With Tuesday’s release of A Skier’s Journey: Iran—a visual journey peeling back the curtain to expose the warmth, beauty and culture of the Persian world—we sat down with Vancouver-based photographer and filmmaker Jordan Manley to discuss the divide between the West’s perception and the realities of life in the region.
The film marks the return to life behind the lens for Manley, who sustained a serious head injury while mountain biking that sidelined the project and nearly ended his photography career. Featuring athletes Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots, A Skier’s Journey highlights the virtues of travel itself and the joys of wandering into the unknown.
Why was it important for you to tell the human story, and not just a highlight reel of gnarly skiing?
Previous to making films, I was shooting photos. And I don’t think documenting the sort of pinnacle moments in these sports in terms of athleticism and extremism were as important to me. I was more interested in doing creative photography, documenting experiences and working together with athletes to create images. I think the more extreme photography tends to separate that relationship a little bit. There’s still collaboration of course, but often times the photographers are standing back doing their thing and the athletes doing theirs. I saw a bit of a void where there was a lot of high-end and creative content out there that showed places from all over the world, and amazing terrain and athletes doing their thing, but didn’t really touch on the experiences of being in those destinations.
Iran—not your typical ski destination. Tell us about how the idea came about?
I think from the start of this series, it was always exciting to go to places I didn’t think of as ski destinations. I’d seen some bits and pieces come out of Iran, little videos that were shot from the gondola, with both men and women talking about how things were slightly different up in those mountains, that the rules didn’t always apply, so that interested me.
I get that Iran would be an intriguing and different place to film. But how do you actually go there? It must be full of red tape.
It took a while to figure out who the right team was to facilitate our trip. Essentially we needed visas, but it was a little more involved because we were filming. We had to send the Ministry of Foreign Affairs our professional and personal resumes, photos of our equipment, examples of our work. They decided to let us in, but they didn’t actually say that we needed a film permit. Which kind of stressed me out, because I wanted something in my hand the entire time that said the MFA has given us their stamp of approval. Even though we were given permission, when we were on the ground, we were pretty much operating as tourists. But we had an incredible guide from Tehran. Iran is really well known for its rules, but as he said, these rules can always be bent. So I pushed him quite a bit to see what we could do. It was just a matter of when and where can you take the camera out, and where can and can’t you go. Like in the mosques. They don’t like having cameras around, but more so they don’t like having professional looking cameras around.
Is Iran as dangerous as most people in the West would think?
No, if you’re staying within the lines, it’s very safe. In fact, walking around the streets at night, holding the camera in my hand, in a lot of other places I’d be cautious or put the camera away. In Iran, I probably felt the most safe I’ve ever been in terms of those circumstances. There is petty crime and all that, but at the end of the trip, we all acknowledged that we never had any weird moments with anyone. I mean, you go anywhere in the world, you always have some sort of strange encounter, but we just didn’t really have that. We always had this friendliness and outgoingness.
“I saw a bit of a void where there was a lot of high-end and creative content out there that showed places from all over the world, and amazing terrain and athletes doing their thing, but didn’t really touch on the experiences of being in those destinations.”
Most Westerners think it’s full of tanks and people with machine guns or swords, did you see a lot of militarization?
Not really. When you drive through the country, there are military installations and expressions of militarism and power, but not just wandering around in the streets. That would have been the case in the Iran/Iraq war in the ’80s. There are portraits of men on billboards they call the martyrs who have died in the war. So everyone knows someone who was part of the war, and was affected by it.
What did the people in Iran that you met think about your adventure?
If you look at their politics and their current leader, and the way things are very, very gradually trending there, the people who are interested in having Iran open up to the world and vice versa, are really happy to see people from Canada and Europe and the United States. They see it as kind of symbolic of things beginning to change. And our visit didn’t happen too long after the nuclear agreement, so people were really positive of us being there.
Was it more difficult for Forrest, as an American?
Iran has a really complicated relationship with the U.S. The Iranian people really love American people, but they don’t necessarily love the U.S. State. And it really depends on who you talk to. There would be cab drivers speaking in Farsi, telling our guide that when he learned that Forrest was American and sitting in the back seat, he was especially glad that he was there. Forrest was apprehensive to go on the trip initially—to see the ‘Death to America’ murals painted on the walls of downtown Tehran, but then also experience this really human, warm welcoming was an interesting experience.
One thing I really like about the video, is it showed the local people smiling, welcoming and happy—a stark contrast to how Western media portrays the region. It was this lightness rather than heaviness. Are there other misconceptions you feel the world has wrong?
I don’t know if the world has it wrong, I just think there’s a lot more than what we hear about. I mean, the story about their human rights situation, as reported daily, all that is very much real. It is very difficult to be a minority in Iran, or a dissident, but not everyone wants to launch nuclear missiles. I was actually prepared for that friendliness. I live in a building in North Van that’s predominantly inhabited by Iranian people, so it wasn’t so much of a surprise. I think it was a surprise that people weren’t only welcoming, but they were happy that we were there. Every day, people would go out of their way to welcome us, whether we were on the ski hill or somewhere else. I mean you get looks everywhere you go with Chad, because he’s got long, blond hair. But it was funny, we went to China right after, and people wouldn’t even look over at us. We didn’t attract any attention at all, whereas in Iran, people were certainly curious.
