Matthew Grey: A Passionate Environmental Warrior

Matthew Grey is one of the prime movers at MYOO, a remarkable organization dedicated to bringing people together to protect the planet: going on excellent adventures to document imperiled regions, getting the word out to motivate pro-environmental action and having a lot of fun while doing lots of hard work.

MYOO gets it unusual name as the second syllable in the word community (kuh-MYOO-ni-tee) spelled phonetically. As Director of this unique enterprise, Grey has ample opportunity to employ his engineering and logistical skills to make adventures possible, and his photographic passion and experience as a professional photojournalist to document and showcase those adventures with passionate empathy.

Matthew Grey has recently returned from MYOO’s latest adventure in Brazil. While there he organized, oversaw and photographed “what will be lost” in indigenous Amazon communities if Brazil’s planned hydroelectric dam project is fully implemented. We had the chance to interview Matthew upon his return from Brazil.

Q: What is your role in MYOO?

A: My official title is Director and my role is pretty varied. It all revolves around dreaming up ideas for our adventures, but I am also responsible for organizing them on the ground and arranging the technical support in making them happen.

Q: But these are adventures with a purpose, is that correct?

A: Yes that’s true. We go on adventures in order to tell stories, especially stories about the environment and social issues. In other words, we use the excitement of adventure to attract media attention and promote a greater awareness of things we feel are vitally important to sustainability and human survival on this planet.

Q: Were you involved with the Plastiki project, a voyage on an incredible boat made of recycled plastic containers?

A: Yes, I was the expedition coordinator and supervised construction of the boat too since I was also project managing that side of things. It was quite an undertaking. I personally spent 16 hours a day in San Francisco building the boat. That’s where the thrill comes in, taking things that were previously unknown and actually making them happen.

Q: Did you take photos also — were you involved in documenting this amazing voyage?

A: Yes, of course. Photography is my other passion.

Q: How did you become so involved in photography?

A: It probably began with my parents. I had all kinds of photographs on my wall when I was 8 or 9 years old and I was always enthralled with the idea of taking photographs in those same places. The idea of being a photojournalist was implanted early. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to take reportage photos. At that point I was probably more interested in the adventure to taking photos, than in the reason for being a photographer.

My appreciation of the skill involved in telling stories with photography, being a real photojournalist, came later in life.

Q: Are you self-taught or did you take courses or have a mentor?

A: I would say that I’m self-taught to a point. To my parents’ dismay I earned a degree in photography when I was 22. They didn’t want me to be a photographer. I’ve worked for Reuters and the Agence France-Presse shooting press and documentary photography. I did an internship with Magnum photos too — that was 10-12 years ago.

Q: What kind of equipment do you shoot with?

A: Until recently I’ve shot with Canon SLRs — I could never get my hands on a Leica before now. However, due to my fascination with photography and photojournalism the Leica has always been my fantasy tool that was always slightly out of reach. Now with the partnership between Leica and MYOO I finally got to shoot with Leicas — it’s really serendipitous!

Q: Did you get to shoot with a Leica in Brazil when you went on MYOO’s Amazon Adventure documenting the effects of dams on the environment and the indigenous people?

A: Yes, but it was a little problematic since I was the subject as well as the photographer. I didn’t get to shoot that much of the building of the totem pole representing the things that would be lost as the result of Brazil’s hydroelectric project. Instead I focused on a series of stories, shooting around the theme of what may be lost. You could say that I created something of a photographic version of the totem pole idea.

Q: It sounds like you were kept quite busy during this adventure…

A: Yeah I did have a lot on my plate. It was such a nice process of using my left and right brain at the same time. The logistics of putting up the totem pole and then picking up a camera and shooting the kids was very satisfying. As for the people we totally admired their sprit, their strength, their humor and their evident harmony with their environment. To come from an alienated, detached Western world and enter into their world is truly inspiring.

It’s only when we go back home do we realize what we’ve lost. The human perspective that has been lost is a lesson that has never been learned and it’s a huge tragedy. We’re using photography, and will continue to use it, to rekindle a sense of wonder. It can encapsulate all of those things and more. It can inform you, inspire you and motivate you to act in a life-affirming way.

Q: What did you shoot with in Brazil?

