While filming a documentary on a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of Costa Rica, photojournalist Ben Horton stumbled upon a story that would ultimately alter the course of his career. Horton was helping his brother shoot a film the Costa Rican tourism board hoped to use to market Cocos Island. While there, the two learned about shark poaching rampant in the area.
“While we were on the Island we saw firsthand the effect of the poaching, and the efforts to protect the island,” Horton said. “It was a big story that, at the time, had little coverage. It was the moment that I realized that photography could be used for something greater, to actually effect change in the world. It changed the direction of my career.”
Horton took the story to National Geographic and ended up getting the first Young Explorers Grant from the magazine. As a result, he was invited to join National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Will Steger on a two-month arctic adventure, using photography to document the effects of global warming.
Horton will talk about those adventures, and many others, on Tuesday night at the Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure event.
“Many of us have seen — and been moved by — a photograph at some point,” said Vail Symposium Program Director Adam Katzen. “But Ben is looking to take that emotional reaction a step further. We invited Ben to Vail because, through his photographs, he is seeking to spark action. He wants to inspire all of us to become involved in protecting the awe inspiring places that make our world so beautiful. I think that’s something many of us resonate with.”
Horton took the time to answer a few questions for the Vail Daily.
Vail Daily: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Ben Horton: I always knew that I’d be in the business of telling stories. Of course I had the same dreams as other kids, to be a pro athlete or fireman or something, but inside I knew that storytelling, through photography or writing, was in my future in some way.
VD: Tell me about your journey to becoming a contributing photographer for National Geographic. Was that the goal in your mind from the beginning?
BH: It was always a dream, but not really a goal. It seemed so unachievable as a kid. When things started to go that direction though I jumped on the opportunity. I had the right story at the right time, and National Geographic was looking to start funding younger people. I happened to walk through the door with my shark poaching story and ended up getting the very first young explorers grant from National Geographic and through that met with many of the divisions of National Geographic that I now work with.
VD: What can people expect from your Vail Symposium event?
BH: My goal is to inspire people through my work. I know I may not be the person who will change the worlds mind, but I might be able to reach that person who can.
VD: Tell me about the projects you’re working on now, and where your career has taken you in the last year.
BH: My long term project that I’m working on is a story on endangered trees around the world, but I’m starting with an in depth coverage of Joshua Tree National park. I hope to make it into a book eventually. Nat(ional) Geo(graphic) has taken me to Nepal, Mongolia and Mexico City during the last year, and hopefully there will be a few more trips coming up.
VD: What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
BH: My favorite experiences are when I have spent long enough in a place that I start to really connect with my subject. One that stands out to me is this: After a month in the Arctic, I was sitting writing in my journal and seven wolves approached me. When I sat still, they came right up to me and started sniffing me up and down. It was easy to see they weren’t being aggressive, but it was still a thrilling experience. The challenge is staying at it long enough to get these types of experiences. Saying that though, it’s the challenges that give me the most pride.
VD: I was lucky enough to interview your father, Walt, before he passed away. He was a wonderful man and clearly very proud of his children. How has his passing affected your life’s work/goals?
BH: Losing my dad was like a second birth into the world. Everything seemed so different. I no longer had one of the main support structures that I had always taken for granted. I had to really start focusing my career, and learning to make it into something that would build over time. Dad was so proud of what I was doing, and knowing that makes me even more determined to continue working on projects that have a greater purpose. Even as a child he always had us involved in ocean protection and conservation issues. I didn’t think much of it then but it’s made me who I am today.
VD: Do you sell your work at your family’s gallery, Horton Fine Art, in Beaver Creek or anywhere else?
BH: I do have a few pieces up in the Gallery in Beaver Creek, but also sell a lot of my work on line through National Geographic, Getty Images, Allposters and about 50 other outlets.