OUTSIDE THE INFLUENCE OF MAN
A Look at THE WILD HORSES OF SABLE ISLAND with Photographer ROBERTO DUTESCO
By Sarah Heikkinen
Four hundred miles off of the coast of Nova Scotia lies Sable Island, a small island which has a unique population of wild horses. Since the beginning of their introduction to the island, these horses have been used for their strength and labor, victims of slaughterhouses, and during the mid-twentieth century, were nearing extinction. Now, under the protection of the Canadian Shipping Act of 1960, the Sable Island horses are free to roam their island, unencumbered by the human population that seems to be so eager to destroy its surrounding wilderness.
Photographer Roberto Dutesco has spent the past twenty years studying these horses and their habitat through the medium of film, exposing the beauty and personalities of these wild, incredible animals. In his new photo-journal, The Wild Horses of Sable Island, Dutesco opens a window into a new land, one untouched by the destructive human hand, a world where wildlife is left to its own devices…and this world is truly an incredible one. Through his unique connection to the horses, which is made evident in his intimate portraits, Dutesco has created a foundation for a conversation about the need for mankind to protect the wilderness we have taken for our own, and to protect the animals that have so ardently offered us everything we could possible ask for, while asking for nothing in return. As he says in our conversation on the subject, these horses “live outside the influence of man,” and perhaps this nonexistence of man is exactly what our world needs to be exposed to in order to truly appreciate the extraordinary nature of the land we inhabit.
Sarah Heikkinen: Tell me about Sable Island, the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and its horse population.
Roberto Dutesco: Sable Island is located some 200 miles off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and 400 nautical miles from the Titanic wreck. The island is surrounded by mist, fog and sandbars extending up to three miles out, and sits on the convergence of the Arctic Stream, which is also called the Labrador Current, and the Gulf Stream. It is the resting place of more than 300 shipwrecks from the 18th century alone. The last shipwreck was of a sailboat from New York on a world voyage in 2004. It hit the sand banks in bad weather before the captain even saw the island and eventually was thrown on shore by the powerful storm. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of wrecks surrounding the island.
Most of the horses now living on the island were brought there through these tragedies, some deliberately left ashore. I have just returned from Sable this September—my ninth voyage over twenty years. They are the only terrestrial mammals on the island. They have no natural predators and live outside the influence of man. I have been blessed to have had some come close to me, so close I could feel their breath on my face. There are moments that will live with me forever, their acceptance, love, affection or sometimes indifference they have displayed in front of my lens. There are close to 550 horses living on the island now, completely protected by the National Parks of Canada. As of this moment the closest you can get to a horse is twenty meters or about sixty-five feet.
SH: Where did you first hear about Sable Island? And what drew you to spend the past twenty years photographing the island and its wild inhabitants?
RD: In the early 1960s, the National Film Board of Canada did a black-and-white short documentary about the island. I saw that documentary when I was still at the beginning of my career as a fashion photographer. One of my jeans campaigns, called “The Rough Ride” for Request Jeans had just come out and was creating quite a storm. It was the time of Brooke Shields and the CK campaign, of Marky Mark and Kate Moss, of Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. Fashion was great, however art was something that I had always been attracted to. I have always loved nature and, after many years in fashion, Sable Island gave me the perfect path to a new venture in nature and art. It started as a single journey out of curiosity when I first learned about the island, but as I looked into it I became intrigued when I found that there were so few images, no great books or concrete documentation of these wild horses. I worked for over a year to persuade the superintendent of the island at that time, Gerry Forbes, to give me permission to visit the island—at that time there were few if any visitors permitted on Sable Island. That permission was granted on my promise that someday the photographs taken would end up in a museum. It has taken me twenty years to fulfill that promise. This year I was invited by the Museum of Natural History in Halifax to present the first-ever Wild Horses of Sable Island exhibit. It was a great feeling to realize that dream. For two decades, I have been careful not to disturb or intrude or go in with a mentality of conquest. Things had to happen, and that takes time. I can say now that we are holding the largest documentation of film , photographs and journals on this subject, the project is ready for its next phase, and that will be a great surprise to many, perhaps, as the journey has transformed itself into something else. I will just tell you that my journey and mission are now about “conversations, collaboration and conservation.”
SH: I noticed that the photographs have a very soft, natural, and vintage look to them. What kind of film did you use to capture these images?
RD: The decision to photograph in black and white and not color was made at the very beginning. In my 2014 trip I still shot with film. Digital cameras make everything easy, but they do not always make everything great. I like to know that I have the shot without looking at it on a digital screen, I like waiting for the film to be developed, for an image to be printed in the darkroom the old-fashioned way. It somehow lends itself to the Sable Island”s slowness, the opposite of the Times Square hustle and bustle. I use many films, many cameras and many formats. I carry a lot of equipment each day, and I make my selection based on how I feel, how far I will travel, the weather and the feeling I want to achieve. Cameras and lenses are just tools—the more the merrier.
