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FROM THE FIELD

Featured on Travels With Nina

I was fortunate enough to chat recently with the fabulously talented Australian travel writer, Nina Karnikowski, on her blog Travels With Nina about a life of wandering across the globe. Check out the interview here or read below.


TAHRIA SHEATHER IS THE REAL DEAL. A 29-YEAR-OLD AUSTRALIAN WHO WANDERS THE GLOBE IN SEARCH OF UNIQUE STORIES ABOUT THE NATURAL WORLD IN HER JOB AS PRODUCER FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, SHE’S PASSIONATE, ENGAGED AND CONNECTED IN A WAY THAT ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE MADE A SERIOUS EFFORT TO GET TO KNOW OUR INCREDIBLE PLANET ARE. HERE, I GET THE CHANCE TO PICK HER BRAINS ABOUT HER RECENT TRAVELS TO PATAGONIA, MONGOLIA, INDIA AND BEYOND, DISCOVERING WHAT TRAVEL HAS TAUGHT HER ABOUT LIFE, AND HOW SHE CAME TO BE LIVING THE ULTIMATE NOMADIC EXISTENCE.

Tahria you’ve travelled to some incredibly exotic and interesting destinations for your work. Can you give us a snapshot of your recent travels?
As a producer for film and TV, my office is quite often at the far reaches of the globe. Over the past year or so my work, and wanderlust, has taken me across every continent bar Antartica. I’ve followed young cartographers mapping a new national park in Patagonia, documented impoverished labor forces in Chennai, India, eaten traditional goat butter porridge with locals in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, and ridden camels across the Mongolian steppe. It’s not quite the conventional nine-to-five gig.


I’d love to hear more about Patagonia, can you fill us in on the path you took?
In the summer of 2014 I worked on a project filming two young cartographers mapping a new national park in Patagonia. It was a fascinating way to experience a place – I think we take for granted being able to pull out a map and orient ourselves in the world. I gained a whole new appreciation for this vocation after a week of tromping over empty, wild mountains and bushwhacking up crumbling, thicket-covered gullies surveying for the first accurate maps to visualize this tract of wilderness.

Then, over Christmas, a few friends and I loaded our backpacks and set off for a hike along the Patagonian ice cap. To reach the trailhead we puttered across the azure Lago Bertrand in a local gaucho’s boat with a menagerie of pet dogs, cats and sheep until we were offloaded and farewelled. And so we walked, for days. Each day the landscape would change – vibrant mossy forests, rocky ridege lines, labyrinthine glaciers, horrendous crumbling moraines, fields of wild berries. Slowly, surely, the obligations of work, of being connected to the world, of reality just slipped away.


There’s something so blissfully meditative about simply walking – it’s something that builds over days of the same repetitive motion, broken only by brief stops to rest our legs, laze in the sun or drink from pure glacial streams. I feel very fortunate to have had time to walk in such an incredible, untouched landscape for so many days.

The final stop in our journey was an off the grid ranch run by an expat mountain guide, where we spent Christmas Day in traditional gaucho style – slaughtering a sheep and roasting it on the fire. All of us felt very connected to the whole cycle of the life, death and consumption of this animal – something often lacking from what is, for many, the most important meal of the year.

And what about your incredible pearl farming adventures?
In January I was lucky enough to travel to French Polynesia, where a friend grew up on a sustainable pearl farm on the tiny atoll of Ahe in the Tuomotus. It is literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; you can imagine the water clarity in a place so far removed from the rest of the world.

We slept in ramshackle wooden bungalows, caught or speared all the protein we ate, bathed with a pot of rainwater every few days, lived off tuna sashimi and hand squeezed coconut milk, and let the ebb and flow of tide, wind and rain govern our days. As someone who grew up by the ocean, it was really amazing to spend time with a community that is so connected to the ocean and the reef – it’s the primary source of food, work and protection for these people. I shot a virtual reality film on this trip, so you’ll be able see this incredible place via 360 film very soon.


When we were talking before this interview about your work, you said you loved it because your experiences can be very intense and immersive, and as such give you a really intimate view into a place that’s quite different from the usual tourist path. Can you give us an example of this kind of experience?
On a recent shoot in Tanzania, we were working with the Hadza people, a tribe that genetically are thought to be the oldest tribe in the world. They still live as hunter-gatherers, carrying bow and arrow in hand at all times to seize any food opportunity, gliding almost like shadows through the scrubby landscape.

