Flying in to their mission deep in the Boundary Ranges out of Stewart, BC, Angela Percival saw something that none of her pre-trip planning could have prepared her for.
And she prepares like a fiend. The Arc’teryx Senior photographer conceives expeditions, and pores over maps, Google Earth, itineraries with relish. Most of the work is done up-front. The shoot itself becomes a fraction of the total project – Percival estimates as little as 10%. So it’s a good thing she loves the planning as much as the execution. “Forming a visual picture of a place before I go there? I love it,” she says. “The fact that Google Earth came in my life is the best thing ever. I love getting the maps out. I’m a bit of a map nerd. If I couldn’t shoot pictures anymore but had to only plan, I could do it,” she says. Just dubbed by National Geographic as one of the 9 female adventure photographers you should know about, it’s not likely she’ll be hanging up her lens any time soon.
But despite all her pre-trip planning, what she hadn’t pre-visioned was flying over the Brucejack gold mine. From their helicopter loaded with ski-touring kit, 45 minutes flight from their drop zone, she looked down, stunned, on a road that was being pushed up the actual glacier, busy with dump trucks and four wheel drive vehicles. It was out of place in this wilderness she’d spent months seeking out, a climate so extreme that her fingers and face would later freeze to the camera, onslaught by storms that would eventually force them to evacuate. “It was so shocking. I haven’t quite been able to articulate how I feel about it, what my emotional response is, but it was just so shocking to see.”
For most of her 12 year career with Arc’teryx, Percival has headed into wilderness – remote places, places at least one layer beyond where the masses are – driven mostly by a simple desire to see what’s there. And to document humans interacting in a landscape that dwarfs them, and yet empowers them to rise to their best selves.
An itchy-footed traveler since she left Australia age 18, she admits that her destination picks come from the heart.
Rugged, mountainous, and increasingly, remote and lonely tend to speed her pulse – an odd allure for a woman who grew up barefoot by the beach. Her learned proficiency in alpine environments is what makes her capability, in extreme conditions, chasing athletes who were practically born on skis around, managing production, packing her equipment on her back, so impressive. But Percival is honest about relying on her colleagues, out-louding her decision making, and trusting the team to know her skills and limitations, in the same way they know hers. Wilderness doesn’t need your ego. It’s flailing enough under humanity’s hubris.
The job is rarely easy, and Percival is drawn to the extreme conditions, lusting after clouds and moody light and the kind of cold that turns fluid to ice.
Avalanches are often a factor to be considered, but Percival is more terrified of being mauled to death by a bear. She’s spent nights barely sleeping, hugging her ice-axe close, spooked by possibility of a grizzly encounter. “I watched that Grizzly Man documentary years ago,” she laughs. “I wish I never had. My biggest fear is to be in a tent and to have a grizzly bear hug the tent and I just can’t get out.”
She turns her back on bluebird days with a laugh. “I laugh a lot to counter the pain and the hard times,” she says.
Her lightheartedness is more about modesty than recklessness. Percival is diligent, takes her responsibilities seriously, admits that, as much as she loves the wild, there’s nothing in her personality that would dub her a wild woman.
On the contrary, she’s thoughtful and focussed and hard-working, driven by a marrow-sucking appetite that she can’t switch off.
Her partner of 13 years is a paramedic. Maybe the workaday stories rub off, but Percival translates tales about the fleetingness of human life, the frailty of the body, into a fervent energy. Her boyfriend contends the opposite, reminding her: “Not every day is your last day on the planet! You don’t need to live at that pace.”
But she does. She has two modes: full throttle. And off.
A good thing. Wilderness expedition photography doesn’t allow for much down time. Maybe, at the end of the day, once the photos have been downloaded, the weather checked and the next day’s plans set and communicated with the team, Percival will give herself a half-hour to relax. Otherwise, there’s too much riding on her. And she just doesn’t want to leave anything undone in her quest to tell visual stories that will literally transport you, with a single image.
“What I aim to do” she says, “is to create a photo that moves someone. I want to move a person emotionally, but I want that feeling to then motivate them to go and do something.” She doesn’t have an agenda or an ideology to push. She just wants to celebrate the wild, instigate honest emotional responses and ideally awaken your hunger to live every day to the fullest. “That’s the state I’m trying to create.”
Sounds like the perfect destination.
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Check out Ange’s photo essay from Greenland.