Pete Muller @pete_k_muller

“This is how it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” Visual artist and National Geographic Fellow.

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Pete Muller photos and videos

2 weeks ago

SOUND ON: On a bright morning near summer's end, as cool winds stir the pines, I crush wintergreen between my fingers. As I have since I was a boy, I hold the leaves to my nose and savor their fresh, distinctive smell. It grows in shimmering green patches on the slopes of our family camp in New Hampshire, a place that feels more associated with the smell of burning wood, bacon and pine. Wintergreen always felt like a refreshing secret. It was here that my Swedish grandfather showed the mountains to my father and he, in turn, showed them to my sister and me. We drank from streams and cross ridge lines along which we extended our palms toward the clouds that enveloped us. For too long I strayed from these landscapes, drawn to places distant and different. I had things to engage and uncover both within and beyond. These days, my father's legs fail him and he spends days reading and writing on the porch. The wintergreen and water are beyond his range. We sit and talk in the shade, sipping coffee and eating sweets. With each year it is more evident that the tall, New England pines have shaped us both. #father #men #newengland #newhampshire #manhood #traditional #family #dad

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last month

SOUND ON. By the peak of South Sudan's dry season, the cattle camps migrate far beyond the roads. The men tasked with maintaining the herds move in accordance with water and grazing grounds. To find the camp, we pick up a rotating series of young boys to guide us. Excited to ride in a car, they hop in to direct us in shifts. With authority that exceeds their years, they show us across dry river beds and vast empty landscapes. Dust encases my lips and hair. The skin on my back burns as heat rash sets in. After nearly two days, we arrive on the banks of a stagnant river. It is the last remaining lifeline for the cattle herds of the area and thus a fiercely contested resource. The area is home to an array of heavily armed groups, all of which require the same resources to keep their cattle alive. During the night, young men sing the praises of individual cows and bulls and dare surrounding communities to steal them. Those calls are what you’re hearing now. The next morning, a raiding party arrives on the edge of the camp. Shooting erupts. Chasing. Five young men are killed. We carry back a man who was bitten in the arm by a poisonous snake as the repelling party crossed the river. He moaned the entire journey. It was the most remote place I'd ever been. #southsudan #africa

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last month

I was drawn to this portrait of the Protestant theologian, Martin Luther, in the National Museum in Stockholm. The accompanying plaque said that he was known to have a wicked sense of humor. Hard to imagine. What do you think he joked about? This afternoon I was reading a short history of sexuality in which Luther came up. In response to a question regarding his distaste for sex he said, "had God consulted me in the matter, I would have advised him to continue the generation of the species by fashioning them out of clay." Sounds like a hoot 😬

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last month

Day 1. At the start of a sweltering day in Juba, South Sudan, I sat across a table from Laura Heaton. I suffered a bruising hangover that I compounded with coffee and cigarettes. At this early point in my career, I was convinced that being quasi self-destructive was part of being a photojournalist. But as the morning temperature climbed into the 90s, I could not have felt worse. Laura, on the other hand, was radiant and well rested. She ordered a bowl of strawberries and sipped a cup of tea. She was in town reporting a story about young South Sudanese who'd returned from abroad ahead of the country's long awaited independence. She was voraciously curious, well organized and razor sharp. As I observed her manner, the myth of the hard-partying, gonzo journalist began to wane. Here was someone who cared deeply about her work, understood the energy it required and conducted herself accordingly. I admired her and the example she set helped me reevaluate my own approach to work and life. In the ensuing years, she became a trusted friend and source of creative, intellectual and professional support. It is an honor to watch her join paths with Conor Phillips, a keenly observant and equally kind and good-natured man, in Lingbo, Sweden this week. Together, they represent the best of all things within us. #sweden

