Skiing Mount Hermon. Photo: Kari Medig
In April, a skier on the Lebanese side of Mount Hermon was injured by machine gun fire coming from Syrian border guards. The Israeli side of the mountain, located in the Golan Heights region, also features a ski resort. It’s the latest place Kari Medig has traveled to photograph adventure amidst conflict. The Nelson, British Columbia-based lensman grew up in a house with outdoor-loving parents who stocked their shelves with National Geographic and Time Life books. His favorite photographers began their careers as journalists. After college, he started down that same path, shooting for the local papers in and around Vancouver. After getting noticed at the 2008 TELUS Pro Photo Showdown in Whistler, he made the transition to freelance sports, travel, and adventure photography. We called him up to see what initially attracted him to Israel and what he learned during his trip.
Check out Kari Medig’s gallery of Skiing and Mountain-Biking Israel.
It seems like a lot of the adventure galleries on your web site come from a photojournalist’s perspective.
Pure action photography does not hold my interest for very long. I mean, I’m like any other guy, you like hucking shots, but what interests me most is the people who are actually doing the sports. I look for the little details surrounding the sport that often seem absurd in contrast to the sport itself. There are so many of these details in a place like Israel, and that is what drew me there.
There’s a writer I work with a lot. Every year we try to think of a more interesting place to go. Israel came about through an email he got from Tourism Israel that asked, “Are you guys interested in coming here?” I started poking around and found out that there was a ski hill up north, and instantly I thought, “How crazy is that?” You’ve got a ski hill in a relatively volatile area, sandwiched between Lebanon and Syria. And yet, there is this place where people go and have fun and ski. It seems like an oxymoron, in terms of location. I wondered, what does such a fun yet, frankly, frivolous sport like skiing look like in a place so steeped in the serious issues of religion, ancient history, and conflict? The writer and I both thought this would make an interesting story.
Soldier at Mount Hermon. Photo: Kari Medig
What captured your eye?
Before setting off, I researched the history and politics of Israel. While reading about the country, I realized that this place was more interesting than expected. What I came away with most was that the average Israeli has never seen snow. You just see people touching it for the first time, making and throwing snowballs, and generally getting lost in it.
We spent a whole day skiing there. The spring corn snow was excellent, and the runs were longer than I expected. Seeing soldiers on skis definitely added an element of strangeness. Skiing is most often seen as something fun. It’s the only time as a kid that you can go fast and do things you otherwise couldn’t. So to see a guy strapping on skis with an M-16 was totally out of the ordinary for me. I guess it's part of their training for moving around in the mountains on the border.
There were people from all over the region. It may be simplistic, but everyone seemed to forget the political issues and just focus on having fun in the snow. It made me think, if people just chilled out a bit and went and did things like skiing, maybe we’d have less problems in the world. I know that's simplifying complex issues, but it’s what we saw. There’s no other way to put it.
What was the toughest shot?
The whole scene at Mount Hermon was tricky. I really had to hunt for the shot that I had in my mind. To be fair, physically shooting at that location was challenging mainly because I was terrified of being hit by a skier. People there go so hard. A lot of people on the ski hill had absolutely no idea how to ski—most of them didn't, actually. I saw one girl crash into the lodge at 60 kilometers an hour. I was actually physically terrified, worried I was going to be hit. I had a couple close calls.
Did you imagine the landscape like that for the mountain biking shoot?
Not at all. It was funny, because the first part of our trip was in the northern part of Israel during some unseasonably inclement weather. We tried to ride some great single track trails but were quickly bogged down by the clay in the soil. So we were forced to ride on the equivalent of logging roads in a lush and beautiful area next to the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. But we were after singletrack. It took us to the last part of the trip to find “the guys” who were into singletrack. We finally met them and they knew what we wanted and what they wanted, and we ended up in this area that reminded me of Utah or New Mexico. I was surprised at the quality and mind-blowing desert scenery. A lot of the trails are old camel trails that they’ve worked over and turned into mountain bike trails. We did one ride that was five hours on singletrack and we never crossed the same path twice.
Mountain biking Israel. Photo: Kari Medig
Were there soldiers there too?
No. At that point we rented our own vehicle and went where we wanted. I always felt really safe. It was in the south, probably about 10 or 20 kilometers from Eilat, on the Red Sea, sandwiched between Jordan and Egypt. It’s actually a communist kibbutz called Samar. There’s not that many communist kibbutzim left nowadays, but there are a lot of kibbutz in Israel. It’s basically one of the last hardcore ones. The philosophy there is that they want everyone to do their passion in life. These guys were day farmers and they decided, “Our passion is mountain biking, and so we want to build trails.” They had a meeting with all of the rest of the guys in the kibbutz and decided, “Yeah, OK. You have to try and make it viable.” So they try to get groups to come in and pay to be shown around. They’re good riders and good trail builders. I could have spent months riding my bike there it was so fun.
You pick a lot of remote and, what some would consider, dangerous places. How do you pick them?
You’d never think of Israel as an adventure destination. It gets so much press because of its politics. We just wanted to see what’s going on there with normal people. What are they doing? Are they riding bikes and skiing? What’s going on? Same with Kashmir. I am drawn to places on the edge, places that are known for their conflict zones where people are still having fun. Riding a bike and skiing are very frivolous acts, but for me, they’re an important part of my mental health. They’re not going to change the world, but the fact that they exist in these places is pretty neat. It’s kind of reassuring. People are doing things for enjoyment in these more volatile areas of the world.
Mountain biking Israel, Photo: Kari Medig
What do you hope people’s end impression is?
It may be farfetched, but I hope it makes people think about the general news about a place, or the stereotype, and realize it isn’t always true. To maybe question, “Is there a lot more going on than what’s in the news?” There are normal people still having normal lives and doing things that we love to do as well. Not to be too out there, but I guess that’s what surprised me the most. That people are out there doing fun things that we like to do; they like being outside just like us.
For more, check out Kari Medig’s gallery of Skiing and Mountain-Biking Israel.
H/T: Amy Silverman