We were scouting an area to film when one of the young men came upon a hive of stingless bees – yes, they exist. With elongated fingers and feet, remnants of our previous lives in trees, one man strolled up the tree with ease and began hacking into the hive. Finally into the hollow of the trunk, he began pulling out great hunks of comb and the others grabbed them, slurping up the honey voraciously. It was a pretty incredible scene – all so focused on acquiring food and fueling themselves, and on savoring nature’s candy. It put our arbitrary shoot obligations in perspective.


What are the two biggest life lessons you’ve learnt while travelling?
In Chennai, India, I filmed a researcher, Andrew Locke, working with some of the poorest laborers in the city – rickshaw pullers, flower stringers, fisherman and rag pickers – to explore how chronic pain impacted their ability to make a living. One humid afternoon we travelled to the city dump – a sprawling swath of rolling trash hills simmering in the heat, where 11 million people’s garbage comes to rest. There seemed to be a worn path that we followed in between used medical syringes, chip packets and old tires. In the distance we could see barefooted rag pickers wondering through the trash with bags of scraps over their heads that they were collecting to resell for a meager price. Picking through the residue of other’s lives is their livelihood, and this wreaking mess is their office.


We approached a woman who agreed to speak with Andrew and so, as unobtrusively as possible, we set up to film. Entirely focused on the scene happening before me, I sidestepped and plunged into a stream of thick waste running through the dump, instinctively tossing my camera to safety on the soft trash bank before I dunked neck deep into the sludge. I grabbed the bank and pulled myself up before becoming completely submerged, standing up and looking down at disbelief at what just happened and what disease I may have just contracted. I left my camera operator and leapfrogged back over the trash islands to a back street behind the dump.

Three women living by the entrance of the dump who had greeted us on arrival popped their heads out of their shack to see what the silly white girl had done to herself. Immediately, they laughed together in the local dialect, Tamil, then filled pails of water while I stood in the middle of the street amidst a growing crowd as they poured fresh water over me. Then, they brought me by hand into their shack, stripped me down in their toilet-slash-shower, gave me a block of soap and allowed me to wash myself clean. It was one of those experiences you can’t believe actually happened to you, and I took so much away from it.

1) Always keep one eye on where you’re heading.
2) The kindness of strangers is a universal human trait irrespective of culture, wealth or language.
3) Most peoples’s lives are so, so, so much harder than ours and they’ll do just about anything to make a living – so be gracious.


Another valuable lesson came from the nomadic herders of Mongolia. In the late fall, I spent a few weeks on the steppe for a shoot and spent a lot of time with one herder and his family. Observing them in their daily lives, a lifestyle that has changed little in 5000 years, these people are self sufficient in a way our comfortable western lifestyles would never allow us to be.

They almost completely rely on their herd for milk, meat, warmth, fuel and materials. They live with only what they need and make almost everything themselves, from rope corded with camel hair to wooden stalls for their herd to aaruul, the rock hard cheese curds dried in the sun on the roof of their ger (Mongolian yurt). They are so capable of fundamentally caring for their own needs, where we have devices, appliances, stores and other shortcuts to take care of us. They are so connected to the cycles of energy that support their lives, and their priorities are simple and fundamental. That sort of stark dichotomy makes me wonder a little about whether our lifestyle truly is progressive.


How did you start out in the world of producing that ultimately led you to this nomadic life?
I think I’ve always been afflicted by chronic restlessness and perhaps a little grass-is-greener syndrome. But the steps toward a nomadic life have been incremental: the first being my first overseas trip, somewhat late actually, in my first year of university. My sister had recently passed away and gifted me some money, which I promptly used to buy a ticket to South America, somewhat as an escape from grief and as a tribute to her, who would have done the same. I traveled at times with friends, other times alone, made all the rookie first traveler mistakes – had my possessions stolen, emergency surgeries, flew everywhere I should have traveled overland – and in a matter of weeks saw all these worlds so different from my own. It fueled the wanderlust fire.

Later, when I was living on the east coast of the US, I connected with a talented female photographer who took me under her wing and we began a very intimate journey together traversing the wilds of Maine in her van, making films and images and learning the power and reach of story. It seems so simple, but stories are everywhere and infinite. So by choosing a career path that offers neverending potential to explore by producing for a living, I could continue to feed my wanderlust.

What advice would you give people wanting to follow an alternative career path like yours?
Prepare to feel constantly lost, and learn to relish it.