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July 2019

I met @nathangolon and Emilie in the woods of northern Maine. I arrived at a remote cottage after dark and, following a long drive, felt disoriented. Emilie greeted me in the dining room with a handshake through which I sensed her kindness. Nathan entered shortly after and a warm exchange began. We worked together over the coming weeks to create an advertisement for the state of Maine. We share a deep curiosity and appreciation for the landscape and the people who inhabit it. We hiked and canoed and fished. After long days of shooting, we stayed up talking late into the night. Ideas about creativity, expression and sociology promoted lively debates and deepened our connection. And we laughed. And laughed. I lived much of my photographic life in relative isolation. I wanted to find myself without too much outside influence. But these days I feel a great hunger for creative connection. I’m grateful to have met these two and look forward to friendship and collaboration in the future. Follow their work @goodfightmedia

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July 2019

I went swimming in a mountain stream. It was clear and cold. It made me feel good. This is a photo I took of myself afterward. That is all.

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June 2019

It was with my father, Norman, that I learned how the presence of buried tree roots changed the sound of my footfalls on a trail. They create a muted, hollow yet amplifying effect that reminds me of the unseen. As a boy, I followed him into the mountains of New England, where he'd discovered things within himself many years before. His father was a Swedish immigrant and brought with him the Scandinavian appreciation for the outdoors. My dad did his best to impart that outlook to my sister and me. Last autumn, while I was teaching at @mtholyoke in western Massachusetts, I brought him to the Chesterfield Gorge, a dramatic, plunging ravine carved by the Westfield River. He'd never seen it before. I was grateful to give him something after all he'd given me. Looking at the churning waters below, I felt connected to to him and to the beautiful, enduring forces that shaped us both. "We are still in Eden," wrote my favorite painter, Thomas Cole. "the wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.” @thomascolesite #chesterfieldgorge #nature #father #fathersday

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June 2019

What a scream. Been in Washington DC for the @natgeo #NatGeoFest The days are dynamic and relentless. Nice to unwind a with @brianskerry @brentstirton @kaityarnall @ronan_donovan @galuchis and @katieorlinsky We didn’t deserve such classy surroundings.

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June 2019

In the days before our departure, an industrial cargo ship anchored off the shores of Lorino, a small sea hunting town in the Russian Arctic. Amid the constant pale, white light that defines the Arctic summer, the ship looked out of place. Occasionally, the crew boarded small motorboats to come ashore, look around and buy a few supplies. The ship remained for several days and stood in contrast to Chukchi fishermen who quietly fished the productive seam just off the shore. To do so, they used wooden planks to place nets in the depression along which fish liked to travel. Occasionally, a large school of fish would encounter the net and the question of meals for the week would be answered. The crew of the cargo ship would look on. I am constantly amazed by the number of things unfolding in the world at any one time. #fishing #russia #chukotka #arctic

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May 2019

SOUND ON: I met Voshon on the side of the road on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. He was shucking oysters in the mid-morning sun. Unlike some on this remote island, he was receptive to my curiosity. People here have been pestered too long by journalists and state workers and organizations. Understandably, most just want to be left alone. Seclusion was part of the allure of living here. We hung out near a treehouse that he and his brother, Joe, built as kids. It’s now overgrown and dilapidated. We talked a long while about changes on the island, which is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico at an alarming rate. It's lost 90 percent of its land mass over the last fifty years. The future of life here is in question. Voshon’s voice has stuck with me.

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May 2019

SOUND ON: Let’s try something new today. I’ve always enjoyed behind-the-scenes explanations of things. I love learning how it all gets made; pictures, movies, music. As I’ve been recording so much audio this past year, I thought I’d bring my spoken reflections together with a photo. Please do share with me how you feel about this approach.

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May 2019

I gain first sight of the clearing from the depths of the forest. I'm sweating heavily. I am nervous, too, because unhabituated forest elephants move in the trees just beyond the path. The forest is so dense that a group of them could be standing only a few feet away and you might not realize. Being with large animals on their terms is humbling. Suddenly, it seems, the trees recede and we arrive to a splendor unlike anything I've seen before or since. At dawn and dusk, hundreds of elephants gather to drink the nutrient-rich subterranean waters that flow beneath the clearing. In this part of the Central African Republic, such a feature is known as a "bai," a word in Aka language that describes naturally open places where animals gather to eat. Standing on the edge, I momentarily forget the war that rages in the villages beyond and feel, for a moment, as though I'm looking at another era of the Earth's history, one in which human beings were peripheral or not yet in existence. I consider our contributions and that cost at which they came. For a moment, deep in the central African forest, the only sounds are those emerging from the creatures below.

