Q&A with Trip Leader Steve Byrne
Meet trip leader Steve Byrne, a photographer with a passion for all things outdoors. Steve has managed high school exchange programs in Latin America and Europe, has lead multiple climbing and photography expeditions in the Andes, and has published adventure sports and active lifestyle images in Surfline, the San Francisco Chronicle, and online at National Geographic Travel.
What do you do when you’re not leading trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions?
When not leading student expeditions, I work with National Geographic developing new travel programs and travel around the country sharing the stories of our student travelers with others. This past fall and winter, I traveled around the East Coast visiting schools, connecting with past and future students and their parents. And when I’m not traveling for NG or making new programs, you can find me outside backcountry skiing, climbing, surfing, and photographing my adventures for both personal and commercial projects. I also work with the American Climber Science Program promoting climate and glacier research in alpine environments through photography and direct outreach to the public.
What has been your proudest achievement so far in your career?
Aside from working with National Geographic, my proudest achievement was working as expedition photographer for a 2014 climbing and research expedition to the Cordillera Blanca in Peru with the American Climber Science Program. After a week in the field, following and photographing environmental scientists conducting research on high altitude tropical glaciers, I realized that the years of climbing and shooting, often in difficult conditions and sometimes failing, had helped build my skill set so that when the opportunity to shoot as and expeditions photographer in one of the great ranges of the world came, I was ready for the challenge and able to perform. All of the hard work and experiences that really started in childhood with dreams of being an expedition photographer, finally paid off.
You’ll be leading our Argentina & Chile expedition this summer. What is your connection to this part of the world?
I’ve been visiting Argentina and Chile since I was a freshman in college. In 2003, a professor approached me about traveling to Buenos Aires for a summer program and I enthusiastically jumped at the opportunity. I arrived in Argentina at a time of great optimism during the inauguration of a newly elected president. I quickly fell in love with the rhythm of the culture, Buenos Aires and the landscape. When I left, was determined to return for a full year my junior year. I returned in 2004, lived and studied in Buenos Aires for a year and explored Patagonia for the first time, quickly falling in love with the stark beauty of the landscape. Then in 2011, I quit my office job in San Francisco and returned for three months to climb and explore the Chilean and Argentine Andes from Santiago all the way south to Patagonia. Each time that I return home, my curiosity and love of the region only deepens. I can’t wait to share this part of the world with students.
What part of the Argentina & Chile trip are you most excited for students to experience this summer?
It’s really difficult to find a single part of the trip that I’m excited about–the whole experience is going to be amazing–but I’m excited about exploring the national parks of Chilean Patagonia in winter. The landscape of the region is so dramatic: glaciated peaks rise out of freshwater fjords and glacial lakes, whose water is colored turquoise by the glacial runoff that fills them. Because we will be there in winter, the weather could be anything from crisp and clear to snowy and dramatic. The experiences that we’ll have in the region will be so different from anything anywhere else in the world and I feel fortunate to be able to teach students about photography in such an amazing classroom.
What is your favorite local food in this region?
The diet of Argentina is quite meat focused. Beef is a key part of the culture. During the typical Argentine grill out, known as an “asado”, many courses are served before the main cuts of beef, but all are grilled in the traditional manner over a wood fire. My favorite dish is called provoleta, grilled provolone cheese, cooked in a ceramic dish with fresh oregano sprinkled on top with a drizzle of pungent olive oil. A slice of hot, provoleta on a fresh baguette while sitting around a slow fire with friends at an asado is absolute bliss.
What do you hope students take away with them after traveling with National Geographic?
My goal on all student expeditions is that students learn to tell stories with their cameras, not just snap away. It’s so important that each student returns home understanding and having effectively communicated their experience of exploration through an image. But beyond this main goal, I always hope that students step out of their comfort zones, slow down and listen. In an age of feverish technological connection and sharing, sitting down with a fellow traveler or native, listening to their stories and relating to their lives is a skill that is so important for understanding the nuance and beauty of the human experience. Traveling with National Geographic, we take students to places where this is possible, locations off the beaten path.
What do you think is the best part of a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip?
The real magic of an National Geographic Student Expeditions program is the instruction. We travel to amazing locations, but to be able to teach a creative craft like photography in the context of a place like Patagonia or Buenos Aires is so powerful. As an instructor, I’m always surprised at how students learn both in the field, but also from one another as they explore a location together on assignment. The small moments of a student interacting with a local shop keeper or baker, then finding themselves on an impromptu tour of bakery or market, simply because the host is excited to share their world with an NG student, is amazing to watch, especially as an educator. In these moments, I can see students realizing how fascinating and open the world is if approached with gratitude and genuine interest.
Where is the first place you traveled that left a lasting impression on you?
Yosemite National Park. Millions of people enter Yosemite each year and are humbled, and in 1997 I was one of them. I’m not sure if as a young child reading Geographic I had read a piece photographed by Galen Rowell about Yosemite, but I loved mountains and always dreamt of a place with brilliant cliffs, giant trees and waterfalls. When my uncle took me to Yosemite Valley in July 1997, I felt as though I had walked into the dream I had been having for years. I was 14, but in that moment, I knew that that place was one that I needed to return to and one that would shape my life. Nearly 20 years later, it has. Yosemite taught me to climb, photograph, marvel, and see the connections of the natural world.
What are your hobbies, aside from traveling and sharing your insights with NGSE travelers?
When not traveling for Nat Geo, I am often in the mountains either climbing, photographing or skiing. If I’m not in the hills and am at home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m typically out running trails along the coast or surfing. I am also a big San Francisco Giants fan. It’s my goal each season to listen to or watch each of the 162 games played by the Giants.
What is the next destination on your travel wish list?
Greenland, Antarctica and more of Patagonia. I’m in love with glaciers, their colors and the landscapes that they inhabit. Because of their rapid retreat, I feel like I need to visit them and the areas where they are still dominant before they melt away. There is nothing like watching the world reshape itself before your eyes like glaciers do, and I want to be sure to witness as much as possible before it’s too late.
What item won’t you leave home without when traveling?
I know it’s obvious and cliche, but I can’t leave home without my camera. I must have a means of documenting and telling the story of where I travel, if even just for me. I also always carry floss.
One fun fact about yourself?
I dork out on US presidential history. I’m currently reading a three volume biography of president Lyndon B. Johnson and I can’t get enough.