WWU Spotlight – Project One: Landslide

WWU Spotlight – Project One: Landslide

Oh boy, where to start with this one… I guess we can begin with the original premise for this whole shebang that you’ll see unravel on the blog in the next half year or so. I was approached a few months ago by fellow video creative and good friend, Andy Lahmann, to work on a large scale project with him. Western Washington University has a number of interesting and front-of-the-field type programs students are currently working within. The kind of programs and results that are definitely worth bragging about to some degree. WWU’s idea is to generate a website bundled with video and photographic content that we be used to present these various programs to the public, alumni, and future university donors. Along with the website, they’ll present the media via iPads while out and about talking to people of interest. One problem lay in their way – they need eye catching video and photos. Solution – Andy and myself. So, we’ve been assigned to make this stuff happen for them.

Four of these programs are going to be our focus for the launch of this showcasing project. They range from out-in-nature geological to in-the-labs highly technical, and will place us in some interesting locations and situations to produce our visual work. First up to bat was a program centered around a geological phenomenon. Back in the 1930’s, just outside the town of Bellingham, a large landslide started to take place. I say “started,” because it’s still going on, it’s still sliding. Yes, this is a slow-motion, mile-long landslide 80 years in the making. But that isn’t the weird part. It starts to get a bit odd when you analyze the water runoff that is flowing through the giant thing. Turns out that the sediment laden water contains amazingly high levels of asbestos. You know… that poisonous crap that was wildly popular in the groovy 1970’s home construction, touted for it’s fire resistance and insulating properties (among others). A rushing creek of water flows through the slide, picking up the asbestos and carrying it down to the surrounding valley. The contents of the creek are so dangerous that it’s playing a large roll in the destruction/contamination of the farm lands below the hillside. So the earth mass keeps sliding, grinding-up and producing ample loose poisonous sediment (yummy), feeding the water, and playing a continual negative roll on the community. It’s much like a glacier as it slowly moves across the earth. This is why the WWU geologist are out there, in fact, people from around the world have travelled there to study this anomaly, as it’s apparently confusing the crap out of everyone as to why here and why not everywhere else. I guess this type of event is only happening in a couple spots in the world. And who said Bellingham is just a college town…

Turns out that the sediment laden water contains amazingly high levels of asbestos. You know… that poisonous crap that was wildly popular in the groovy 1970’s home construction, touted for it’s fire resistance and insulating properties (among others).

So on our first capturing adventure we went, to visit this landslide with a WWU crew. We arrived to the end of the twisting road, the closest we could get to the slide by car, and we mounted our backpacks (full of our production gear) to traverse the last part of the journey on foot. BTW, I will also be blogging next about my backpack setup for my photo gear, and what I decided to take with me and why (for all you photogs out there), so stay tuned for that. It would be another 15 minute hike up the heavily wooded hillside before we’d reach the bottom of the slide, and where we’d do the brunt of our visual documentation. The lead professor for this project gave us a few quick pointers as we were about to begin our hike, reminding us to use these special brushes to clean off our shoes when we returned back to the cars. The creek bed would be very thick with clay, clay which traps the asbestos, and we wouldn’t want to track it back home. When you hear things like this, little flags start popping up in your head. You mind starts to churn…hold on a sec here… so what have I just got myself into and will I be unknowingly diving headfirst into a health hazard zone? The entire production team was quickly briefed on the landslide situation prior to, but it obviously hit a little more on the real side when you are being instructed on best health practices when you are presently standing in the zone. Questions started to quickly arise from just about everyone in regards to our education of this place, which was pretty funny to be a part of.


It clearly didn’t hit me that we’d be that far up in the hills. We are in the middle of March so temps would be a little chilly, but not too bad, that is… in town. Up in the hills it was a lot colder. Forgetting to connect the dots, I wore just cargo pants and a sweatshirt, and there I was hiking through snow in the middle of nowhere… great. Fortunately a 40lb pack and hiking up hill will keep you on the warm side of things, until you stop.

