Imagine tall, tall mountains! The harsh storms, the freezing cold, and the terrifying depth of the abyss between glaciers… Still, there are some mountaineers who do not shy away from climbing these mountains. What drives them to embark on such challenging journeys? Is this an implied rise against the rules of nature? Is it to test human strength? Is it a quest to find one’s self, or a display of courage and strength? Renan Öztürk is one of those few people who can answer these questions for us.
While Öztürk’s interest in different cultures encourages him to explore new landscapes, his journey to Nepal, home to Everest, the summit of the world, also initiated his impressive career as a mountaineer. His adventure, which began with a group of mountaineers he joined while studying biology at the University of Colorado, continues with him as a mountain climber admired by many. This wonderful man is a photographer who presents us with artistic pictures of natural scenes –the kind of scenes most of us will never visit. Moreover, he’s also an award-winning documentarist admired by many risk-takers. Thanks to his recordings, we both witness him successfully combining various disciplines in challenging, even deadly, natural conditions and are mesmerized by how he pushes human limits.
The Himalayas have an undeniable influence on Öztürk’s passion for mountain climbing. When he was in Nepal, he was deeply impressed by the locals in the mountain villages situated on tall mountains and how humble, pure, and respectful of nature they were. He learned their language, which further strengthened his interaction with the Nepalese living at the foot of these giant mountains. This was how he decided to tell the story of the connection between humankind and the Earth through geography. In his role as a cinematographer and co-director of the movie Sherpa, he masterfully utilized this deep knowledge.
Öztürk chooses to be a part of nature on the borders, or even in the extreme. It doesn't make much of a difference to him whether it's on a desert, in the sky, or on a glacier. When we ask him if he’s on a quest to find the essence of life, or if it’s the drive to push boundaries that motivates him to climb and travel, he replies, “I love how this question is asked because it make me think about my deeper motivation. I do believe that you truly find yourself when pushed to your limits physically and mentally. For me, that happens when I’m telling stories that need to be told for cultures which need a voice amplified or an environment that needs a public push for awareness. Even in the hardest times, this is what gives me energy, and this is the essence of my adventures.”
Öztürk explains his habit of photographing situations most people find dangerous and risky with the existence of an important story that needs to be told. In fact, he was not discouraged even by an accident which almost cost him his life. During a climb in Wyoming in 2011, he fell and was seriously hurt, which almost brought his mountain climbing career to an end. While most thought that he would no longer be able to climb at high altitudes due to damaged brain vessels, he managed to successfully finish a climb as challenging as Meru through incredible perseverance and determination. Öztürk explains the secret behind taking such risks as the legacy of his climbing mentor and his goal to tell the story of friendship and partnership. It’s an interesting thing, the trust between a climber and his companion. After all, it’s just a small rope that ties them together yet it creates a great bond of trust. One immediately thinks, “Why would someone chase after these stories that stretch as far as the peaks of mountains?”
At this point, Öztürk emphasizes something he cares as deeply about as stories: “Helping document cultures that may not be around forever.” This is the reason he hits the shutter button. He takes photographs to tell a more essential, bigger story. This purpose is what takes him beyond the concept of “displayed images” on social media. Thanks to his standing witness, cultures that may not be around forever in the face of climate change and globalization earn a place in the memory of the future. That’s why, in the stories he tells through photographs or film, nature and humankind are inseparable -they are intertwined like the double helix of DNA. They are together in their fight for survival, which elevates Öztürk’s works to the level of the mountains he climbs.
The juries and the audience who have watched Öztürk’s works have not shied away from praising him. Meru, which was filmed on the Himalayas and featured him as cinematographer, received the Documentary Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. In 2012, Öztürk was nominated for the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He also contributed to award-winning films Down to Nothing, Tower of Ennedi, and Samsara.
Of course, it’s not easy to win these awards or to be a part of the team which does because it’s the mountains that set the rules. For someone who doesn’t accept them, climbing can easily turn into a nightmare. This is the reason Renan Öztürk respects the rules of the mountains and never forgets what nature whispers in his ears even when he’s challenging the peaks. When we ask him if he’s ever been frightened or drained while climbing and how he dealt with it, he says, “There isn't a single moment that I am not afraid while doing this. Normally, I use the beauty of the light at sunset and sunrise and that childish excitement to give me the energy and courage I need to keep going in most of the hardest situations.” He also adds, “At this point in my life, I think it’s better to just be grateful for the opportunities I have. I experience a spectrum of things from the mountains to the ocean. And I keep my eyes wide open to share the beauty in everything from small, unexpected things to the planet's larger conservation issues.”
When Renan Öztürk reaches the top, he does not surrender to that dizzying sense of accomplishment because he knows that the top is just half of the journey. It’s not a success if the climber cannot manage to descend safely. He does not want to repeat the major climbs in Meru or Nepal either; he’s looking for new thrills. Like all die-hard climbers and a passionate artist leaving a mark on the empty canvas, he’s searching for mountains that have never been climbed before to draw new limits. When he finds them, he not only takes photographs or makes films but also paints the view. For him, these paintings are mostly representations of “impressionistic moments in time.” It’s a method to share those wild places with others and to explain the question of why he does it in a way that is beyond words. For Öztürk, painting is another language spoken with the coming together of the eyes that see the mountains and the skilled hands that climb them.
Turkish poet Cemal Süreya writes, “Greetings to you, mighty situations and peak moments / If one sees Mount Ağrı even once, he learns a respect for nature / He understands the truth which he cannot get from the Sea of Marmara in twenty years / By gazing at the ocean for five minutes.” Every time Renan Öztürk reaches the top, he looks at the world down below and, once more, understands that the world and humankind should exist together. He expresses this emotion to those waiting at the foot of mountains through photographs and documentaries.
Renan Öztürk is intent on concentrating on projects about Turkey in the near future. He knows that Anatolia is magnificently rich in terms of mountains. He hopes that more people, including himself, explore the mountain climbing potential of Turkey in coming years. Stating that he’s always had wonderful experiences flying with Turkish Airlines, Öztürk plans to finish his first project with the airline soon. The mountaineer, who knows no limits, says he’s very impressed with the brand’s taste in storytelling and that he cannot wait to share the project with the Turkish people and the entire world soon.