70 Degrees West - Telling the Stories that Matter
By Ethan Stewart
They say journalism is dead and, well, who can blame them. More and more of us are content to find out about the world via half-cooked news stories pulled from the fires of research way too soon in the name of feeding the beast of this brave new world’s 24-hour news cycle. The masses prefer cable news that echoes the voices in their head rather than unbiased source reporting that forces you to think and think critically. 140-character transmissions are the new black in this “information” age and, as welcome as this may be to our rapidly emerging ADD-tendencies, I am not sure it is a good thing when it comes to saving the world.
[All photos by Justin Lewis]
Enter Justin Lewis and Michelle Stauffer, a duo of fearless story tellers from the great state of California who are living proof that world saving journalism is far from extinct. This April, after more than half a year of semi-secret planning, the pair lit out on an adventure of truly epic and important proportions. Lewis, toting his camera gear (a couple hundred pounds of it for those of you keeping score at home) and Stauffer, armed with her pen and notebook and contagiously compassionate heart, flew east and then north to a carefully selected rendezvous point along the 70 degree west line of longitude. Specifically speaking, they were headed to the town of Qaanaaq along the west coast of Greenland, a chilly sort of outpost that, sitting some 700-plus miles north of the Arctic Circle, is the northern most municipality in the world.
Talking on the phone during a layover along the way, Lewis was a mixture of excitement and nerves about soon realizing phase one of a plan that he and Michelle first outlined on a bar napkin one evening last fall. “Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. We really don’t know what is in store for us when we get there. We know it is going to be cold but, other than that, we have no idea. We are just going to go slow, try to make some friends, and then take it from there,” he admitted. “In my experience, keeping it loose is the way to go. It is the people you meet that are going to help you find what you are looking for.”
You see, for Justin and Michelle, Qaanaaq is just the first stop for their photo documentary project, the aptly named 70 Degrees West. Over the course of the next year or so, they plan to travel along that unique line of longitude, one that runs through virtually all of the types of ecosystems the world has to offer, gathering stories about the people and places they encounter along the way. Taking the slow road through various ports of call that include, amongst others, Baffin Island in Canada, Bonaire in the Caribbean, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, Chile’s Patagonia, and Antartica, the couple’s purpose is two-fold: to provide an unflinching and honest account of the what life really looks like in these mostly subsistence-based regions and, in Stauffer’s words, “to find that human thread that connects us all.” In short, what they are after, is creating awareness, real and undeniable awareness about the way we, as a species, are forever connected to each other and the wonders and resources of this planet. As Justin summed it up, “Look, at the end of all this, if we have inspired even five people to make more conscious decisions in their everyday life, then we have succeeded.”
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can join Justin and Michelle on their journey at 70degreeswest.com.
Ethan Stewart is a reporter for the Santa Barbara Independent. Born and raised on Cape Cod, he's called Santa Barbara home off and on since the great El Niño winter of 1998. A passionate explorer of Mother Nature's more open and wild places, Stewart reckons Boston Red Sox baseball is the closest thing he has to religion and considers anything ocean-related to be a mandatory daily activity.