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May 2019

Sun chases the morning mist in the fields of Kamuyu in western Kenya. Savanna landscapes and the animals that live there tend to dominate popular imagination of Kenya. But the country is profoundly varied. I feel most at home in the green, rolling hills that provide most of the Kenya’s agricultural bounty. I relish opportunities to escape the bustle of Nairobi and take in the slow, peaceful start of rural mornings. Each form of life has its challenges, but I cannot help but note the broad sense of contentment often present in peaceful, productive rural communities.

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May 2019

Hansjörg Wyss speaks with rare precision. This should not be confused with reticence for he is generous in conversation. On a gray morning in May, we chat for several hours about his life. "My father was extremely interested in nature," he recalls of his upbringing in Switzerland. "He knew about birds and plants and he shared that interest and knowledge with me.” His connection to the outdoors intensified as he discovered the beauty of the American West. "I've made many of my most important decisions, in life and business, while hiking or sitting by rivers." I push him to wax lyrical. He resists. "I never felt 'closer to nature' or these other philosophical things," he says. "Watching the light change during a day in the Grand Canyon is just a wonderful thing." I find his candor refreshing. We often go to such lengths to describe nature in philosophical terms that it almost obscures the simple beauty and significance of it all. Wyss does not posture. He does not embellish. He values nature and, as testament, has donated 1 billion dollars to protect it. It was an honor and pleasure to meet him. Shot on assignment for @insidenatgeo in honor of Hansjörg Wyss receiving the Philanthropist of the Year award at #NatGeoFest this June. Under his leadership and spurred by his $1 billion commitment to nature conservation, the Wyss Foundation launched the #CampaignForNature to help protect 30% of the planet by 2030.

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May 2019

The Major and the Master Sargent | In the wake of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which left Betty's home in smoldering ruin, she picked up the phone and called Bill. Their friendship started several decades ago when both were in the Army. “Those were much wilder days for me,” Betty says, recounting a series of colorful stories. “I said, Bill, I've got five people with me and we're coming your way.” Bill lives modestly in a mobile home park in the nearby city of Chico. "He is a sweet man and opened his home to us." For nearly three months, the two lived as an odd couple. Neither have families of their own. Betty was restless. Bill was settled. The TV was on a lot. They razzed each other. I met Betty as she searched for solutions to recover the cremated ashes of her mother, which she'd accidentally left in her home as she fled. Believe it or not, she recovered them. We talked about fire and loss and meaning—and booze. We talked quite a bit about booze.

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May 2019

The arrival of Steve’s daughters brought his sensitivity into stark relief. It was always there, of course, but often obscured by a masculine code that I and others helped enforce. They all live together in his childhood home, a place that--when we were kids--housed three men and one woman and today boasts three women and one man. I can feel this shift in Steve. It’s almost cellular. The constellation has been reordered and his place within it recast. While not without challenge, it's a configuration that evokes and rewards the best in him. I took this picture after we’d done some snaps for a family Christmas card. The organized grinning was done, everyone was cozy. I’m a familiar enough feature that my presence was handily forgotten. It was my favorite of the day.

