A year ago photographer Roberto Schmidt stared at a wall of snow, took three photos, dove into a tent, and nearly died. On assignment for Agence France-Presse, Schmidt was at Base Camp on Mount Everest on April 25, 2015, the day that a disastrous earthquake and ensuing avalanche struck. After being partially buried in snow, Schmidt was pulled from his tent by a Sherpa guide and proceeded to make photographs that were published all over the world. Those photos were recently awarded the prestigious World Press Photo award. Speaking to him recently, I asked him to reflect back on that tragic day—and on life since then.
PATRICK WITTY: It’s been a year—is the memory still vivid?
ROBERTO SCHMIDT: The sounds and feelings of being approached by a monster of nature, being tossed around without any control, can still be very vivid. Probably just as scary as the incredible silence in the immediate aftermath. However, I think that memory does fade with time, and that may be a good thing. It’s probably the way the human mind deals with strong, shocking memories.
PATRICK: I can’t imagine. Do you feel lucky?
ROBERTO: I feel incredibly lucky. Really, what are the odds of surviving an avalanche? It’s sad because at least 18 people died in the avalanche that fateful day, but only one person in our small party (a porter known as Bhanja) was hurt bad enough that he had to be airlifted out of base camp. He is now well and back to normal. We were very lucky indeed; others were not.
PATRICK: And your camera?
ROBERTO: The photo gear was, for the most part, spared from any damage, which gave me the chance to document the aftermath of the tragedy. The gear was encased in a block of tightly packed snow. Maybe that kept it from being damaged.
PATRICK: Has your perspective on what you do changed?
ROBERTO: I am a photojournalist, and that is what I have done for over 20 years. Part of our job is to go to places where others don’t go or can’t go and tell the true story of what transpires in the clearest and most honest way. I am still committed to … doing my job as best I can while keeping risks at a minimum. In that sense I am pretty much the same person.
However, I think it is impossible to remain unchanged by an event like this. Only time will show what real effects this experience had on me. For now, I take stock of weaknesses and strengths that came through that day so that I can do better personally and professionally as I move forward.
The Khumbu region of northeastern Nepal is a magnificently beautiful, soulful, and peaceful place. I was not able to return to the area this spring due to work schedule issues but plan to go back very soon to keep documenting the amazing region and its resilient, hard-working and vastly underpaid group of Nepalese guides that make it possible for outsiders to come and enjoy the wonder of nature that the Himalayas are.
See Roberto Schmidt’s winning story on World Press Photo.