Adventure Icons

It's not enough to be at the forefront. In an era when everything has supposedly been done, these adventure icons ignore convention, court risk, and let their passion lead the way.

Mar 10, 2010
Outside Magazine
Anderson Cooper

Jeff Hutchens/Reportage by Getty Images for CNN   


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Anderson Cooper
You were in Port-au-Prince less than 24 hours after the quake. With a tragedy of this scale, where do you start?
You just turn the camera on and open your eyes. No matter what direction you move, you keep the camera rolling. It's all happening in real time and goes on for days like that. Each morning you go out and think, OK, I'm going to look for a rescue, or, I'm going to go to a cemetery, but invariably you never get there, because so much comes across your path.

Do you sleep?
The first couple of days, you really don't. You shoot all day, and spend the nighttime editing and writing. But frankly, you don't think about that stuff, because it's so overwhelming.

Watching your reports, it seemed like anger might have become the dominant emotion among Haitians.
I think first there's the shock and horror of it all, and then you see how things play out. It doesn't get better, and the local government is completely not meeting the needs of its citizens, so there are a lot of things that anger people. Those are the people we talk to all day long. It's not so much what I think about it; it's more what I'm hearing from people. Why are people dying stupid deaths? A child doesn't need to die from an infection from a broken leg.

Is part of your role to broadcast that rage?
It's not so much that I'm broadcasting rage. I'm there to bear witness to what's happening. There's really nothing sadder than a child dying and no one knowing the suffering and pain of the loved ones left behind. And I think there's value in documenting that and giving voice to it.

There's been criticism directed at you and some of your CNN colleagues for overstepping your roles as objective journalists and getting involved in the story. At one point, you jumped into a crowd of looters to pull out an injured boy.
To be in places before relief workers are there: That presents some unique challenges. You suddenly find yourself in a situation where, say, you're a doctor—what do you do? There are some journalism purists who say that you do nothing, that you just go watch and report, and I certainly understand that. But in the case of the little boy [in Haiti] who got hit in the head with a cement block, no one was helping him. He couldn't get up. He'd try to get up and collapse. Blood was pouring from his head...It was a split-second decision to take him out of the situation. I think anyone would have done the same thing if they had the opportunity.

What kinds of stories make you want leave the studio and jump on a plane?
I tend to be drawn to stories that aren't on people's radar. When I was a kid, I used to look at old maps with unexplored regions. I find it interesting that with all the technology we have today, there are still places that don't make headlines. The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one I've traveled to report on a lot. There are six million people who have died in the Congo in the past ten years. It's the deadliest conflict since World War II, but very few people know much about it. It's truly horrific.

We ran a piece recently by Nicholas D. Kristof, arguing for the need to find hopeful stories within a tragedy to get people's attention. Is that something you try to do?
I believe in telling the reality of what's happening. And some nights there isn't much to be hopeful for. But even the first day after the quake in Haiti, before the rescue crews got there, [we filmed] people rescue a little girl. That was a positive thing.

What effect do the things you witness have on you personally? Is it traumatic?
There was a time when I first started, when I made a fake press pass and borrowed a camera and headed into wars, and for three years that was the only kind of story I was interested in doing. It definitely takes a toll. You have to be very conscious of its effects and try to take a break when you need to.

There's also the inherent danger you're dealing with for prolonged periods.
I'm far more acutely aware of my surroundings than my friends who have regular jobs. I'm acutely aware of who's around and what the possibilities are. It changes the way you see your surroundings. But I don't seek out dangerous situations. I'm pretty much a chicken. Truly, I don't believe [my team has] taken any risks.

What about when you were younger?
My first three years, I can't believe some of the things I did. The idea of going to Somalia alone, not having a place to stay or security. I was 23 or 24. There was fighting between different clans in the city. I literally landed on the airstrip and had no idea about the town. A truckload of gunmen approached me, and I ended up hiring them as my gunmen, and we went around to the burial grounds where all these bodies were being dumped, and there were all these empty pits. I was thinking, They could just shoot me and put me in a pit and no one would ever know.

Were you just naive?
I don't think I was naive; I just didn't allow fear to stop me from going to a place. I don't believe you should be ruled by fear in anything in your life. I don't like anything that scares me, and I prefer to face it head-on and get over it. Anyone who says they're not scared is a fool or a liar or both. I just don't want that fear in my stomach to be part of my life, so I work to eliminate it.

Some of the athletes we talk to seem to crave the adrenaline that goes with fear.
I think it's a little different. I have no interest in jumping out of an airplane, or any of the things people do for thrills to push their limits and all that. To me, that seems foolish, and there's no point. If people are suffering in a place, to me, it's not a question of whether I'm going to go or not, it's a question of how fast can I get there?