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May 2019

“It's crazy how much different things are between a father and son," my good friend Joe tells me. I've known him since we were both smooth-faced and gangly. "Owen is much more attached to me than his sisters were at his age." He initially suspects that the connection stems from their shared maleness. But between the birth of his two daughters and his son, Joe changed a lot about his life. He requested a demotion in his job as a high tension electrician, affording him more time at home. Owing to years of night duty, both in the military and in his work life since, he doesn't mind getting up when Owen cries in the night. He rocks and comforts him during those distressed moments in the dark. Joe's wife, Kelly, did most of this for their two daughters, who gravitated more to her in certain respects. I suspect that the outsized connection between Joe and Owen has less to do with their shared sex and more to do with these moments of tender care and support . #fatherhood #manhood #masculinity #parenting

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May 2019

The road to Lorino weaves through low hills along the coast. It is navigable by car only a few months each year. Between small, isolated settlements there are few signs of human presence. There are hot springs and low grasses and bears. Throughout much of the year these lands are covered in snow and ice. Small plants, some of which yield seasonal berries, are among the only things that flourish. No trees grow. No trees means no wood. That idea lingers in my mind. No wood. Agriculture is impossible. Communities here rely almost entirely on what they can harvest from the sea. The health of marine ecosystems is absolutely critical. And they’re changing.

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May 2019

During summer nights in the Russian Arctic, the front porch becomes a stage for revelry. While the temperature feels nearly frigid to me, it is a respite from punishing conditions throughout the rest of the year. On such nights, heavy drinking is common and brings staggering, stumbling men into the open. Some of the hunters seem like utterly different people from morning to night—almost visibly unrecognizable. Some drink so heavily that I worry they will collapse outdoors and freeze. Drinking is not as gendered here as it is in other parts of the world, with some women slurring and stumbling as well. In a bid to harness my full energy, I gave up alcohol when I started this project nearly 2 years ago. Its absence in my life leaves me more keenly aware of its excesses.

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May 2019

The objects inside Edward's hunting cabin are few. Tools, mostly. Many are old and rusted, testament to the hunting, working and rural living of generations past. The sole book in the home is one about animals from different parts of the world. A small coat rack made of reindeer antler. Basic electrical work. Edward and his relatives were forced to leave this homestead many decades ago under Soviet decree. At that time, the state argued that it could not provide services to a population strewn widely across this remote area. So the Chukchi population was forced to consolidate into settlement centers where state-run schools, hospitals and other services would function. These days, Edward works to bring his former homestead back to life.

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May 2019

Yuri's eagerness to hunt is palpable. In his free moments, I watch him throw sticks to practice the harpooning techniques of men in the hunting brigades. Throughout the day in this remote homestead, verbal calls goes out to signal the presence of a walrus in nearby waters. At once, the men scramble to boats and race to capture it. Yuri runs with them each time. As ropes are hastily untied and the seats fill up, he softly pleads his case to the brigade leader. No luck. He's still too young, the hunters say. The engines roar and the boats speed off. "I am furious," he exclaims as we stand together in knee deep water watching the boats pick up speed. I was an intense kid, too, for whom adulthood and its freedoms could not come quickly enough. I, like Yuri, wanted to be in the thick of things. He kicks stones on the beach. I remember well his frustrations.

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May 2019

The walrus disappears from the surface and, for a short time, the chaos of the hunt subsides. During this moment of quiet, the Chukchi hunters scan the water for some sign of the animal’s whereabouts. At midday, the light is bright and muted at once, making it difficult to discern where the water ends and the sky begins. Even when it’s calm, the water is daunting. It is dark and deep and cold--filled with both risk and potential. I think about falling in. But it is the key stabilizing element in this remote part of the world, offering sustenance and entertainment and beauty. It seems especially serene in this moment, floating calmly, as we prepare to enact the perennial saga of living and dying.

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April 2019

Waves of seasonal fog blanket Chukotka for days on end, cancelling both sea hunting ventures and flights out. After a month here, I’m eager to move along. In the early morning hours, which in the Arctic remain brightly lit in the early autumn, I awake to survey the weather conditions. At 3 am, I stand rubbing my eyes before the large window in the bedroom of our rented apartment. It’s clear and calm. By 8 am, hours before the sole flight out departs, the fog reliably arrives and the flight is delayed another day. I’m frustrated and discouraged. If I’m honest, I find photography to be very difficult, both creatively and psychologically. For many years I’ve had to mentally fight against how daunting I find it. I have to remind myself that photographs almost never happen in the hotel room. Sometimes it feels like simply getting out the door is the hardest part. And so on this particular day, at the end of a mental tether, I wandered in the fog.