Arriving at the location, we quickly realized how little room there was to work in. The bottom of the landslide is starting to squeeze itself into a ravine, with steep, heavily wooded sides, leaving the creek bed as the only workable clearing for us to occupy. Ironically, this mile-long landslide, hundreds of feet wide, left us with really only a 20-30 foot wide creek bed at the bottom of it to really capture the WWU team doing their research. The landslide itself isn’t something you can climb on, as the bottom of it is a giant mass of super soft clay and dirt. The professor told us that if we were to try and hop onto it, we’d immediately sink up to our waists. The creek spits right out of the bottom of the slide, and this is where the bulk of the studying is taking place, measuring water and surrounding soil samples, as well as documenting the slow progression of the moving slide.

Once we had our heads wrapped around the possible shooting spaces, we went to work documenting the students doing their various research, as well as the surrounding environment. Everyone was tired and cold and there was little in regards of visual impact  for us to capture from this perspective. You see, the slide really bulges at the bottom, with a very steep rise, so you don’t see much from the creek bed’s perspective. We were hoping that from the bottom of this thing you could look up and see this super impressive vista of a slide, but upon arrival we quickly learned that you really can’t see anything at all. You just know that there is a mile worth of mass headed that way and the resulting impact and concern is the water runoff which is flowing right by us. This is where the helicopter comes in.  From the ground, all of the attention was paid to the WWU students doing their research, but from up in the air, we’d be able to document the slide in it’s entirety and get up high enough to see over that giant front lip. Both Andy and myself hiked back down the mountain and took a turn going up in a helicopter to take some aerials for the slide.

Not only is this thing a mile long, but from bottom to top there is over a 500 foot elevation change, so… a 50 story building worth of height to this thing.

When you get up in a helicopter you completely loose perspective on size. From up there, miles can easily be confused and recognized as very small portions of space. It’s very disorienting the first few trips up, and you are constantly having to ask the pilot where the hell you are. Everything looks amazingly and completely different. We were over the slide before I knew it, and from the air, the thing didn’t look large at all… that is, until I was able to finally spot the WWU crew at the base. They were ants in relation, and then I was immediately able to appreciate the sheer scale of the mass of earth creeping down the hillside. Not only is this thing a mile long, but from bottom to top there is over a 500 foot elevation change, so… a 50 story building worth of height to this thing. My goal from the chopper was to focus mainly on the slide, snagging some shots for both visual impact for our media, but also to snag some solid high resolution photos for the researchers’ work. It’s not every day they have a chopper at their disposal, so I saw this as a way I could get them some solid photos for their work. I was also able to zoom in and snag a couple of the ant-sized crew working in the creek bed. You couldn’t really tell what they were doing beyond some kind of organized function.



The water is truly thick with sediment. The creek looks more like it’s carrying milk than it is water, as you can see by the photos. I captured photos of the water at the mouth of the landslide as well as miles downstream, yet the water seemed just as murky.

Most of this specific trip for me, photographically speaking, was much more of an event-like documentation process. Whereas I’m usually busting out a lot of lights to create more ideal lighting conditions, this was much more of a capture what you can manage. There was just about zero opportunity to even find more ideal ambient light conditions because of the restricted nature of the limited space. Back lit, front lit,  side lit… you kinda just shot what was there, and not much working around your subjects for better light. I did bring some hot shoe flashes along for the journey, as well as some other gear that I’ll share in my next blog post, and I was able to use lighting for a few portrait shots of the students doing research.

These kinds of gigs are always fun and informational experience. Being a photographer in general has placed me in some locations and situations that I would never find myself in otherwise. You also end up learning a ton about things that you never knew existed. Future programs that we will be capturing will be much more flexible as far as our creative capturing flexibility goes, and I’ll be able to control lighting conditions, which I’m looking forward to. So keep a lookout for more on this WWU project!