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Photojournalist Steinmetz talks aerial photography, sustainability in global food industry

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In his junior year at Stanford, George Steinmetz ’77 faced a crossroads: take a high-paying job in the petroleum industry, or travel the world. He’d spent the previous summer touring Europe and Morocco with a friend, but he realized the time had come to choose a career path post-graduation.

“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be a geophysicist … by the time I declared my major I was able to get a job at an oil company, Texaco out of Los Angeles, I was a bit afraid of being an oil man,” he said to a packed crowd at Cubberley Auditorium Wednesday evening. “So I decided I wanted to go on a big adventure, and I decided I wanted to go to Africa.”

“Africa was about as different from the life I had seen — I’d grown up in California — and so I bought a big backpack, and I put all kinds of stuff in it, and I bought a one-way ticket to London and headed out,” he added.

And so, with a French translation book in hand, Steinmetz headed to Africa, where he hitchhiked for 28 months. From the heart of the Congo to the deserts of the Sahel, Steinmetz honed his photography skills as a 21-year-old, catching free rides in local friends’ cars and atop overpacked public trains. 

In Agadez, Niger, Steinmetz said he met a Belgian ethnologist named Marion van Offelen, and the two became traveling companions for the next five months. They spent time in N’Djamena during the height of the Chadian Civil War, in the Central African Empire tracking elephants with Baaka pygmies, and summiting Kiliminjaro through a bad cold, an eye infection and a hive-like rash. 

With a packed but unpolished portfolio of photographs, Steinmetz headed back to New York City, but was unable to pick up a full-time gig. He thanked his sister, who was in the audience Wednesday, for her help during that tough patch in his life.

“When I came back from Africa, I didn’t have a penny on me, and I slept on her couch … it’s really tough when you’re in your twenties and you have all this passion but you have no money,” Steinmetz said.

He ultimately found his niche, though, in aerial photography. Steinmetz takes the majority of his photos from a custom-built contraption that he refers to as his “flying lawn chair,” consisting of a paraglider wing, backpack-mounted motor and a single-seat harness that ties the pieces together. The chair flies at one speed — 30 miles per hour — and can gain as much as 6,000 feet in elevation. He spends most of his time photographing between 100 and 500 feet, “just above the trees.” 

“It’s risk management — you have to decide what’s worth the risk flying over,” he said. “But it’s not fun and games. I don’t fly to fly — I never go up without my camera.”

After getting hired as a photographer for National Geographic, Steinmetz made it his goal to photograph the world’s most remote deserts. 

“One of the wonderful things about deserts is that to me, it’s like seeing the Earth with its living skin peeled away … I just found them exquisitely beautiful,” Steinmetz said. “To me, it’s the untold story … I was seeing stuff that nobody else had ever seen before, and that’s what really punched my clock.” 

He later published much of his work in “Desert Air,” a compilation of photos of the world’s extreme deserts, which receive less than four inches of precipitation per year. 

Steinmetz spent the next 15 years photographing desert landscapes and oases worldwide, completing dozens of photo essays for National Geographic and GEO Magazine. In 2006, he was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation to document the work of scientists in the Dry Valleys and volcanoes of Antarctica. 

Over the past decade, though, Steinmetz’s work has moved in focus from desolate desert landscapes to incisive climate change photojournalism, covering global food scarcity and some of the world’s largest and most brutal slaughterhouses. 

“Eventually I covered every extreme desert in the world,” Steinmetz said. “I decided that I wanted to look more at climatic issues and the New York Times gave me an incredible chance to go and look at the effects of climate change on all seven continents.”

In the early 2010s, the work took him to China, where he found maximization of food productivity to be a paramount issue. 

“[Food] production [in China] is a highly subsidized machine,” he said. From shrimp to abalone to pork, food production across the world is improving in efficiency, but not in terms of productivity.

“If you look at the future of farming, one of the keys is how we can maximize productivity and modern genomics,” he added. “To me, that’s the key to feeding nine billion people we support on this planet before we suck it dry.”

Reflecting on the months he spent investigating large food corporations in China and the United States, Steinmetz was cautious about singling out one of the two countries.

“If [China] had the same food habits that we have, the Earth is pretty much screwed,” he said. “So what right do we have to eat differently —  to tell them that they need to eat rice and beans — when we can eat pork? I think we all have to think about our own decisions [and] the takeaway for me is that we all have to take more responsibility for our actions.”

Steinmetz discussed a misconception that he thinks the public has when it comes to organic foods, noting that just because products are organic doesn’t mean that they are necessarily more sustainable. Sometimes going organic requires more water and land resources, which increases the environmental footprint of farms and producers. 

“It also bears close examination as to whether [organic food is a] solution for the masses or it’s only a solution for high-net-worth individuals,” he said. 

Even after investigating the “cruelly efficient” slaughterhouses and facilities of multinational food production companies, Steinmetz doesn’t necessarily see himself as an antagonist, but as an educator. 

“With this food work, I’m not trying to make you miserable with your meat, I’m not trying to make you vegan — I want people to eat with their eyes open,” Steinmetz said. “I think when you buy food, you’re actually making a decision that makes an ecological impact.” 

Contact Shan Reddy at rsreddy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Shan Reddy '22 is The Daily's Financial Officer, Business Team Director and a desk editor for the sports section covering Stanford football and tennis. Contact him at rsreddy@stanford.edu.