A: I used a Leica M9, mostly with a 35mm f/2.0 Summicron-M lens. It was my first time using a rangefinder camera so it took a little while to get used to and I was a bit nervous about using it. I felt I was really working under pressure to create pictures that were at least as good as what I could have taken with my Canon equipment. Fortunately, the transition was reasonably fast for me. Shooting with an M9 is a different way of capturing images. It’s more communicative and more studied. Instead of hammering away with a DSLR, you relate to the subject more directly.

Q: How would you describe these differences in terms of actual picture taking?

A: The M9 is set up with viewfinder on the left-hand side, so if you view with your right eye, the left eye is exposed to rest of the world. This opens up the world to you since you’re no longer hiding behind the camera. You communicate with your subjects with your eye open and not hidden behind a big piece of intimidating equipment. You can move the camera away from your face and collaborate with the subject. In most cases, an SLR shuts you off from your subjects, but with a Leica M you bring your own vulnerability to the process and as a result you’re more into the photograph.

Q: What do you think you accomplished and was the Leica instrumental in achieving your goals?

A: I believe that the Leica has definitely helped me to grow as a photographer, although I still have a long way to go. I think that you have to be engaged in the art of photography to take it to the next level. You have to respect art as you’re shooting it. Generally, the SLR makes it too easy and working at it makes it better.

Q: Do you think that MYOO and you personally achieved what you set out to do in Brazil?

A: On the whole, yes. We captured beautiful photos and I am, personally, pretty happy with what I got. As I said, I was pretty nervous at the start and my approach to shooting was far more serious than normal. I feel my shooting was more candid and that I was more engaged with the subjects when using the M9. The whole process was purposeful and studied. As a result, each image is kind of powerful in and of itself versus the documentary narrative approach where the story is everything.

Q: How long did you spend in Brazil and what kind of places did you visit?

A: We spent three weeks in Brazil. I spent seven days in a place that was, in that context, a pretty big town, but we got around. The rest of the time we traveled further down river, mostly in distinctive little dug out boats with motors. I went ahead about ten days before David de Rothschild to organize transport to get there. The effect, as I mentioned, was to create a parallel photographic look at the region before the dam is built. We photographed families in the context of what may be lost. The people look proud and very defiant, but the images are also pretty sad — families in front of their threatened homes. It seems no matter how much research we do, we can never predict the unintended consequences of what we euphemistically call development nor can we predict the impact on families that have to move to new places and abandon their way of life.

Q: Was the Brazil dam coverage part of MYOO’s ARTiculate project?

A: Exactly. We did an early expedition to Ecuador in 2008 and this is the second installment in that series. The Plastiki project took a lot of our focus at the time and now we’re going back to the ARTiculate concept because we think it’s very strong.

Q: Did you get a chance to use any other lenses on the M9 aside from the 35mm f/2.0 Summicron?

A: Yes, I shot with the 90mm lens too and used the wide-angle Tri-Elmar, mostly at the 21mm setting. I didn’t use the 90 that much. It puts too much of a distance between me and the subject, but it’s definitely good for portraits. I love the ultra-wide angle although I didn’t use that much either. It’s a stunning lens; there’s something very immediate about it. To be honest, I was very busy in Brazil. I would have liked to have had more time to shoot. I mostly kept the camera at hand and would shoot when I could.

Q: What are you doing with your Brazil images?

A: I’m just putting them together and selecting them at the moment. I plan to send a selection to the Huffington Post, TreeHugger, and Outside magazine. Of course, I will present an individual series of images to Leica as well and I’ll put some up on MYOO’s website too.

Q: Do you plan to shoot with Leica going forward?

A: Definitely! I feel kind that given my interests, my fascination and my personal obligation I could not do otherwise. Now that I’ve had the insight and the privilege to shoot with a Leica that’s personally what I would like to do.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: We’re looking to go to the Himalayas in February to document the receding mountain glaciers that are common in that area of the world. We plan to visit the monks who live there and to learn about their custodianship of that region. Right at this moment, I’m in a park in San Francisco trying to find a place to live. That’s an adventure in itself and it suddenly got very cold here. Wish me luck!

Thank you Matthew and good luck!

-Leica Internet Team

You can learn more about MYOO’s latest ARTiculate expedition by visiting MYOO.com, on Facebook www.facebook.com/weareMYOO or on Twitter at @myoo.