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Exposed | Erich Schlegel

If you happened to find yourself stranded on, say, Matagorda Island, you’d want to tap the skills of someone who knows how to pitch a tent, rustle up dinner, and generally navigate the wild. That would be photojournalist Erich Schlegel, who has traveled the globe capturing the human story in outdoor adventure for the better part of 30 years. Who better to serve as tour guide for our outdoors issue? This month Schlegel heads out to document the grueling Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile canoe and kayak race from San Marcos all the way to the coastal town of Seadrift. For the remainder of the year, he will work with Ultralite Films on a documentary film titled The Disappearing Rio Grande, capturing the geography, landscape, and culture influenced by this historic Texas waterway from its source in Colorado to its end in the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville.

But photography wasn’t always the direction Schlegel’s professional life was headed. After completing his undergraduate business degree from Southern Methodist University, he thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps in international business consulting, a career that had Schlegel’s family stationed in Latin America for much of his young life. But before applying for a master’s degree in business, he was stopped short by his father, who suggested a different path.

“One day, he asked me what I’d really like to do,” says Schlegel. “I’d always been interested in photography, but I had never really thought about it as a career to pursue. I looked at him and said, ‘I’d kind of like to get into photography.’ And he said, ‘Then why don’t you do that?’”

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Schlegel credits his father’s response as being the best advice he’s ever received. “He wanted me to answer the question for myself, and I will thank him for the rest of my life for that.”

He got his first full-time gig as a photographer for the Brownsville Herald, covering everything from traffic accidents to sporting events, including a bullfight in Matamoros, Mexico, that almost ended his life when one of the bulls jumped its pen and chased Schlegel around the ring.

“There were a few guys there from the Herald, and when they saw me running for my life, it really earned me some chops with them,” Schlegel recalls.

As he matured in his career, he spent a few more years in Brownsville before moving on to a job at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and later landing a spot at the Dallas Morning News in 1988. During his tenure there, he covered three Super Bowls, nine Olympic Games, and a smattering of international conflicts in Bosnia, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. In 2000, he moved to Austin to work remotely for the paper, but in 2008, following the economic recession, he faced company-wide layoffs and began a career in freelance photography.

“It has not been a smooth road,” says Schlegel. “It’s a feast or famine sort of career, and I don’t sugar coat it when I talk to young people who are interested in getting into this. But if you can make it work, it can be very rewarding.”

8 Questions for Erich

How would you characterize the type of photography you do?

I’d probably call it outdoor photojournalism, but it’s not just landscape photography. I like to key in on people. It’s the human aspect of the places that really bring a story to life.

What are some of the favorite places you’ve visited?

I have three. I love Belize for its variety of recreation and culture. You’ve got rivers, mountains, caves, and barrier reefs along with the Mayan ruins and culture. It has some of the best snorkeling, diving, and fishing all in this tiny little place. I love Cuba for photography because it really is like going back in time to the 1950s, yet it’s just a few hours away. It’s surreal. And I also love Nepal. You can never grasp the majesty of the Himalayas until you see it first hand.

Is there a favorite place you love to photograph?

That’s easy. Texas. I’ve traveled all over the world, but I love coming home. I could go shoot a beach in Morocco, but with this Texas Water Safari, I can shoot the Texas coast right here, and people really don’t realize what a wonderful resource it is. I like going to places where not many people go like Caddo Lake or remote places of West Texas.

What kind of snacks do you always have on hand?

I never go on a trip without Jolly Ranchers. I think I packed five bags with me on my trip to the Amazon. (Regular and Passion Fruit varieties.) That and beef jerky, if I can pack it. There's also a new Austin-based company making meat-based energy bars called Epic Bars that you can get at Whole Foods. They have beef, bison, turkey, and lamb flavors and are pretty good if you can't have beef jerky.

What do you like most about your job?

Being able to find the real, honest emotion from people in some of the most amazing places. It’s great when you can photograph a beautiful place, but it really means something when you can balance that with the human component of what’s happening.

What do you like least about what you do?

The unpredictability of freelance life. You’re always wondering where the next job will come from.

What’s your favorite time of day to shoot?

I’m a morning person, so I’d have to say early morning, before anything has been disturbed from the night.

What would be your dream job?

I’ve always wanted to go back to Nepal and do a story on the sherpas in the Himalayas that they call the Icefall Doctors. They maintain the trail between the “Base Camp” and “Camp 1” on Mount Everest. Other than the death zone about 28,000 feet, it’s the most dangerous place on the mountain.

Credits

Photography courtesy of Erich Schlegel

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