Where is your favorite place in the world?
Home. It’s the most safe, familiar, loving place in the world for me and is a grounding place to which I can always return – physically or figuratively – after time on the road.


What’s the biggest regret you’ve had in your travels?
Because a lot of my travel is for work, I often find myself so wrapped up in the story, the shoot, getting what we need, the logistical obstacles that confront me, that I find I’m often not fully present in the experience. I can be in the most wild, outlandish, unexpected situation that I’m never likely to experience again, but my head can be clouded in, “did we get that shot?”, “I still need to line up XYZ for tomorrow”, “we’re running out of daylight” etc. Sometimes I need to press pause on the errant thoughts and just be, because I’ll never have that moment back.

Why do you think travel is so important for personal growth?
Well, beyond all the obvious takeaways – exposing you to new perspectives; learning from different cultures, people and ways of living; nurturing tolerance and empathy for others and appreciation for this fragile natural world that is our home – there is a constant rejuvenation and renewal that comes with travel. The act of boarding a plane/bus/train/horse and moving to another space removes you from your reality momentarily and, when you return, you bring with you fragments of the experiences had, lessons learned and relationships fostered. Your reality in the present becomes richer because of your past travel, for those around you as well. In that way I sort of see travelers as conduits for culture and knowledge.

Featured on Serious Sisu Stories


SisuGirls are the badasss global initiative to empower young females to get out in the world and live courageously. I was privileged to be featured as a woman with serious sisu – check out the interview below or here, and go to the SisuGirls website to learn more about them.

Please can you give us a brief introduction of yourself?
Hola! I’m Tahria Sheather, 28 years old and Aussie-born. I’m currently based in the US where I’m producing film and TV focused on the environment and the outdoors. I stumbled into this world serendipitously. I’ve always been enamoured with the environment, nature, how the world works, but after a couple of years sporting a suit and toting a Blackberry working for the government in Australia, I was craving something more creative. So I nurtured my love for photography, sought out a mentor, taught myself to shoot and edit film, followed the stories that moved me most, and, inch by inch, those decisions led me where I am now, producing film and television for non-profits and companies in the environmental and outdoor industries.

What does a typical week look like for Tahria?
‘Typical’ means something different month to month. One week I might find myself knee deep in cow poop on a dairy farm telling the story of local food in rural Maine, another I might be tromping through glacial streams in Patagonia filming a team of cartographers mapping a new national park. Or another I might be taking a spontaneous escape from work to go surfing, climbing, hiking or skiing in the wilds of Oregon. Far less glamorous, I might be glued to my computer for 16 hours a day editing. Typical right now is filming a new TV series with National Geographic, so I’m out on shoots for a few weeks at a time in places like the Serengeti plains in Tanzania or the highlands of Kazakhstan.

What’s the best part of your day? And what’s the worst?
Filming is such a great way to immerse yourself totally in a world that you might never otherwise have exposure to. There have been countless times I’ve taken pause during a shoot and thought – how the hell am I here, experiencing this right now? Just last month I was learning how to draw honey from a hive of stingless bees with a man who is part of the oldest tribe in the world, communicating with me entirely in their click language. Earlier this year I was sneaking into a city dump in Chennai, India, to speak with locals who pick through the trash for a living. Each of these experiences is so markedly distinct, and an opportunity to discover something new about humanity, and yourself. I’m lucky to have access to each one.

The worst? In this job, I feel you work at the extreme ends of each spectrum. You’re either off on a shoot, often completely out of contact with the outside world without connectivity, completely immersed in your story working crazy long days or you’re glued to a computer editing for hours upon days upon weeks alone in a dark room. There’s not a whole lot of middle ground. I don’t use regular or routine a lot to describe my lifestyle, and it’s often feast or famine. There’s a lot that’s good about that sort of life, but it does have a big impact on your personal relationships and your sense of grounding.

You’ve also done some amazing personal challenges. What’s been your biggest “challenge and how do you manage fear and self-doubt?
Play is a huge part of my life – being out in nature, pushing myself physically, and sharing a challenge with people I care about. I think it’s so important for us to make space for that in our lives, yet so few of us do. I grew up on the water in Australia, got into climbing after high school, snowboarded my way over to North America and lately have been loving ski-mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. And I think the biggest challenge in any of these pursuits has been just learning.

