A philosopher-artist captures the wild nature of a remote island, and in the process, discovers the meaning of life.
Photography is one of those mediums of art that is still, yet the works of true masters are far from motionless. Philosopher, photographer, filmmaker Roberto Dutesco is one of those gifted artists who can bring a simple print to life.
“Taking one picture is one thing — creating a picture is something else,” says Dutesco, whose photography and documentary of wild horses on Sable Island in Nova Scotia was so impactful, the Canadian government decided to protect the island as a national treasure. “Imagine what a picture should be — creating, based on all my knowledge, and allowing chance to come in.”
Taking One’s Ego Out of the Art
Dutesco’s philosophy of life and approach to art reflect a balance between following and leading. It’s almost as if he’s inside the moment, active, creative, connecting and capturing the beauty of life, nature.
“Everything is basically within you,” he says. “You are inhaling the same particles that Caesar inhaled and Genghis Khan and everybody else for the past thousands of years that have ever lived. You really feel connected to the outside world,… to everything else around you, and therefore you feel that you are only part of it. You go along with the flow, which has been since the beginning of time.”
While shooting Chasing Wild Horses, a documentary that’s been seen by a third of Canadians and in over 40 countries, Dutesco recalls a special moment that illustrates this connection to nature and his “wild” or innate self. As the film crew was shooting, Dutesco decided to go look over a ridge by himself.
“Instinct plays a big part in my life — I do things not because I think about them, but because I feel a certain way,” he says. Looking over the ridge, he discovered 20 ponies, with some just a few days old. “I looked at them and the whole band stopped and looked at me. It was this moment of silence. I lowered myself onto the grass, and then I take my cameras — everything is slow motion. These three ponies, they decided they were going to come towards me, trembling, not knowing what I am. They all came very close to me and started nibbling my hair.”
“What I’ve learned is to take your ego out of it, and you participate,” he says. “You become an active participant in the art of creation as it happens.”
Growing up in Romania sowed several essential seeds that would germinate and later grow into Dutesco’s life perspective, adoration for nature, and artistic craft. He grew up an hour outside of Bucharest in his grandparents’ countryside home amidst mountains and rivers.
“That was my cocoon, and from that very early childhood, I felt very safe within that environment because there’s a sense of protectiveness of the valley,” he says. “With my grandfather in the forest or my grandmother in the backyard, I would explore all kinds of things, so nature is what I am part of. That nature that I inhaled such a long time ago is still within me.”
When explaining the connection between nature and art, Dutesco relates it to the Grundig radio his father used to play when he was growing up.
“You have to remember Romania was a communist society, and therefore listening to free speech of the outside world was a big deal. You could actually be imprisoned because you were just dialing in to Free Europe,” he says. “With the information my father was receiving, he was making his own philosophy — philosophy of life, the future, what a family should do, and how life should be lived.”
But before Dutesco could dial into a desired frequency as an artist, he had to first master the skills of an artist. He studied painting, drawing, sculpture, and for three years, he studied photography intensely 16 hours a day, half of which were with Barry Harris, the top fashion photographer in Montreal at the time.
Dutesco says that when he “dials in” to his work, it’s like he has the volume knob in one hand and the tuning knob in the other. He uses the tools of his arts — be they camera, pen, or sculpting chisel — like that Grundig radio of his father’s.
They help him dial into the frequencies of his choice, those aligned with his philosophy and beliefs. While he’s in that receptive, creative state, he says, “The world opens itself up to you and provides the information on that bandwidth.”
It’s rare, and equally precious, to find nature in its untamed, raw, wild self, and that’s the beauty of Sable Island. After seeing a film from the ’60s about the island, Dutesco knew he had to experience its untamed nature himself.
“Arriving on Sable Island, I knew that I was dealing with something beyond my understanding — something that I had never seen before and had no knowledge of,” says Dutesco. “A human is like a teacup — in order to be refilled, it has to be emptied. Because I was empty, I was able to get to the essence of things in terms of love, affection, intimacy, and magnetism,” he says, explaining why he was able to truly connect with and capture the beauty of the island’s wild horses.
As Dutesco explored the island, he seemed to learn as much about his own wild nature as that of the external environment.
“At first I travelled alone and created a sense of belonging that you cannot do if you’re having conversations with other people around you,” he says. On one lone adventure, Dutesco travelled on a four-wheeler through a storm to the island’s western tip. Since the island is like a crescent moon, as you reach either tip, its width narrows to as little as 10 metres.
“I decided to walk to the very, very end of Sable Island. I turned around to see where I left my four-wheeler, but I couldn’t see it,” he says. “As I’m going towards this point, I see these waves all around me, like boiling water, colliding into one another.” He realized at that moment, one slight shift in the direction of the waves, and he would’ve been swept away, buried at sea.
“You realize the preciousness of life, the importance of it,” Dutesco says. “I was just a grain of sand in that gigantic universe. You realize, while here, ‘Should I do something with what I have?’ The answer is certainly ‘Yes,’ and that’s what I’m doing every single day. My idea is to move, touch and inspire people across the world, to look at the world with different eyes and imagine that everything is possible.”
Dutesco recalls another profound moment of the many he experienced on nine different trips to Sable Island. One summer, as fog rolled in, he remembers relaxing on a dune. Though the light was perfect, it began to drizzle, so he packed up his gear and drifted off to sleep, absorbing the perfection of the moment.
“When I woke up, the clouds were still around but the sun was coming through, and all these horses were around me, within half a metre, looking over me, looking to see what I’m doing,” he says. “I felt the sense of trust which is so amazing when you experience the nature in wilderness.”
One of Dutesco’s primary focuses now is preserving that beautiful essence of nature and life in a conservation initiative called “I Am Wild.” His organization will solidify partnerships with brands to inspire conscious consumerism and spark a movement for humanity to protect its home — and true nature.
“We think that we are civilized and can influence everything, but we have pulled ourselves away from nature,” he says. “However, we have to go back to nature, to that idea that we are wild. Wild out there is everywhere within us — we are part of the wilderness itself.”