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April 2019

Many of us focus on the picture before us and rarely consider what the alternatives might have been. Who has time to ponder the negative, right? I’m curious what you think of these two very different pictures of Anatoly Ronavtagin, a sea hunter from the Russian Arctic region of Chukotka. How might your impression of him change if you saw only one of these? There is a heated, ongoing debate in the world of photography regarding the ways in which photographers depict those they photograph. In the digital era, we take thousands of pictures from which we make an extremely limited selection. This affects how viewers understand and imagine the situations and people we’re showing. The debate extends to facial expressions; is someone smiling or not? Is their gaze cast upward or down? Great meaning is projected onto these physical dimensions. Does eye contact mean strength or aggression? Does a downward gaze mean powerlessness or shyness or merely someone looking at a spot on the floor when the shutter released? Does a laugh show a fun-loving personality or someone’s nervous response to being in front of the camera? Might they have behaved differently for a different photographer? Curious to hear your thoughts.

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April 2019

It’s been a while, my friends, and I hope you’ve all been happy and well. As a number of you noticed, I took a year-long break from social media. Like many of us, I am reevaluating my use of time, my engagement with the world around me and the form and substance of my own communication. To do this, I decided to step back from social media all together. I think that these platforms can be as exciting and engaging as they can be isolating and distracting. It’s all in how we use them. During this time I’ve been working on a large @natgeo project that explores the changing human relationship with the environment and how we think about, understand and discuss these changes. It’s been a huge creative and intellectual lift. The picture above is from this project. It’s a portrait of Alexander Dolgodushev and Stanislav Vykvytke, two sea hunters in the Russian arctic region of Chukotka. In this scene, the men work to craft new harpoon points for use during sea hunting endeavors. Coastal Chukchi communities are wholly dependent on their ability to hunt marine mammals in order to survive in remote and unforgiving lands. Sea ice no longer forms along the coastline. The ecological balance is shifting. #environment #environmental #change #Chukotka #Russia #photography

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May 2018

My mother has always loved animals. If she had her way, she would have lived on a farm and been surrounded by them. But in the tight quarters of the northeast, a dog, and occasionally a couple of cats, was all we could manage. I inherited her love for dogs, the animal that is, perhaps, closest to her heart. The older I get, the more strongly I believe that a person's treatment of animals speaks volumes about their level of overall decency. While fierce when needed, my mother has always been kind and gentle with the vulnerable. As a career news photographer in the city of Lynn, Massachusetts, she documented the city, and the challenging lives of many residents, with great respect and compassion. She always had time, and often a warm, gentle touch, for the city's most feared and neglected. She taught me about the world, with all its beauty and imperfections and about the power of photography as a method of connection and exploration. I'm very grateful for all that she's done and to spend these early spring days with her.

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April 2018

My buddy and lighting director @grantflanagan checks out a wild but bleak piece of installed art at the @smithsoniannpg in DC. We spent the afternoon in the gallery, perusing paintings we liked and chatting about lighting effects that we could draw on in our forthcoming work together. We then headed over to @natgeo headquarters where @mechanicalphoto pointed us in lots of good equipment-related directions. We’ll get started on pictures in Louisiana next week. Stay tuned.

