Portrait: Tony Rath

Published by Jen Tse · November 8th 2011
Scarlet Macaws in Early Morning Light by Tony Rath (tonyrath)) on 500px.com
Scarlet Macaws in Early Morning Light by Tony Rath

Every day we see stunning photos from our peers in the 500px community, but not often do we turn the lens back upon the photographer. The Portrait series focuses on remarkable 500px users who may have something to teach us about their field of photography. This week's feature is Tony Rath, interviewed by Matt Knight.

Tell us a little about yourself, Tony.

I am a naturalized Belizean who grew up in Minnesota with a love of flying, travel, adventure and the outdoors. Leaving home at 18, I explored the world for 14 years until I found Belize, got married, raised a family and started to take photography seriously as a business.

What do you love about your work?

The creative aspect of capturing light as my eye sees it.

Are there any parts of your work that you would change?

Sometimes I wish that I could be part of the action instead of just recording it. I am usually in another world when shooting and I can often be near impossible to interact with…just ask my wife or friends who travel with me.

Do you have any memorable stories from your work?

Photographing puffins and birdlife in the North Sea; surrounded by reef sharks at Peter and Paul Rocks in the middle of the Atlantic; photographing the fjords and spectacular waterfalls of Norway by sailboat; time-lapse of the Mayan temples of Belize by moonlight; swimming with 20 whale sharks at Gladden Spit before it was widely known.

Crevalle Jack School following whale shark. by Tony Rath (tonyrath)) on 500px.com
Crevalle Jack School following whale shark. by Tony Rath

One memory that is burned into my mind occurred during a winter spent in the remote archipelago of the Faroe Islands, situated between Iceland and Scotland. An ancient custom practiced there, called “Grind,” is both a blessing and horror. The ocean around the Faroes is rich, and occasional pods of pilot whales find themselves within the narrow channels between islands. Once spotted, the villagers in small boats surround the pod of pilot whales and drive them toward shore.

I was on one of the small boats that not only drove the whales ashore, but decided to take part in the killing. Remember these whales can reach 20 feet in size. I was snapping away, trying to ignore what was happening and attempting to capture the moment as a budding photojournalist should, when a huge tail erupted beside me, knocking me against the opposite gunwale and nearly capsizing the boat. Saltwater and blood drenched me and my camera.

Grindadráp, Faroe Islands by Tony Rath (tonyrath)) on 500px.com
Grindadráp, Faroe Islands by Tony Rath

As I carefully picked myself up I looked around, everyone was screaming, whales were thrashing about, doing flips completely out of the water; boats where sinking, crews trying to pull themselves into nearby boats out of a soup of blood; men in thick wool sweaters had crazed looks on their faces, soaked in blood and salt; spears and sharp knives flashing about; being thrust into the necks of the whales to sever spinal cords.

Dazed and scared, I imagined this is how an ancient battle with swords and spears and blood and death must have looked. With in an hour, all was quiet. About 20 whales were pulled out of the water and lined up on shore, marked and butchered, and within a few hours, every islander had a share of meat and blubber to last the winter…a huge gift of food to an island chain with no agriculture.

By the following morning, not a single sign of the carnage remained on the beach. I only managed a few photos, but the scene is as fresh as it was 30 years ago.

What, in your opinion, makes your work different from anyone else’s?

Maybe it is access. I live in a spectacular location with the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere 30 minutes by boat to the east; dense tropical forest and the world’s first jaguar preserve 20 minutes by truck to the west; and in-between numerous colourful cultures, both ancient (the Maya) and present-day.

Maya 2012 by Tony Rath (tonyrath)) on 500px.com
Maya 2012 by Tony Rath

Which photographers or artists inspire you the most?

Wow, there are so many. Before I turned professional, National Geographic photographers in general and Ansel Adams specifically opened my eyes to light and the beauty of the still image; Jacques Cousteau mesmerized me with his underwater films. Later, Jim Brandenburg, Art Wolfe, Jim Gallop (an awesome Minneapolis based commercial photographer) and David Doublet for underwater.

Now, the Internet provides inspiration—I love following those very skilled photographers that are also gifted with social media skills such as Chase Jarvis and Jim Goldstein. Most recently, 500px is a complete overload for me for inspiration.

For more of Tony's photography, check out his 500px page and his website.