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The Defender of Dark Skies

For night sky photographer Harun Mehmedinovic, Arizona has a truly awesome dark side

Growing up in Bosnia, Harun Mehmedinovic didn't realize that he lived in a special place. He spent his childhood visiting the remote countryside, chasing fireflies under a clear Milky Way. It was only later that he realized the rest of Europe had lost nearly all of its dark skies to light pollution. So when he came to the United States in 1996, after enduring years of war, Arizona’s dark, star-filled skies reminded him of better times at home. “Finding dark skies in Europe is like finding a unicorn,” he says. “I was very happy to learn they existed in the U.S.”

These days, Mehmedinovic is perhaps more familiar with the country’s dark skies than just about anyone. After establishing himself as an award-winning filmmaker and photographer in Los Angeles, Mehmedinovic now splits his time between L.A. and Flagstaff, where he teaches film and photography at Northern Arizona University. But he’s best known for his Skyglow project, a light-pollution awareness campaign highlighting the importance of dark skies and featuring Arizona’s incredible views of the cosmos.

The project started when Mehmedinovic returned to Arizona after a dozen years away and realized that the images he’d seen in comic book Westerns as a kid— the iconic buttes, deep gorges and shimmering night skies—weren't just fanciful doodles. “It was mind-blowing. When I first went to Monument Valley it looked just like those drawings,” he says. “I fell in love.”

He was also impressed by the sheer brightness of the stars he could see and began taking time-lapse shots. A few years later, Mehmedinovic and his friend and fellow photographer Gavin Heffernan decided to turn their passion into something bigger—and Skyglow was born. Over the course of three years, the duo has chronicled dark skies and light pollution in remote spots and cities all across North America. The resulting book and time-lapse videos they created have been read and watched by millions.

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Arizona and its vast dark skies play a major role in the Skyglow project. Mehmedinovic has taken incredible time-lapse images of thunderstorms over the Grand Canyon; moonrises on Lake Powell; the Milky Way shining on Oak Creek Canyon; Monument Valley at dusk; and the stars over Flagstaff, a city that has fought for decades to preserve its dark skies. But his favorite spot from the project is one he recently revisited with Outside: Vermilion Cliffs, a national monument on the edge of Grand Canyon National Park that’s famous for its petrified sandstone waves and brain-shaped rock. It looks like the set from a sci-fi movie. “It’s amazing during the day, but it’s even better at night,” the photographer says. “It gets very, very dark, and the air is  so dry you get this intense clarity.”

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Of course, Vermilion Cliffs is just one of many remarkable spots in Arizona, and Mehmedinovic says there’s more to appreciate than just the darkness. “Everywhere you go, there are these ancient geologic features and remnants of old cowboy and mining towns,” he says. “It has so many places with these little stories.”

By his own admission, Mehmedinovic hasn't photographed even half of the places in Arizona on his list—and that list keeps growing every day. “Arizona is incredible,” he says. “If you visit the state or just look at my pictures, it’s pretty self-evident: 99.99 percent of people are going to conclude that Arizona is an amazing place." 


To plan a trip to Arizona’s Vermilion Cliffs or one of Arizona’s other dark-sky destinations, go to UnRealAZ.com.