The climber and filmmaker on human-centered storytelling in Earth’s remotest regions.
History’s most celebrated protagonist could very well be the explorer, venturing into the unknown with no armaments more fortified than curiosity and courage. But Taylor Freesolo Rees is changing this narrative, journeying to the most extreme parts of the Earth to document not only the physical geography but also that of the people therein. In her films and photographs, the dramatic peaks of Nepal and deserts of Utah are backdrops for the inner landscapes of those watching as the territories they have long known as their own are changed by the climate, by governments, by businesses and development, and by other individuals.
In other words, it could be said that Rees is an explorer in the classical sense as a means to the ends of deeper quests into humanity. Sometimes together with her husband and fellow explorer and filmmaker Renan Ozturk and sometimes alone or with her husky wolf Baloo, Rees has climbed through snake-filled jungles to the highest peak in Myanmar for National Geographic (2015) and into the Atacama lithium mines in Chile (2019) to expand the wider consciousness of the state of the planet and its most critical guardians, whose stories, were it not for Rees, might otherwise go unheard.
Is it difficult to reintegrate into daily life after the intense experiences in nature demanded by your work?
Sometimes, if there’s not a way to talk about it from a place of shared experience. That was the case in Myanmar. The climbers I was with went on their own two-week epic journey to try and summit the mountain, Hkakabo Razi, and I had a totally different situation happening at base camp, where I was staying to manage communications and our porter crew. The Burmese were getting sick, some of them were falling apart psychologically, I was trying to send some of them down to their village, and through all of this we spoke different languages.
In those moments, the climbers and I had such different intentions that we were measuring our experiences against – I was trying to survive and make sure all the people who were there with me were going to be healthy and be okay, and the climbers were trying to get to the top of the mountain. To go through such different kinds of hardships like that and then come back together and feel on the same page is tricky.
In general, traveling and getting the opportunity to tell stories of such places in the world can be kind of isolating. That’s one of the most positive parts of social media – it’s a space to express, to share, to work through things and to learn from other people too, from things that they’re experiencing.
What draws you to human-centered stories?
My connection to storytelling was first and foremost driven by a love for our nature and a sense of awe that we are here, alive on this planet, to begin with. In the context of the risks that we’re facing with the Earth’s deterioration, I’ve come to realize how much we need to be doing this through a lens that really includes our humanity, rather than focuses on nature as something separate to be “saved.” Really, we are here to save ourselves.
As I continue on this path of filmmaking and photography, it’s interesting to see how it has taught me to be a better listener.
Yes, we need geologists and climate scientists to collect data and carry out research and sound science-backed policy initiatives, but until we really understand each other, what we’re going through as diverse human beings, and how our politics, economies, psychologies and religions play into all of our relationships – especially our relationships to our earth’s resources and what we “need” from this world – I don’t think we’re going to be able to solve our problems. It’s time to look inward.
What do you mean by listening better?
There are a lot of ways to listen to another person. For me, listening is centered in a really deep curiosity about someone or something, shedding assumptions and biases – the layers and layers we have – so that I’m openly and humbly taking in information, even if it’s coming at me in a way that’s different from how I expected. When we deeply listen to another person, it’s also not about hanging on every word, but listening to what’s happening in our own head and heart at the same time and giving space for the whole situation to be understood in a greater context.
You’ve spoken a lot about non-verbal communication, through such things as yoga, laughter or chores. Do you find that this translates into how humans can communicate with nature as well?
Definitely. That’s something that I’ve always been really interested in, and I’m even on a journey right now to learn more about that both from a personal, experiential place, as well as with the science that exists behind it. We know now that trees communicate. We know that all plants communicate. We know that ecosystems are in a constant dialogue through chemicals, sounds, interactions, ecological processes, and the social relationships between birds and animals. Everything. It’s amazing, really.
And so, to go out in nature and to sit and realize that I’m not just a separate observer but I’m fully immersed in that chorus, I become a participant. I am in dialogue with the living world despite that communication not happening verbally. I go into nature, noticing and letting the vibrations of what’s happening enter my heart and mind and find myself a part of it.
