The amazing world of Kiwi photojournalist Amos Chapple
The scene is bleak, and so is Amos Chapple.
He's in snowy northern Siberia, near the tippy top of the world, in a truck stocked with boxes of rice, chips, soft drinks and more. The temperature is below freezing, which is about 30 degrees warmer than it has been in the months prior.
Chapple is riding with two good-hearted, rough-looking, slightly mad Russians heading north to deliver groceries to those living in some of the coldest, most remote villages on Earth.
To begin with, the mood was rowdy, and as they drive Chapple marvels at how blue and beautiful the ice is, oblivious to the fact that his fellow passengers have become quiet and tense.
Up ahead he spots a pile of snow and ice in the road, which strikes him as odd, when suddenly the driver brakes and crunches into reverse. Speaking in Russian, the driver explains: A truck has fallen through the ice and sunk into the river below. It looks fresh; they'll need to find another route.
Holy hell, I had no idea this was that dodgy, Chapple thinks to himself, hit by the realisation this trip is wildly unsafe and he cannot escape. There's no going back.
It's the start of a 12-day trip up and down the Indigirka River, which, after being frozen solid for the long Siberian winter, is starting to thaw with the dawn of spring. Chapple, a 34-year-old Auckland-born photographer, is documenting this daring supermarket delivery for Radio Free Europe, the news agency he has worked for since January.
His enthusiasm for the assignment quickly vanishes, and for the next two days all he can think of is getting out of there. The other men on board share stories of truck drivers they know who have fallen through the ice and drowned in the freezing water.
The truck sticks close to a cliff face, where the ice is thicker and the river below not so deep, but they soon reach a point where they must cross the thinner ice.
Chapple holds his door open, ready to jump out should the truck lurch unexpectedly. "Suddenly I could hear, almost like breaking glass, the ice breaks under the wheels on my side," he says from his home in Prague. The truck starts to tip on Chapple's side, the wheels sinking into the ice. The driver accelerates, but the truck lurches further. Chapple's instincts kick in: "F*** this, I'm out." He pushes the door open and jumps on to the ice, scraping his knee and arm as he scrambles from under the truck, his feet sinking into the slush as he runs. Wet, bloody, miserable Chapple. He still has 10 days to go.
"My lowest point was that night," he says. The truck cabin is overcrowded, so he feels cramped and claustrophobic, and around 3am he thinks to himself, 'Today was so f***ing awful, and tomorrow is just going to be worse.' "I really didn't want to be there," he says.
"And then, the horizon in front of me just started sparkling green. The whole horizon just lit up with the Northern Lights, with no one for hundreds of kilometres around. It was a message from the universe to me that everything was going to be okay. The fear just lifted, the dread just lifted completely off me." Not that his circumstances had changed at all, but those lights brought enough relief for Chapple to believe that, most likely, things would be okay.
He's won a bunch of photography awards, and had his work in some of the world's top news publications: the Guardian, The Atlantic, The Telegraph, Al Jazeera. Yet, Chapple doesn't consider himself a particularly great photographer. He didn't study the subject, and most of what he knows he taught himself on the job.
What sets Chapple apart is he's willing to travel to places others won't venture – places too remote, or too dangerous. It means he's capturing scenes that often haven't been photographed before and are, by virtue of their unfamiliarity, intriguing. "I'm not a photographer who can make something amazing out of nothing," he says. "Going to places people weren't so keen to go to was key. It's physically really hard, but photographically it's really easy."
Still, his work is striking, especially his drone photographs: crisp, detailed, perfectly lit, he propels the viewer skyward to look down on the ornamental architecture of Saint Petersburg, the cluttered slums of Mumbai, the frosty Siberian wilderness.
It's travel photography with a journalistic sensibility. "Travel photography is generally so bad. It's so slick, so clean, and so untruthful. If you can somehow marry that empty style of travel photography with honest news journalism, and have something both very positive and honest. That's something that needs to be explored more."
Chapple comes from a family of newshounds. His father is the author and former Listener deputy editor Geoff Chapple; his sister Irene is now the digital editor at the New Zealand Herald. His mother, Miriam, took care of the children while they were young, before returning to work. They lived on Auckland's North Shore.
"I wanted to get into the newsroom," says Chapple. "It was the noble, ideal profession in my mind, living in my household. But I didn't have the wherewithal to write." He didn't believe he was smart enough. "I didn't have the qualifications to get into a junior level job or internship. So the camera was a ticket into that environment." The appeal was the prestige of the work, but also the promise of adventure: "It was more about reading Tintin and wanting to have that life."
Before he was Amos the Intrepid Photojournalist, he was a community newspaper snapper. He began his career at the now-defunct community paper The Aucklander, where the only job that bears mentioning was shooting two gay penguins at Auckland Zoo. Later, he worked at the New Zealand Herald, where he was based in the Waikato and mainly shot the grisly aftermath of car crashes. "I never really had much of an appetite for daily news, hard news," he says. "I still don't."
Then, a break: he was hired to fly around the world photographing UNESCO heritage sites. The work lasted more than four years. He found it exciting, but over time he grew uneasy about the photos he was taking. They were the result of his hard work, his creative eye, him putting his body on the line again and again, yet he had no control over them. "In terms of the future of these images, there was nothing in them for me," says Chapple. "I started to think, 'I want to be doing this work for myself.'"
So, he made a plan. He would become an English teacher, and use his earnings to fund his photography work. At 27, Chapple came back to New Zealand and studied linguistics at the University of Auckland for three years. He went on to do a one-month teaching course, before setting up as a teacher in Saint Petersburg in 2012. After class, Chapple would search the web for places that hadn't been photographed well, or sounded like they'd make a good shot, and plan his trips. Now, he had autonomy, and he had copyright of his work.
Much of Chapple's job seems quite terrible – long stretches away from his new wife; the stress of working in isolation; impending doom. But he's drawn to the prospect of witnessing, and capturing, something new. The assignments he enjoys most are those that have a bit of joy. When covering the dismal scenes of the European refugee crisis earlier this year, he sought out stories of hope.
"There was this particular woman, a very, very cool and photogenic young woman in a refugee camp, who was teaching the refugees to turn the boats into backpacks," he says. The video, posted to Al Jazeera's AJ+ channel, has more than six million views on Facebook.
Chapple feels that people are tired of being bombarded with misery. "Ten years ago, there used to be photography blogs run on Afghanistan and it was all f***ing violence, fire and blood. It was very popular – you could see the Facebook shares," he says. "I don't think there's an appetite for the destruction and violence there once was."
On the ground, Chapple stays conscious of his role: he's there to record, not help, and he doesn't feel ethically compelled to cross that line. He's able to shrug off most assignments once they're finished. "I don't have much emotional connection with migrants," he says. Other stories aren't so easily left behind. "With news I can move on, no trouble, but with these longer, more extended, experiential things, they can stick in the mind for a long, long while."
Though Siberia was tough, Chapple is returning shortly, reuniting with the delivery truck driver and his uncle, "a reformed heavily tattooed ex-gangster". They're going on a five-week mission into the wilderness to find and collect mammoth tusks. Chapple is anticipating a lot of vodka and sleepless nights. "It's going to be a f***ing crazy adventure."
- Sunday Magazine