Documentary features horses of Sable Island (CAN)

Fashion photographer aims lens at a different kind of beauty

By SEAN FLINN
Globe and Mail Update
April 4, 2008 at 4:25 PM EDT
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Halifax — Islands are magnetic. They keep people coming back to their shores, physically and imaginatively.

This is especially true for fashion photographer Roberto Dutesco. The former Montreal artist, who was born and raised in Bucharest and now lives in New York, is the subject of an upcoming TV documentary, Chasing Wild Horses, about his fascination with Sable Island and the beautiful wild horses that have inhabited the island for more than 200 years.

Dutesco is chasing the beauty and necessity of unspoiled places in the world. As he says in the program, “Beauty has a way of teaching us what matters in life.” He says that his first trip to Sable Island, a spit of North Atlantic sand 42 kilometres long by roughly 1.5 kilometres wide — roughly the size of Manhattan, he points out — came in 1994 as a result of watching another program about the fabled place off the coast of Nova Scotia.

He returned in 1997 and then 2007 for three excursions, and TV shoots, spread over summer and fall. On the phone, Dutesco talks thoughtfully and enthusiastically — the same way he does in the non-narrated film — between puffs on a cigar. “They have a mind of their own. It’s that mind or energy that’s attracted me back,” he says of the island’s horses. “It’s almost like a magnet.”

The photographer, who’s worked for Vogue, GQ, Elle, Chatelaine and Flare magazines, wants his pictures of the animals to move people and remind them that “it is important to leave some things alone. I’m saying that with Sable Island we still have places, after so many pitfalls, we can leave alone.”

Sable Island, located about 160 kilometres southeast of the Nova Scotia mainland, is protected under the Canada Shipping Act. There is no tourism to the island — access is strictly regulated by the Canadian Coast Guard, and all visitors must apply for special permission to travel there. Dutesco and the documentary crew from Halifax-based Arcadia Entertainment struggled with the paradox of having to spend time in such an isolated place, in order to expose its beauty to others, knowing all along that very few other people would ever get to see it in person.

“Certainly it’s crossed my mind,” says Dutesco, who’s exhibited his various Sable Island photographs in many places, from a street in Montreal, to the United Nations, to his own gallery in New York. “I have to answer that question every day, ‘Okay, how do you get there?’ When you tell people they cannot go, you get quite an interesting reaction: It’s aw, but also appreciation.”

Jessica Brown, the producer of Chasing Wild Horses, puts it more bluntly. “Even with a lot of money, you can’t go there.”

Watching scenes of champagne-sipping gallerygoers at Dutesco’s opening last November, it’s easy to imagine that the question comes up repeatedly. Even with permission, getting there is hard enough. “I tried to get a boat out there, which would’ve taken 14 hours, and a helicopter,” Brown says. “Of course the only helicopters allowed to go out there are from Exxon-Mobil.” (They fly directly to offshore rigs and don’t land on the island.)

She booked special two-engine, short-takeoff-and-landing planes for the hour-and-a-half flight there and back. There are other restrictions once you’re on the island. “You’re not allowed to touch [the horses] with your hands. But if they want to come touch you, you can just let them,” director Matt Trecartin says. In one scene, a beaming Dutesco is nuzzled by one of Sable’s equine residents. Trecartin remembers Dutesco “trying to direct [the horses], as he would in a fashion shoot, but he can’t move them or touch them.” Zoe Lucas, a biologist and naturalist who’s lived and worked on Sable Island since 1971, lauded Dutesco’s connection to the island in an e-mail.

“While photographing the horses Roberto spent much of his time being still, watching and listening, and feeling the landscape. He understood that being there without altering the horses’ behaviour is the best kind of relationship, and perhaps by allowing himself to be calm and undemanding in their presence, he was in some ways able to sense and experience the summer landscape as they do.”

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Chasing Wild Horses starts airing April 6, at 8 p.m. ET, on Bravo!

Special to The Globe and Mail

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