Three years ago, Geoff Steven was being escorted by government personnel through the countryside of the most isolated nation in the world, North Korea. He was there taking photographs of centuries-old tombs from the 1,600-year-old Goguryeo Empire.
In 2004, these catacombs became the first UNESCO World Heritage site in the hermit state and it was Steven’s job to document the aging artwork and structures in a bid to preserve them for future generations of an uncertain nation.
“It’s a surreal feeling seeing these beautiful old paintings on the ceilings of the tombs, then being whisked by jeep through poor and backward little villages on the Korean Peninsula, but that’s what we do,” says the (lucky) photographer.
Steven is the founder of Our Place World Heritage, a New Zealand company working with UNESCO to document sites of cultural significance around the globe. Currently there are 962 such sites, ranging from notorious tourist spots such as the Great Pyramids of Giza to secluded natural wonders such as the Galapagos Islands.
New Zealand has three of its own: Te Wahipounamu, Tongariro National Park and the Subantarctic Islands.
Steven has personally photographed 60 World Heritage sites himself since starting Our Place in 2006; before that he worked in production and programming roles at TVNZ.
“I worked my way up the ladder at TVNZ and what that means is I found myself stuck behind a desk when what I really wanted to do is be behind a camera,” says Steven.
In 2004, Steven left the broadcaster to pursue photography and began exhibiting his artwork in New Zealand and Japan and across Europe. Looking for a way to create work that had a wider appeal, Steven approached UNESCO with the idea that would become Our Place after 10 months of negotiations.
UNESCO doesn’t provide any funding towards Our Place; instead, the company relies on global partnerships such as the one it has with Panasonic, as well as selling merchandise online, to pay its 26 photographers and freelancers.
However, Steven says UNESCO provides something just as important as funding – access. The United Nations organisation carries with it a lot of weight. It’s also seen as a neutral body, because it’s not involved with and based in a completely different country to the main UN organisation.
“It’s not easy to get into some countries to take photographs of what’s happening in them. We can do this because we have UNESCO backing us,” he says.
As with so many other industries, the photography sector has been changed forever by smartphone technology. Travellers around the world bring with them mobile phones with cameras far more powerful than the professional photo gear available a decade ago.
Over 3G they’re uploading mind-boggling numbers of photos – including many of the 926 World Heritage sites Our Place is responsible for. Every day there are more than 300 million photos uploaded to Facebook around the world, each with the potential to become a competitor to Steven’s business – but he says he welcomes a world with more photographers.
“Smartphones aren’t hurting our business,” he points out. “What we produce isn’t the same as what holidayers are taking for their friends on Facebook.”
He adds that, if anything, smartphones are helping the next generation of photographers get their start.
“As more and more people take photographs on their phones, there will be more and more people who want to take even better photographs, and I can’t see that as anything but positive.
“That’s another thing that Our Place can do, be something for new photographers to aspire to.”
Steven’s advice for those budding photographers, whether they’re weekend warriors or planning to explore tombs in faraway dictatorships, is to push the limits – even if it gets you in trouble.
“Photographers shouldn’t be afraid to get behind the red velvet rope every now and then. Often all it takes to get past those saying no to you is a quick step and smile.”