When you don’t understand a sport well, the unknowns are scary – nuances of the environment, the equipment, the movement, your own physical capabilities. So finding that balance between pushing yourself within those parameters and not being reckless is a delicate dance. In those situations, I try to be my own cheerleader – I talk to myself on hard climbing routes all the time! Compassionate, kind and encouraging thoughts to yourself do wonders for self-doubt and fear, and allow you to break through those mental barriers that might hold you back from overcoming all those unknowns.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Practicing mindfulness has really taught me that positivity and negativity are powerful, cumulative forces that can be harnessed or can harness you. Your thoughts don’t affect your reality, they create your reality, and I think I am constantly in the process of relearning that lesson. The act of meditating a few minutes a day has helped me to notice my thoughts, whether they are about myself, the people in my life, my work, my goals, my fears. Noticing what dominates the airtime in my head and beginning to shift that has been a game changer for me in achieving my goals in life.

Over the next 10 years, what is your big goal?
To become a better climber/skier/surfer/yogi/adventurer, road trip my homeland of Australia by van, direct a feature documentary, visit Antarctica, have a piece of land to call my own, find contentment in myself …I don’t think in singularities!

What piece of advice would you give to our young SisuGirls who want to pursue a life in an alternative, outdoor career?
Remember that a career and the outdoors are not mutually exclusive! We’re meant to be immersed in nature, after all. The beauty of today is that there are so many ways to make a living, particularly in the outdoor industry. In university, I never would have envisioned doing exactly what I’m doing now, but being open to any possibility and following what turns me on – the environment, image-making, communicating and adventure – has led me here, and will keep leading me toward what I’ll do in the future. And here’s where I bring up the f-word…female.

Growing up I always felt like I needed to be ‘one of the boys’ to work or play in the outdoors and probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder because of it. Whether or not you consider it an even playing field, the reality is the outdoor world continues to be a bit of a boys ‘club. But I think, as a female, that fact should be a catalyst, not a deterrent, from a life in the outdoors. And it seems to be, judging by the growing number of badass chicks owning it in the realms of adventure sports, environmental advocacy and creative fields these days. If you can own your femininity, trust in your own capabilities, follow what you love, and not take any shit from anyone who thinks otherwise, then I think you’re on the right track.

Finally, trying to measure yourself against your peers leading more conventional careers paths or lives will only stand in the way of your own success. Ok, I don’t own a house yet – my life right now fits in a measly two suitcases – but I’ve had the chance to see corners of the world that have blown my mind wide open. The ebb and flow of each person’s life is incomparable.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Wear (oxybenzone-free) sunscreen. Seriously, that’s no joke. And breathe.

What is something that you know now that you wish you knew when you started your career?
I wish someone had told me to set boundaries for myself. I’m a yes-gal in life, but I’m coming to learn that there are times to politely decline, to ask for what you need, or to just be still. There is such thing as burning out.

What makes you wake up each morning?
The chance to see, feel, wonder, sweat and puff my way through the world another day!

Who inspires you?
I was lucky enough to spend time with Kris Tompkins in Patagonia last December, where she’s currently creating a new national park that is home to incredible ecological diversity. She’s fought cancer, run a successful international company that actually cares about its environmental impact (Patagonia clothing company) and has become a conservation icon working in Patagonia to protect precious tracts of wilderness for the benefit of future generations. Her philosophy is that women are capable of doing anything we want in the world – and should have no excuses. Amen to that!

Finally, who do you think has serious sisu?
I wish I were half as strong and funny as my hilarious and talented climber-slash-photographer-slash-badass bud Christine Bailey Speed. You’ll often find her swinging off ropes snapping climbers around the world. Check out her awesome work here!

Exploring southern Utah’s limestone

After being confined to the editing cave for the last couple of months, I jumped on the opportunity to head to Utah last week with pal, climbing photographer and general badass Christine Bailey Speed to explore southern Utah’s best limestone with The North Face athlete Paige Claassen. Paige is on a mission to tick America’s iconic 5.14s, including her current project, Necessary Evil: a gnarly 5.14C that’s history reads like a who’s who of climbing – equipped by Boone Speed and then first ticked by Chris Sharma in the late 90s, the route has become known as a test piece for the grade for it’s old school, technical style.

The Virgin River Gorge is an unlikely place for some of the world’s best limestone – an exposed crag overlooking I-15, which sinews through the gorge. White noise from the semi traffic and the sight of a graffiti-covered overpass interrupt what would otherwise be a spectacular gorge scene. Bailey and I just embraced the quirky character of the area – the barren desert, semi-industrial gorge, weird middle-of-nowhere desert town vibe – and had a blast roaming the plains and hanging out on a rope shooting Paige. We’ll be cutting a short piece on Paige and Necessary Evil in coming weeks.


