As night fell so, too, did the thermometer, as a shivering photographer hunkered in the market square across from the Grand Mosque at Djenné, Mali.
Sean White was in the City of Clay, about 350 kilometres southwest of Timbuktu, to shoot moving images for a television program. As he travelled the globe, it was the Victoria photographer’s routine to collect time-lapse images for a personal project. He had yet to develop a concrete idea, but knew he could not pass up the opportunity to gather images in so exotic a locale.
He had hired some boys to watch the camera overnight, but they tracked him down at his hotel to say they’d been ordered home by their parents. If he wanted images of the mosque, the largest adobe building in the world, Mr. White would have to spend the night outside with the camera.
“You’re in the desert, so in the daytime it’s scorching heat,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared for overnight.”
The city went to sleep, leaving the littered grounds of the central market to animals. Dogs chased each other. Donkeys rolled in the red dirt. Rats scavenged scraps of discarded food.
Before sunrise, the first call to prayer could be heard from the minaret. Life in the market square began to stir. In a land where people have little to share save their generosity, a woman cooking a traditional breakfast of millet porridge offered him a sample. “My morning pick-me-up,” he said. Having gone without sleep, he faced a full-day schedule of shooting.
The otherworldly shots he got that night are among the most spectacular in his stunning six-minute time-lapse movie titled Terra Sacra Time Lapses. The non-narrative film, taking for its title the Latin for “sacred earth,” had its world premiere at the Imax Theatre in Victoria 10 days ago. (The film has since been posted on Vimeo and YouTube.) The audience so enjoyed it, they demanded an immediate second screening.
The high-definition images were captured in 24 nations on all seven continents over a six-year period, as Mr. White worked for the television programs Ancient Megastructures, Battle Castle and Travels to the Edge with Art Wolfe. The time-lapse stills include images of King penguins at Fortuna Bay on South Georgia Island; tourists at Al Khazneh (The Treasury) at Petra, Jordan; and crawling worshippers circumambulating the Boudhanath Stupa at Kathmandu.
He also shot Mount Fuji in Japan, the Diamond Gorge in Australia and the spiny forest of Madagascar.
With a rousing soundtrack by B.C. composer Roy Milner, the result is a breathtaking tour of natural and man-made wonders.
Mr. White, 34, recently moved to Tofino with his wife, Deddeda, a photographer and Globe and Mail contributor. Mr. White only took up photography after high school, when he snapped images of a mountain-climbing expedition with friends in Nepal. He then enrolled at the Western Academy of Photography in his Victoria hometown, where he was inspired to become a photojournalist after a one-day session with Ted Grant, the legendary lensman. Mr. White’s career with daily newspapers did not last long, as he was soon shooting for such prestigious publications as National Geographic Adventure. He also created award-winning adventure films such as Beyond Gravity, about mountain climbers, and Into the Thunder Dragon, about a pair of mountain unicyclists.
The photographer has released Sacra Terra Time Lapses as a noncommercial film, a celebration of the planet.
Why did he decide to go with a time-lapse technique?
“It’s a distortion of reality,” he said. “You see time passing. It’s a dream-like view. You don’t see things pass like that in real life. It’s a different way of looking at the world.”
Not all shoots went as planned. At Angkor Wat, a Cambodian assistant was told to guard the camera. Alas, he was not told the camera had a wide-angle lens and was shooting the passage of time. At the end of the day when Mr. White looked at the images shot in his absence, he saw the assistant step into the frame, sit on steps, and push a hat over his eyes for a nap.
“To get the good stuff,” Mr. White said, “you have to make all the mistakes.”