Learn how one creative went from paddling in the American Southwest while growing up in Colorado to navigating and documenting Glen Canyon as a National Geographic Explorer.
Water always played an integral role in Taylor Graham's life — even more than it does for you and I. He grew up hiking, paddling and biking in and around Durango, Colorado. At six years old Graham sat in a boat for the first time on the San Juan, then continued to visit tributaries of the Colorado River with a paddle in hand. In high school he kayaked the Grand Canyon with his family. Then, filmmaking took a more serious role in his life.
Graham's grandfather referred to his dad as "paparazzi" because he always had a video camera rolling. Naturally, a love of photography and film became ingrained in Graham while he and his brother played with his dad's DSLR. Eventually, Graham saved for and bought his own camera, which began his pursuit of creating ski films with his friends. "I love video because of its flexibility when telling a story," said Graham. "It's like a big puzzle — first you have to technically shoot something well, then you have to fit the pieces together when editing ... and you're boundless with what can be done."
Graham recently graduated from Ithaca college in western New York with a degree in Digital Journalism. While in school, Graham traveled to India as a Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellow. Because the creative was interested in environmental, political, and race issues, he created a project centered around the damming of a river system called the Teesta in India. "Any issue we think of as 'on the horizon' in the United States is already happening in India," said Graham. "The Teesta is a unique river wedged between India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet, and it has cultural ties and international concerns among the countries." As a Research Fellow, Graham created his first documentary about the damming of the river and its effect on the local people.
"As a white-skinned western male in a place like India, I recognized that I could help tell the story but also was a threat to the people's safety," said Graham. "Fixers," or locals who were a part of a citizen activist group who had been arrested in the past for their environmental efforts and hunger strikes, helped Graham properly tell their story. "We were as safe and cautious as we could be," said Graham.
The creative also documented the damming of the Mahakali River in India. While doing so, he also made the first and last descent of technical white water on the river, which is one of the Ganges last remaining free-flowing tributaries. After filming, Graham created three short documentaries regarding a diverse set of water challenges in the country.
After college in the east and his work in India, Graham was anxious to return to his home in the west. "Water issues in India reminded me of the Colorado river basin in the west," said Graham. So, the creative applied for National Geographic's Early Career Grant in order to document and paddle Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam. "The dam is a microcosm of the Colorado River issue," said Graham. "The water is over-allocated and climate change is dwindling its flow. I didn't notice the big dams upstream on rivers I had been on before, but the Glen Canyon Dam regulates the river's flow in a mechanical way — the river unnaturally goes up and down during the day and night. It's an amazing river with big white water, but humans control it and it feels strange." A big question for the project was to discover what happened to the canyons that were destroyed as a result of the damming as the water recedes. But while paddling the river and lake in a sea kayak, the creative discovered that the canyons are "completely coming back to life."
One aspect that Graham wanted to include was the perspective on Glen Canyon before it was dammed. But, those people are getting older and passing away. "We interviewed someone in his late 80s who is still fighting for the canyon," said Graham. "But now it's time for our generation to pick up the torch and take the burden off of older people who have been fighting their entire lives."
Logistical issues were the biggest obstacles Graham and his team faced. They had to pack two weeks of food, camping supplies, and camera gear in their boats, and keep it all watertight. "I kept a Canon C100 in a watertight bag between my legs so I could film from the boat," said Graham. "It's really nice to have a massive rig that shoots 4k, but if it took 10 minutes to get it out and set it up, then I wouldn't have used it. Having the camera immediately ready was crucial and allowed for some interesting footage."
Graham's team also had to consider environmental factors when planning for the expedition. Because the lake drops throughout the year, it creates a sheen of slippery algae and green slime on the sandstone. "It was often gnarly just to get out of the boat while worrying about getting equipment wet," said Graham. "We were never in deep danger like on a Himalayan peak but we had to adapt to the environment we were in. The reservoir should have never been there, but it filled the canyon and created an unnatural environment." The documentary was just released on National Geographic's Short Film Showcase and can be viewed here.
Currently the filmmaker works for the Utah Rivers Council, where he researches water policy and creates films about Utah's unique water situation. "Utah has the highest use of water in the entire country," said Graham. Boasting itself as an "outdoorsy" state, Utah ironically has anti-conservation policies which don't encourage people to use less water. "We're trying to challenge the idea that people believe we're running out of water because of doom and gloom messages from politicians who are spending billions to suck water out of the Colorado River for big river projects," said Graham. "But really we just need to do a better job at conserving the resource."
When asked what advice and insight he'd like pass on to fellow creatives, Graham responded passionately: "Spend time with hands on your camera and find interests close to home. Being able to apply for grants to travel and tell stories is great, but first you need to find your story and understand how you fit into it. When I discovered water security issues everything else made sense, and my passion on the subject continues to push me forward."