Mapping Patagonia

Whilst shooting in Patagonia for Middlebury College, we spent extra time in Patagonia Park to build out the story of Midd alumnus Marty Schnure and her partner Ross Donihue, National Geographic Young Explorers and the cartographers behind Maps for Good, a start up that creates maps and media to help organizations illustrate their conservation work. Being a total map geek myself, I was really excited to spend time with them and get some insight into exactly how the process of map creation works. Turns out, it’s pretty straightforward. As Marty says – we walk, we observe, we record. And so we walked – tromped, in fact – all over Patagonia Park for a week, taking full advantage of the epic scenery to make some gorgeous imagery.

We also spent time with Kris Tompkins, head of Conservacion Patagonica and who founded the park ten years ago and during that time has nurtured the land back to health. A conservation icon herself, Kris’ sage voice runs as a powerful thread through the film, juxtaposed with the sprightly, aspirational voices of Marty and Ross, who are defining a new era exploration rooted in pursuit of greater understanding and betterment of our world. The park sets an apt scene to explore issues like the importance of wild lands, what role maps serve in conservation and how to ignite a fire in the younger generation infuse some greater purpose and meaning to their adventures in nature. The film is currently in post-production and we’re excited to develop the concept further over the coming months.

Big shout out to Ross Donihue for the images!

Cultural immersion in India

The Middlebury Accomplishments film, currently in production with Seedlight Pictures, gave me the opportunity to explore some pretty amazing places around the world over the last few months. One of those was Chennai, India, where a Midd alum is working as a researcher studying the impact that ailments like sleep deprivation, alcoholism or chronic pain have on the ability of local workers to make money. This work required him to be frequently out ‘in the field’ speaking with his target populations – people like flower stringers, rickshaw pullers and rag pickers. These people are some of the lowest paid and hardest working in Chennai, a city of nine million people on the south east coast of India. Covering this story provided unique access to communities that I might never have otherwise connected with.

I traveled there with DP Andy Maser and spent the week exploring Chennai’s working class neighborhoods, industrial district, markets, city dump, and coast capturing this story – and being positively immersed in the visceral culture of India. Shooting in India was such a stark contrast to Patagonia, where we were just a week before, shooting almost totally alone in a wilderness area the size of Rhode Island. On the streets of Chennai, elbow to elbow with people from every imaginable walk of life, just the sight of a couple of tall white folk was enough to turn heads, let alone tall white folk with cameras. But the experience of having to capture a story amid so much chaos was incredibly valuable. And now, diving into the footage, it’s cool to see the dynamism and intensity of the city show through. Stay tuned for a final cut of the film from Seedlight Pictures later in the year.

Around the world with Middlebury changemakers

At my frequent collaborator Seedlight Pictures, we’ve had Middlebury as an ongoing commercial client for a number of years, during which time we’ve produced online video content for lots of their different programs, from Bread Loaf School of English to the Language Schools and the new School of the Environment. In 2014, we were be commissioned to create a 15-minute short film exploring the impact the school has had on the lives of its students through the eyes of four standout alumni making change around the world. We went through a lengthy vetting process to whittle down our extensive list of potential characters to a select four that represented a diverse cross section of disciplines, geographies and personalities.

Our chosen subjects led us from the Midd campus in Vermont, to the UN Global Leadership Awards in New York City, to a budding financial start up firm in Washington DC, a national-park-in-progress in the Aysen region of Patagonian Chile and to the chaotic, dusty streets of Chennai, India. We’re currently in the depths of the editing cave finalizing post-production on the film, which will be screened at Middlebury and then released publicly in the coming months.

In the works

Growing Local series // Maine Farmland Trust // September 2014

Seedlight Pictures has finally wrapped production on a three part series produced in collaboration with Maine Farmland Trust. The series, Growing Local, explore the challenges and successes of a budding local food industry in the state of Maine. The films are set for their world premiere at the 2014 Camden International Film Festival. Learn more about the project here. My roles in this project were producer, cinematographer, production audio and editor.

H-Town Stories series // Neighborhood Centers Inc. // July 2014

Neighborhood Centers Inc. will soon release its second series of H-Town stories exploring the role of work in the lives of those in Houston. My role in this project was in-field producer. Learn more about the series here or watch the trailer below: