The New Yorker

Photographer: Brendan George Ko
Read the Story Here

Heidi: Did you follow the entire migration path?
Brendan: We didn’t cover the entire migration path which starts off in and around the Great Lakes area between the Canada and US border and goes southbound till reaching the middle of Mexico. The monarch butterflies born in the north are the very butterflies that arrive in Mexico and it is their offspring return back to where their parents came from after 4-5 generations.

Was it difficult to capture both still and moving images?
It was a juggle the entire time as I was operating three cameras for the entire assignment. I had one camera for video, one for both stills and slow-motion video, and one film camera. My assistant and fixer helped carry my gear. Because we had restrictions on any additional lighting, whether it was constant or strobe, I was constantly moving around, carefully as there’s thousands of butterflies at my feet, in search of good light. Even setting up a tripod was a delicate procedure. For the entire time on location I was lost in the euphoria of being surrounded by all these butterflies and the frenzy of documenting it all in four different modes, on top of having to shoot vertical and horizontal. It was a lot!

What surprised you on this assignment?
On one day I had elevation sickness for the first in my life. The elevation of the biosphere is 10,000ft, which is the elevation of Haleakalā on my home island of Maui. In addition I was currently suffering from food poisoning, which seems like it would’ve taken away from the experience but it was mystic either way.

Elaborate on your mystical experience.
Mystic as in spiritual, I believe that some places invite one to experience them, to bear witness, and feel its mana (spiritual energy). Before I got to El Rosario I was wondering why of all places do the butterflies gather here, why fly thousands of kilometers to this one specific mountain and only rest on one specific species of tree that happens to be endemic to the region? It goes beyond the beauty of location, a circle of volcanoes and endless forest, it is a place without time and deep silence, for the nuns I encountered it was a religious experience.

Unpack the connection of place.
I made the connection because I am used to the elevation of El Rosario since Haleakalā on my home island is just as high, and I had hiked, camped, and star gazed there countless times. So suddenly to get elevation sickness for the first time I get it while experiencing this most sublime event in nature, I found humor in.

What did you learn about yourself watching the butterflies?
Because of our exclusive access we were able to go to areas closed off to the public. It was still early in the morning and the butterflies hadn’t woken up yet. Our guides motioned to us to be silent as we tiptoed around the thousands of butterflies on the ground. The little morning light we had was dimly reduced by thick foliage on the oyamel firs all around us. It wasn’t until we were absolutely surrounded that I noticed the thick foliage was actually millions of butterflies all resting and waiting for the sun to warm their wings. I immediately forgot about my sickness and went to work. The lead monarch butterfly researcher, Eduardo, picked up one of the grounded butterflies, cupped it in his hands and placed it next to his month. As he blew, the warmth of his breath activated the monarch and like a magic trick the butterfly flew away.

Can you share a little about creating those stunning videos? 
In terms of framing: Once we had access to a place we move as the butterflies moved. Because we weren’t allowed to make noise, we would wave and signal to each other where the butterflies were taking flight in the masses. I would drop my bag to shoot something then ten minutes later I would be down the hill at a completely new scene with whatever I had on me. It felt like covering a war of the butterflies and I was Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now with five cameras around my neck and constantly calculating how to document something. I wanted to convey what it is like to experience this event, I wanted that magic and its detail to be carried in the images.

Did you wear special clothing? I interviewed Ami Vital and she wore a panda outfit on a project.
I wore a giant butterfly outfit, just kidding. The mornings were cold and the mid-days were hot, so I had shorts in my bag, I’d start off the day with a hoodie and raincoat, and strip off layers. I had my trusty travel backpack and a large hip bag on me for easy access. I wore sneakers to tiptoe easily.

What did you learn about yourself watching the butterflies, did they land on you?
They landed on all of us and even on my gear. At the end of the day I would close my eyes and see the pattern of thousands of butterflies flying all around me, and the sound of all their fluttering wings echoed in my mind.

How long were you in on location?
We were in Mexico for a week. We landed in Mexico City, where we met up with our Fixer, Hector, and the rep from WWF Latin American, Monica and drove out to Zitacuaro where we were stationed and each day we drove out to various places surrounding the biosphere. Neither I nor my assistant spoke Spanish, so there were a lot of good conversations we missed out on.

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