“To see the ‘Death to America’ murals painted on the walls of downtown Tehran, but then also experience this really human, warm welcoming was an interesting experience.”
Is there a skiing infrastructure in Iran?
They have a whole bunch of ski hills, predominately in the Alborz range, which runs all the way across the country’s north. We visited three of them, basically all next to each other—Shemshak, Dizin, and Darbandsar. Skiing is pretty established in Iran; it’s been going on since I think around the ’60s. The Shah at the time was a big advocate of skiing. Both he and his wife were heavily influenced by Europe and spent a lot of time there, and started really promoting skiing. After the revolution, I think things changed, the ski federation didn’t have the same resources as it did under the Shah. But when we were skiing around there, there were all these young ski racers in spandex and carving skis ripping it up, really beautiful skiers, so it was really cool to see. It didn’t fit the trajectory of the episode in the end, but there’s definitely a really talented pool of skiers there.
Some years ago, you suffered a serious concussion while mountain biking that derailed the film for a time. What happened?
I hit my head, and at that point I wasn’t sure how long the symptoms were going to last—the headaches and vision problems. I had trouble focusing. Most activities would bring on these symptoms, so reading, and watching screens, even walking. I wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with you this long without blowing the rest of my day. So I spent a lot of time just sitting there, and going on short walks. Eventually I could walk more than two blocks.
That’s got to be both frustrating and scary.
Yeah, the difficult thing was not knowing how long it would last. And most people’s bodies don’t react that way; most could probably hit their head as hard as I did and been OK within a month or so. But for me, it ended up lasting about three years. So clearly the consequence was that I wasn’t able to ski, let alone carry around camera equipment for three weeks.
Did you think A Skier’s Journey was done for good at that point?
I didn’t really know. I was making progress, and thought I had recovered, then I bonked my head on a shelf, and it really set me back. Which was mysterious in itself, because it wasn’t really a big hit. We’d been planning a season, and that got canceled. My recovery was extra slow at that point. It was another year that I didn’t work. I had a whole bunch of great experiences, but I didn’t work. And then I started slowly doing photography assignments again and building up my stamina. That was huge part of it, just the energy; it took so long for that to come back.
That’s got to weigh pretty heavily on you, if a bump on a shelf can set you back so much, a trip to the mountains of Iran or China sounds pretty daunting.
That’s just it. The challenge of this last year was trying to make these films, get the footage, and putting all the pieces together—just the rigors of filmmaking in a short period of time in a place that’s far, far away. But added to that was this constant dialogue going in my head, this self-assessment, like how am I going to feel tomorrow when I get through this day?
You’ve said “my relationship to risk is very different.” Can you explain?
I consider myself a pretty good mountain biker and skier, and quite proficient and passionate about being a good technical rider and skier, but at this point it’s really not worth it for me to pursue that in the same way. So I’ve slowed down a lot.
“The difficult part was that when I couldn’t work, it stripped away a big piece of my identity. These sports and the filmmaking are all wrapped up into one in my career, so when I couldn’t do either, it was really hard.”
Was it hard to pull back?
Well, it was necessary. I have several friends who have been through injuries like this, and have all reacted differently. Some have gone back to really pushing it, but to me it’s not worth it. The difficult part was that when I couldn’t work, it stripped away a big piece of my identity. These sports and the filmmaking are all wrapped up into one in my career, so when I couldn’t do either, it was really hard. I really enjoy skiing, I still love it, especially backcountry skiing, but because of that whole injury process, it’s hard to fully re-ignite that passion. That’s the honest truth.
Do you think that concussions are getting the appropriate amount of attention in actions sports?
They’re getting more attention. Outside just did a big piece on concussions, basically having this very same conversation. I think we still share and celebrate a lot of ridiculous behavior. You see a lot of videos on Facebook of people slamming themselves pretty hard. I don’t like seeing any of that stuff, because I’m not sure people really understand the long-term consequences. In general, we don’t really know what the consequences are, but we know more than we did. It’s a complicated thing, because its amazing to see these people push themselves, and we want to celebrate these victories of athleticism and overcoming odds, but at the same time, it’s hard for me to watch 16-to-20-year-old guys just hammering themselves.
“I’d still like to have one foot in the door of the ski world, but life is short and I’ve done the ski thing for quite a while. I feel like I want to make a contribution in other ways.”
So the final season, why pull the plug? Couldn’t you keep going?
Yeah, we could. There’s a handful of places I think would make great films, but I think it just comes back to my time away from skiing and making A Skier’s Journey, I developed different passions. I think it’s just time to explore those and put my energy in a different place. I’d still like to have one foot in the door of the ski world, but life is short and I’ve done the ski thing for quite a while. I feel like I want to make a contribution in other ways.
What’s next for you?
During my recovery I got introduced to fly fishing, and for a long time I’ve been interested in Pacific salmon. I became obsessed with their whole world. So I’m interested in telling stories about people who have relationships with the fish and the coastal ecosystem. Things are not looking good, and I want to put my energy into something that’s meaningful. Not that making ski films isn’t meaningful in some sense, but I think it’s time to make a positive contribution in terms of our dwindling fish and coastal environment.