Hawk to explore remote bastion of Tibetan Buddhist culture, art

For Wilton photographer Daryl Hawk, world exploration has never been a quest to quiet his own ego. Carrying only a camera, a backpack, and a very good map, he has spent a great portion of his life producing work that draws attention to the vulnerability of the world’s last specks of isolation.

His most imminent adventure will take him to north India, near that country’s disputed border with Pakistan. There, in April 2014, he will travel the high mountain passes of Ladakh, which he considers one of the few remaining isolated regions in the world.

“I want to shine a light on Ladakh, and raise an awareness of why this wild and fragile region — one of the very last strongholds of Tibetan Buddhism — needs to be protected and preserved,” he said during an interview at his home in Wilton. “This has always been a big focus on my work. It’s always about creating awareness about why we need to protect these wild places.”

More than just a group of people who’ve had limited contact with the outside world, Mr. Hawk said, those who live on Ladakh’s high passes are some the world’s purest examples of self-sufficient, sustainable living.

“I’m very aware of the vulnerability of these Buddhist cultures that are ancient, peaceful, and dominated by great monasteries,” he said. “These are cultures that are living happy, peaceful, sustainable lives, where the family unit is important, and they are doing quite well all on their own. We as Americans have more to learn from them than they have to learn from us.”

Mr. Hawk’s trip to Ladakh will mark the second occasion on which the adventurer has been asked to carry the flag of The Explorers Club. The Explorers Club is a century-old society whose original goal was to “unite explorers in the bonds of good fellowship and to promote the work of exploration by every means in its power.” Members have included Neil Armstrong, Sir Edmund Hillary and Buzz Aldrin.

Being asked to carry the club’s flag across “old caravan routes, pilgrim trails, and the highest passes and motorable roads in the world” is a large honor, Mr. Hawk said.

“In order to carry the flag, you have to put together a very detailed exploration proposal,” he said. “Only about 5% of the proposals get approved. You need concrete evidence on how you are advancing human knowledge and exploration in ways that have never been done before.”

The Ladakh region of north India is one filled with an immense stretch of humanity, says Mr. Hawk. It contains both the highest passable roadways in the world, and villages that may not have received a western visitor in their inhabitants’ lifetimes.

“Specifically I’ll be traveling in Kashmir, in the Trans-Himalayan zone,” which lies “between the Himalayan mountain range and the great, vast Tibetan plateau,” he said. “At 16,000 to 23,000 feet in altitude” the roads constitute the “highest passes in the world,” he said.

Though roads do service the Ladakh region, most of the highways are too covered in ice and snow to be safely traversed during summer months. Many of the region’s inhabitants never leave the Ladakh area, and few western explorers have ever reached it.

“It’s very close to the Tibetan border,” Mr. Hawk explained. “It’s very unexplored, very untouched. I’m hoping to come across some villages that haven’t really seen any westerners before.”

April is a window month, Mr. Hawk said, meaning the roads he hopes to take are not guaranteed to be passable when he arrives that March.

“I’m planning on leaving at the very end of March,” he said, “and hoping for good luck. I’ll be crossing some of the highest passes in the Himalayas, so there is no guarantee that I will get across at all. It’s all dependent on the weather this year, and every year the weather is different.”

Global climate change’s effect on increasing temperatures in the area, Mr. Hawk added with a laugh, might be the only piece of weather working in his favor.

Three goals have driven Mr. Hawk’s desire to explore the Ladakh region, he said. Since he was a teenager, a subscription to National Geographic has kept him enthralled with the idea of exploring the unknown.

“I’ve always been fascinated with Shangri-La,” he said, “and the whole idea of getting into an area untouched by time. I truly believe there are places in the Ladakh area that are very similar to the whole premise of Lost Horizon [the novel from which the term Shangri-La is derived] because they are so geographically cut off, so remote, so off the map.”

He hopes to find a region where western ideals of materialism and wealth have not yet taken hold, so he might remind the world how its citizens existed before the days of printing presses, let alone cellphones and computers.

“It has been a dream and a goal to find these places,” Mr. Hawk said, “and I truly believe I have the possibility of accessing indigenous cultures and ethnic tribes that may have never seen westerners before.”

