billion Chinese eating more meat than the average European, that dramatically changes the agricultural outlook and economic scale of everything that's going on in both China and the United States because we're exporting a lot of our grain now to China to feed animals that turns into meat. So the whole thing is kind of all interconnected and kind of crazy so that when people's diets change around the world, it can impact people in other countries or other continents too.
A Camel Broker's Diet
This picture is from the same project, What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets. I took a camel broker outside of Cairo and he is in the Birqash Camel Market, which is a totally amazing place -- full of thousands of camels every morning. We arranged his food on top of small outbuildings that are used to hold hay because I wanted to show some of the background. Again, he's eating a pretty healthy diet too with a little bit of meat, which is mostly bones and broth. Again there's a lot of grain and bread and different things that are healthy, although he is smoking a cigarette.
People have called our books thinking people's photography books because besides these nice pictures, we're putting in a lot of personal stories and we're using a lot of statistics. For the last couple of books, we've included a lot of essays by experts on different fields of nutrition and different things that we think people should really be aware of. And they're the kind of books that you will have on your coffee table and talk to your friends and family about and it's not a book that you flip through and you can digest in half an hour. It takes you days to really understand and really learn something.
The last picture is from a project that we've been working on maybe 10 years -- and will probably take another four or five -- on death and death rituals around the world because it's something that eventually everyone has to face and it's something that many people don't really understand or have a good handle on. This picture is sort of an extreme example of death. It's a plastinated body, which is a cadaver that's been chemically altered and the flesh has been desiccated and put into a vacuum and then a type of plastic is then impregnated in the flesh after it's modeled in a certain way. Gunther von Hagens, a German doctor and artist has a thing called "Body World." He has an exhibit of cadavers that travel around the world to science museums that actually is a very interesting way to learn about anatomy and about death. So we spent a couple of days in London with him at one of his exhibits and we got to spend a night locked in the museum with a security guard. We were able to photograph all the bodies that we wanted to. This one is a running man that's had pretty much all his muscles flayed away from his body. I used a couple of special lights behind to add some motion and some soft boxes and things to light the actual bones and flesh a little bit so it's kind of an interesting image, I believe.
What I've learned in photographing science over the years is that most scientists, and their laboratories, are really kind of boring looking and they've got some incredible concepts and ideas and processes going, but they don’t really understand how to make them look good visually and how to make them look interesting to the general public. It's like that face robot or the entire book we did on robotics where every robot is really lit and made to look very special because they are special, but if you just took a picture of that robot in the fluorescently lit laboratory, it would put you to sleep immediately. So yes, I do look at all these things and figure out how to light them and make it look good. And all the portraits that we do of food and people they're all lit also. Everything is pretty much, you know, orchestrated and lit. The only time where you don't see that is in Kuwait or Somalia or India on the banks of the Ganges with a thousand naked men. You don't have time to light them so you use pure photojournalism there, which I love to do, too. It's a lot easier than trying to figure out how to light everything and schlepping all the lights around the world.