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  Field Notes From
Empty Quarter

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Empty Quarter On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

George Steinmetz

Empty Quarter On Assignment

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From Author

Donovan Webster

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by George Steinmetz


Empty Quarter On Assignment Photographer Empty Quarter On Assignment Photographer
Empty Quarter

Field Notes From Photographer
George Steinmetz

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    The Empty Quarter is one of the largest blank spots on our small planet. It's also a place that is extremely difficult to visit, both politically and physically. So it was an extraordinary privilege to cross this vast desert, and I took great pride in capturing photographs of it from an aerial perspective. It was also exhilarating to realize that I was one of the first people to fly low over such an otherworldly landscape.

    During the end of my assignment the Yemeni military detained me and the group I was traveling with at a police station for a couple of days before letting us go. I had six weeks worth of film—my entire assignment—with me in one expedition case and the police kept demanding it. Now certainly they could have come and taken it from me, but damned if I was going to hand my film over. So we were having kind of a standoff, or test of wills, and that probably made the police suspect that I had something top secret.
    Then I got a call from someone at the U.S. Embassy on my satellite phone, and the military wanted to know how they knew where I was. At that point they seemed certain that we were spying, so they interrogated all of us separately, asking, "Did you fly over to the barracks?" I didn't even know what they were talking about. I felt like saying that if the U.S. military wanted to know what they were doing they could direct a satellite over them and probably read the newspaper over their shoulder. But I couldn't tell them that because then they would ask, "How did you know that?"  A little education in this situation was dangerous.

    Arab hospitality is tremendous, but I found that it could also be an impediment to moving around the Empty Quarter quickly. In fact, sometimes we would try to avoid government-organized Arab settlements entirely so we could keep going. If we stopped, we'd have to stay for half a day while they killed a whole goat, cooked it, and then served it up on a bed of rice. We were also traveling with quite a large group in four different cars, and often we were accompanied by a two-car military escort. So showing up at someone's door with 20 people also felt like it would be an imposition, considering all the hospitality sure to follow.


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