December 7, 2012

Seven years, 22,000 miles out of Eden


Paul Salopek will follow an ancient route across the globe.

Next month Paul Salopek, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent, will begin a seven year, 22,000 mile journey across Africa, Asia, the United States, and South America. The journey, which Salopek is calling Out of Eden, follows the route anthropologists believe the first humans used when they left Africa and began populating the rest of the world. It goes without saying that such an undertaking is staggeringly ambitious, and one can only imagine the various challenges Salopek will encounter, especially as he’ll be covering the miles on foot.

Giving new meaning to the phrase “boots on the ground,” Salopek will set off from Ethiopia, move northeast through the Middle East and Asia, across Russia and then turn west for North America and the west coast of the United States; next it’s on to Central and South America, ultimately ending in Patagonia, one of Argentina’s southernmost points. And all the while he will be sending dispatches to National Geographic, which will publish his stories both online and in print. Out of Eden’s goal, Salopek says, is to explore different cultures and write about their historical connections with the rest of the world.

Nieman Journalism Lab has more details:

One of the goals of the Out of Eden project is to make the pace of storytelling match the pace of human walking — which is a way of saying Salopek wants to be deliberate in his writing. “I want to see in the beginning whether going down and taking a more contemplative approach to newsgathering makes the newsgathering more meaningful,” he said. There will be countless topics to write about along the road; Salopek has a preliminary list of story ideas that includes the impact of western food aid on fighting famine, the effect of climate change in areas along the Red Sea, and what the economy of pastoral nomads looks like today. But Salopek is mindful of the fact that plans will inevitably be overtaken by events, and that the reality of the walk could be completely different from what he has planned.

Salopek is no stranger to adventure, nor the danger it sometimes brings. He has reported on conflicts from the Balkans, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and in 2006 was detained for a year in Sudan after he, his driver and interpreter were accused of being spies. All of this, it must be assumed, has prepared him for what surely will be the mental, physical, and professional test of a lifetime. But as all intrepid reporters know, a far-flung story is only as strong as its support system, and Salopek has taken pains to install a wide network of translators, guides, and media outposts to ensure his stories are safely transmitted across the globe:

In this seven-year assignment Salopek will have to draw on all of his experience as a foreign correspondent. The assignment is ambitious and unforgivably long-term — by design. To see this assignment through he’ll need precise planning and a tool kit that is as diverse as it is lightweight.

Though he’ll be traveling solo for most of the trip, Salopek has a wide network of support, from translators and guides in the field, to media partners and sponsors here in the U.S. He’s also receiving support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and he spent time this spring here at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism as our first Visiting Fellow, using the time to work with people at Harvard and MIT to plan his expedition and to investigate new forms of digital storytelling he could use along the way.

Taking advantage of technology, Salopek plans to carry a MacBook Air, satellite phone, video camera, audio recorder, and a GPS tracking device, all of which will bring a modern edge to this very ancient type of journey.

Using his video and audio equipment, Salopek said he wants to create a kind of continuous portrait of the world at this point in time. “I’m calling it a narrative transect: Every 100 miles, I’ll methodically take a series of narrative readings that do not vary along the path of the walk,” he said. The plan, as he envisions it, is to stop to take six samples: Ambient sound, photos of the earth and sky, a panorama of his current location, a minute or so of video, and an interview, all in the same method in each location. He sees it as almost a scientific approach, one that can show the changes and similarities in terrain, but also culture and people. And while these transects will make for good multimedia, Salopek said their real value will be as an archive of what the world looked like from 2013 to 2019.

“By the end of seven years, I’ll have created an enduring portrait of a storytelling transect around the world at the end of the millennium,” he said.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.