Rather than simply marveling at Ladakh’s resident’s existence, however, Mr. Hawk knows it is important to help the world understand how fragile their lifestyles are.

“The idea is that my message is so strong that it will make people think twice about how they conduct themselves when they are in these areas. You’re always weighing out pros and cons,” he said, “but I have to get to these places. I have to see what they look like. I have to experience them. But I’m fully aware of my responsibility. My goal is to caution people that these areas are very fragile right now, and we need to be very sensitive to these cultures and their needs.”

Most important to his nomination to carry The Explorers Club flag is Mr. Hawk’s intent to come face to face with some of the oldest rock-carvings to be found in south Asia during his trip.

“A lot of discoveries have been made recently in rock art, and petroglyphs [ancient rock carvings] in Ladakh,” he said. “This is all very new, as they’re just starting to uncover this art. I selected eight different villages where the most rock art sites have been discovered.”

As part of his application to carry The Explorers Club’s flag for his Ladakh trip, Mr. Hawk noted that he would probably be the first professional photographer available to properly record the rock-art findings in the area.

“Human beings have used their sense perceptions to experience, reflect and express themselves through dancing drawing and printing and other forms of creative mediums from the earliest times,” he said. “In this regard, rock art, which depicts the recorded expression of our species, is among the most important cultural heritage of human time. In my opinion, that’s the single most reason I was awarded the flag.”

As an environmentalist, helping expand awareness of ecological issues facing the area is another goal of Mr. Hawk’s exploration of Ladakh. He will be working with the Snow Leopard Conservancy to help raise awareness of the big cat’s dire situation.

“I hope to get a better understanding of where their populations are at right now, and actually go out and track snow leopards with some researchers,” he said. “I have no dream of an award-winning picture of a snow leopard, but the experience of seeing one will really get my adrenaline pumping.”

As a photographer, and an adventurer, Mr. Hawk is both a realist and a purist. He travels without electronics (excepting his camera), and relies on natural light and happenstance to capture a subject during his travels.

“When people see a photo of mine,” he said, “they know it’s really the scene that I saw in that split second. Nothing color enhanced, no lighting tweaked, it is what you see.”

As someone who only travels alone, with a native acting as driver and guide, Mr. Hawk has developed a sense of communication that extends beyond the static nature of words and phrases — though he takes time to learn the basic languages of the areas he will explore.

“I always like to say that I speak the greatest language of all, the universal language of smiling,” he said. “I’m a very friendly, outgoing, vivacious traveler. I’m always reaching out to people, always approaching people with my camera. They don’t see me as a threat; they appreciate my genuine curiosity about them, and their culture.”

Though he may not carry a satellite phone for emergency communications, Mr. Hawk says that safety is always his number one priority, something he says his wife certainly appreciates.

“I have total support from my wife, Heidi. She understands how important this is to me. Understands that it’s who I am, that it’s what defines me as a person,” he said. “She also knows I have great instincts, and take every precaution along the way to make sure that everything turns out successfully. I plan, and research extensively — sometimes it takes years for some of these expeditions. The more you plan and research about these areas the less surprises there will be when you get there.”

When asked what has made him so successful at producing powerful documentaries of exploration, Mr. Hawk says a lifelong sense of curiosity and flexibility have driven him to success.

“I feel like I’m a wandering sponge” when I’m on these trips, he said. “I’m very flexible about learning to go with the flow, changing my course, or going in different directions. At the same time, I’m soaking up every thing I possible can while I’m doing that. Not just seeing, but hearing, smelling and feeling. Being a sponge adds up to a better documentary in the end.”

Unlike some people, Mr. Hawk said, the idea of retirement is laughable. He could not imagine stepping away from a life of photographic exploration.

“I’m very lucky, and I realize that. I’ve been truly blessed to have been able to tap into what strengths I truly do have. I’m blessed to be able to take it as far as I can in so many directions. One thing I find exciting about this lifestyle is you can be a photographer or a traveler when you are over 100 years old. That to me is exciting. I would never want to retire.”


Daryl Hawk: www.darylhawk.com, www.hawkphotography.com.

The Explorers Club: www.explorers.org.