I lot of this I’ve learned from David Abram, who has written a couple of great books – The Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. He relates a lot of this back to forms of language that came before Western English. A lot of Indigenous languages are built around grammar systems that are more about process and interaction and less about object and subject.
What was your relationship with nature when you were young?
For me, being outside was about exploring, getting dirty, climbing trees, wandering, but doing this with a magical sense of wonder where my friends and I would dress up as wizards, sorceresses, bedazzled dancers. We would have our make-pretend plays out in nature, dance-hiking – bringing nature together with the celebratory nature of dance, theater, expression and play.
You first visited Greenland with a professor when you were an undergrad at Penn State University, and then you went back to record stories of the Inuit communities there. What moved you so much about these people that you returned for them?
I was a field ecology assistant, and the first summer that I was there, I noticed that as a scientist, you go in with a very investigative process to understand the ecosystem in the landscape. That data is incredibly important – the climate science coming out of Greenland has been pivotal to our understanding of how landscapes change in shifting climates.
But I also found myself curious about how these locust swarms of scientists would descend upon Greenland in the summer, and yet very little interaction seemed to be happening with the people who lived there. It was like, “Let’s study everything about this ecosystem minus the people.” That can be pretty typical of many forms of science, and it’s not necessarily to its fault.
But the next summer, I went back with a video camera and spent time listening to people describe their own understandings of their changing landscapes and of climate change and also how they felt about the role of these outsiders coming to do that in their home territory.
If you’re going to engage with a community, especially around a story, what is your relationship with them? Are they just subjects of your story, or are they long-term friends? I think it’s important to build those relationships as such and not just in an extractive way.
That requires a lot of emotional investment.
I think that’s typical. There are so many forms of storytelling – photojournalism, reporters doing investigative stories – and I feel like documentary film is one in which you get to be very invested in people’s lives.
How did you meet your husband Renan?
Renan and I met at an art party in Jackson, Wyoming. He was just the shiest, most gentle soul I’d ever met in my life, and I fell for him instantly. He invited me to go climb Grand Teton. It was a 17-hour first date, and at the end of it, we pretty much said we loved each other and never turned back.
How do you balance one another in your work?
It’s hard! Currently we are creating and managing three feature films, eight short films, and many additional little projects. We are able to do this together and enjoy it by always acting in ways that honor a really deep respect for each other’s individuality and work. Even beneath the love, excitement, partnership and romance, we respect each other as people, so neither of us is ever going to do something that’s going to make the other’s life difficult for no reason. This is the foundation. It’s also a lot about communication and compromise.
We also love to learn from each other. Renan has taught me a tremendous amount about filmmaking, especially from a technical side. And Renan has learned from me some of what I spent a decade doing before we met – climate science, studies on how conservation efforts and storytelling can affect communities, what power imbalances might exist there and how to level those, how to create more collaborative spaces in cultural situations, and the ethics behind thinking that process through.
Some of your expeditions are physically brutal. Why do such adventures remain your passion?
A lot of people will say that there’s joy that comes with suffering, and it’s true. Our physical lives are just not that hard anymore. We don’t have to toil in the farms or spend three days hunting to survive. We no longer fix things that break or solve problems, and yet we are designed to – our brains and bodies. So when we challenge ourselves physically and mentally, it’s very enlivening. It’s good to remember that it is a huge privilege to be able to say, “I guess I have it good enough that I can put myself into harm’s way for fun.” It’s powerful to know what you can endure and what your limits are and to know that you don’t have to always be seeking comfort.
Is there a core message that you try to bring through all of your work?
We’re living in a really difficult time where yes, there are some things where we have it as good as we ever have, as humans. But at the same time we’re really on the brink of ecological collapse. It’s a really difficult time to stay engaged in all of this, politically and environmentally.
I think we as human beings are in the process of being healed from a very long history of traumas that have brought us away from our environment and away from community. Those wounds, maybe the ones stemming from a deep long lost sense of belonging with earth, have also incited us to inflict incredible violence and pain onto others in the name of greed or power or religious beliefs. Despite this, I still have so much faith and hope in the process of working on these environmental and social challenges because I know that I am healing myself in the process. Or maybe, in the process of healing myself, I am contributing to something bigger. There’s such paralysis and such fear, and it seems so insurmountable, but we have to maintain courage.