SH: When did your interest in photography begin? And what is it about photography as a medium that attracts you?
RD: I took my first portrait of my family at age six. My dad had a camera and let me use it. My uncle was also a great photographer. I have lived in a visual world from the very beginning, so I think visually. Cameras, whether motion or still, are tools that record our passing visually. I love knowing that something that happens in front of my camera may never happen again. I love to be there capturing and to further share those moments with others. We have been doing this with our Soho gallery, which is dedicated exclusively to the wild horses of Sable Island, and with our latest book by teNeues celebrating twenty years of discovery. I have been lucky to have had the chance to realize my dream to be let into that world.
SH: Many of your photographs seem to imply that there was an almost intimate relationship between you and your subjects. What impacted you the most about being able to be so close to such wild, beautiful animals?
RD: Well, the decisive moment happens when truth is involved. And that truth is what I have been careful to bring back intact as I found it there in front of my eyes. The journey is more philosophical than photographic. We gave names to some photographs that came out as the horses’ very desire to exists, such as “Love,” “Tenderness,” ” Fury,” “Family,” “Love Bite,” “Magic” or “I AM. ”
SH: You mention that one of your goals with the book is to show people “true wilderness in its primal state, unaware and unafraid of man.” Can you talk a little bit about the idea of wilderness and its alluring qualities for you?
RD: We humans as a species have invaded the wilderness. We have tried to tame it from the very beginning, for profit, out of curiosity or fear. We have slashed and burned, as we are still doing today in uncivilized ways for reasons and excuses beyond comprehension. By doing so we have created a barrier between wilderness and man, detaching ourselves from nature. That barrier comes in many forms—cement, barbed-wire fences, paved highways, or even words—we have divided the wilderness into convenient slices like we divide our cities and city blocks, with the expectation for the wilderness to reside and behave within the constraints of our narrow perspective. Great changes brought by great minds in the form of great National Parks have liberated some areas, but true wilderness is rare—even in National Parks.
Sable Island and its occupants have been spared up to now from that division, or civilized invasion, and so, unrestricted by man, have evolved happily as nature intended for the horses to evolve. In America we treat wild horses like cattle, and they are not at all the same. We have lived with horses for over 36,000 years now. They asked for nothing and offered us everything. We should ponder that idea for a moment, its significance. We have forgotten that the wild and wilderness is what sustains us all, as we have not yet created even a blade of grass. We should protect the wilderness and love it with all our might!
SH: What do you hope to achieve in the publishing of The Wild Horses of Sable Island? Do you believe that, in exposing the world to the beauty of the island and the horses, perhaps the destruction of this wildlife will begin to decrease?
RD: You are talking about our destruction, as without the wild we would not exist. Sable Island serves as a large metaphor in this great sea of change, rapid change for the wild. I hope this book will not just enchant but also leave an indelible mark in the subconscious of the viewer, so when confronted by wilderness, by the wild, they will be kinder toward it. I hope this book will serve as a testimonial of true wilderness and how extraordinary it is when we let it be, let it evolve, live and die, free, outside constraints imposed by man. We have seen many other great images of the wild, yet we do not seem to learn from those images. Perhaps it is that we have not learned to distinguish between a penguin at the zoo and one in Antarctica, between a lion in a cage and one roaming free in Africa, but we can distinguish and connect differently to the idea of understanding and loving a domesticated horse and also one that is truly free, wild, unaltered by our desires and pursuits. The wild horse crosses cultural, religious and economic barriers created by man. It has much to teach us and we have yet much to learn.
Roberto Dutesco has been revealing the beauty of nature and the human spirit through his photography for more than three decades. He first learned of Sable Island and its wild horses in 1994 and made his first trip to the island that same year. A perilous journey by small plane from Halifax and a beach landing brought him to this remarkable place. Over time, and with patience and respect for these living creatures who, in the absence of natural predators, exhibit no fear of humans, he learned the ways of the horses and fell in love with the island in the process. As Dutesco discovered the island for himself over the course of several visits, he captured the beauty and isolation of the wild horses and their austere habitat through still photography and 16-mm film. His incredible journey is presented in a full-length documentary entitled Chasing Wild Horses, which has aired many times on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and other media outlets in the U.S. and Europe. In 2008, the Canadian government identified Sable Island as a protected national treasure under the Canada Shipping Act, Bill #227, as a result of Dutesco’s efforts. He says, “This legislation underscores the point that, if natural locations like this are to endure, they must be left alone. I have spent the last eighteen years dedicated to that belief and will continue to work for their preservation for the future.”
Written by Sarah Heikkinen
Photography by Roberto Dutesco & Courtesy of teNeues
Design by Mina Darius
Photography by Roberto Dutesco & Courtesy of teNeues