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March 2018

I’m in the West African country of Ivory Coast this month, working on a component of an ongoing project with the International Criminal Court. We’re working to create visual context for the trials and investigations underway in The Hague. I’m working with fellow photographer @marcusbleasdale to explore the human cost of war crimes and the pursuit of justice after war. Here, the team I’m with takes refuge from the scorching, midday sun. The temperature is astounding and the humidity even more. #Africa #cotedivoire #war #conflict #violence #warcrimes #justice

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March 2018

For the last few weeks, I've been working out the various galleries in Washington, DC. What wonderful places to bring books and a laptop and get down to business. I read or write for a few hours and, when my attention wanes, I go look at whatever draws my attention. Such a privilege to have these FREE galleries throughout the city! I never took this kind of advantage when I lived here. These days, I'm thinking a lot about how visual artists have engaged with issues related to the environment. I'm also increasingly interested in more deliberate studies of light. The galleries are such an incredible resource. Headed to Ivory Coast for a few weeks to work on a project about the International Criminal Court. Excited to return to the subject but it's feeling tough to leave these halls. The more I go on, the more they feel like a warm blanket. #art #DC #galleries #NGA #ngadc @ngadc

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March 2018

Quite a night with this cool and thoughtful group. I realize more and more that I long to be part of a creative community. Generally speaking, I found my photographic way in relative isolation. I lived in various parts of Africa where, despite there being a few other photographers around, I never felt particularly connected to them. In many ways, this was a healthy and liberating dynamic. I was free to discover and embrace what I liked without the sometimes-deterring influence of other opinions. I used the internet to look at pictures and tried to find my path through near-constant practice. But as time goes on I sense an increasing pull to commune with others. Nights like these feel important.

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March 2018

The @intotheokavango river expedition team gathers around the fire on a frigid morning in the Angolan highlands. While day time temperatures reach the mid-90's (34 C ) the night hours fall to the cusp of freezing. On this particular morning, my shoes were nearly frozen solid. A few cups of black, sludgy coffee and a bowl of oatmeal kickstart another day on the river. There's a film about all of this, called INTO THE OKAVANGO, which has just been announced as an Official Selection at the @Tribeca Film Festival this year! The film tells the remarkable story of @drsteveboyes and his team which aims to both chart and project the headwaters of the Okavango Delta, one of the last truly pristine wilderness areas on the African continent.This incredible film is the product of so many inspiring people working together to accomplish something momentous. Stay tuned for more information on ticket sales, screen time, etc. #Tribeca2018 #conservation #Africa #Angola #Cubango #film

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March 2018

At dawn along the Cubango river, @goetzneef , the @intotheokavango team's Head of Scientific Research, maneuvers a boat to check fish nets that he put out the night before. A major objective of the river expeditions is to collect comprehensive data on the system's biodiversity. There's a film about all of this, called INTO THE OKAVANGO, which has just been announced as an Official Selection at the @Tribeca Film Festival this year! The film tells the remarkable story of @drsteveboyes and his team at the @intotheokavango wilderness project, which aims to both chart and project the headwaters of the Okavango Delta, one of the last truly pristine wilderness areas on the African continent.This incredible film is the product of so many inspiring people working together to accomplish something momentous. Stay tuned for more information on ticket sales, screen time, etc. #Tribeca2018 #conservation #Africa #Angola #Cubango #film

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March 2018

Kyle Gordon ( @kyle_n_gordon ) has the toughest job on the expedition. Funny enough, he seems to love it. Each day, on the upper reaches of Angola’s Cubango River, we encounter large blockages of trees which, over many years, slipped into the river and grew horribly entangled. The knots of thick branches render portions of this narrow river impassable. Each time the team encounters such a blockage, either Kyle or his colleague Kerllen, jump into the water to hack and saw through them. Often, the troublesome branches are under the water, requiring the hand-sawing of thick wood underneath the surface. Brutal. Toss in the presence of crocodiles to ratchet up the discomfort. It's never easy. There's a film about all of this and more, called INTO THE OKAVANGO, which has just been announced as an Official Selection at the @Tribeca Film Festival this year! The film tells the remarkable story of @drsteveboyes and his team at the @intotheokavango wilderness project, which aims to both chart and protect the headwaters of the Okavango Delta, one of the last truly pristine wilderness areas on the #African continent. This film is the product of so many inspiring people working together to accomplish something momentous. Stay tuned for more information on ticket sales, screen time, etc. #Tribeca2018

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