This is the tale of a man and an island—and how, in the course of time, their stories became entwined. It is also a tale of devotion to a craft, passion for a cause, and the recognition that sometimes, when we least expect it, fate charts an unexpected course for each of us.
The man is Roberto Dutesco, a Romanian-born photographer splitting his time between New York City, Montreal, Canada and San Paulo, Brazil. The island is Sable, a tiny spit of sand in the North Atlantic, far removed from civilization as we know it. The passion is Dutesco’s concern for the preservation of the island and its wild horses. As for devotion to a craft—that is manifest in his photographic studies of the horses, which are on exhibit at the SoHo, Wild Horses Gallery, in New York City.
Dutesco first became aware of Sable Island and its remarkable residents when, while working as a fashion photographer in the nineties, he saw a few fleeting frames of a documentary about Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In the film, the narrator described the presence on the island of a herd of wild horses, accompanied by a few seconds of indistinct images. “At that moment,” Dutesco says, “I decided that I would make it my goal to go and see those horses. I wasn’t traveling there as a photographer, necessarily, but as someone with an intense curiosity about the world around me.”
For preservation purposes, the Canadian government restricts access to the island. But a persistent Dutesco, intent on satisfying his curiosity, managed to gain permission to depart Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the one-hour plane ride to Sable—as always, with cameras and gear in tow. Thus began a fascination with the wild horses, and the island itself, that was to continue for 16 years, resulting in a body of work that is at once powerful, evocative, and personal.
From the beginning, the photographer approached his subject with an inherent sensitivity to the task he had set for himself. Over the years, Dutesco has come to believe that all his subjects contain a life force that must be respected and that, when possible, he tries to connect with. “Whether shooting supermodels, rocks, flowers in a vase, or wild horses, I try to imagine what my subject might be feeling and to portray that emotion in my images.”
Imbued with this belief system, Dutesco reminded himself, as he approached the wild horses, that “they were as curious about me as I was about them.” This parity between subject and photographer allowed Dutesco to produce a remarkable collection of up-close and intimate images that seem to transport the viewer into the very heart and psyche of the animals.
“I came to know the names and personalities of many of the horses and to understand their habits through the dedicated staff that has spent years there, protecting and preserving the place these horses call home,” he told me. The herd has no natural enemies and exhibits no fear of human contact. “While some might naturally keep their distance,” Dutesco explains, “others were moved by their natural curiosity and, with increased acceptance of me, became closer over time.”
Dutesco has returned to Sable three times in the years since his first visit in 1994; each time dealing with the paucity of accommodations, the uncertainty of weather (the island can be socked in by fog for weeks at a time), and feeling a growing awareness of the fragile, but balanced, relationship that Sable and its animal inhabitants have with the surrounding sea. While the wild horses have learned over the centuries to sustain themselves through cycles of birth and death, heat and cold, driving winds and the occasional heavy snow, Sable is not so fortunate. Each day, pounds of plastic debris wash up on the beaches, and dire predictions of Arctic ice melt and rising ocean levels could mean that this tenuous island outpost may one day become uninhabitable, even for these well-adapted animals.
The photographic results of Dutesco’s many pilgrimages to visit the horses of Sable Island are on permanent view at the Wild Horses Gallery, in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. There, the photography, some in large format, is presented for maximum visual impact. The quality and technical merit of the preparation and framing of the photographs is, alone, worth a trip to the gallery. The techniques and methods used to present the images— largely unavailable a mere five years ago—help to create a visceral response not often found in a photography exhibit.
Entering the gallery space does more than transport the visitor away from the noise and press of the city’s streets. The sheer number and scale of the images on view help to animate these extraordinary creatures in unique ways. Words like powerful, poetic, muscular, noble, and gentle come to mind. With their unkempt, windblown, rock-star manes, doe eyes and widely varying expressions, some may even invite the term funny.
But those who have seen these images may feel, as I did, that somehow the word wild no longer seems appropriate. If anything, the serenity and beauty of these animals and their instinctive respect for the narrow strip of space they occupy can lead to a different understanding. Dutesco points out, “It would seem, in their own way, that the horses are teaching us something about our destructive nature, as neighbors and co-inhabitants of this earth. We become the “wild animals” when placed next to these seemingly mindful creatures.”
Some gallery visitors are moved to tears when they stand in front of Dutesco’s photographs. Perhaps the beauty of form and composition accounts for this response—or maybe it’s the eye-to-eye contact with these powerful and vulnerable animals. Beyond that, Dutesco believes that his work makes the point that “these creatures have learned that simple existence—that is, true living—is enough for them. Seeing this powerful message brought into focus in our mind-numbing, information-overloaded world is enough to stir emotions in some people when they consider how far removed we are from that state of mind.”
Detusco had returned from another visit to his horses just a week before I spoke with him this past October. I asked him if he was done with the story of the horses of Sable Island, and he answered, “Yes.” But then he told me about an experience that can only serve as a poignant footnote to an already remarkable relationship. As he finished his shoot in the weak light of an autumn afternoon and prepared to return to the base camp for the last time, he sensed that he was in the presence of the shadowy forms of several members of the island herd. One young horse stepped forward and placed his face against the photographer’s temple. They stood mane to mane, cheek to cheek, as Dutesco felt heat and musk radiate from his equine companion and saw the fading light of day reflected in the large eye so close to his own. They remained like that, transfixed, for several minutes, until the horse finally ambled back to the herd. The departing photographer’s sense was that he had been delivered a message: “We’ll be fine without you, my friend. We are at peace in our world. Go find a way to be at peace in yours.”
by Richard Friswell, Editor-in-Chief (Author’s Note: This article won the prestigeous National Silver Medal for Editorial Excellence from Folio:Magazine, when it ran in The Modern Estate Magazine in 2008; visit, www.themodernestate.com}
*All images, except otherwise noted, are from the Wild Horses Collection and can be viewed on the gallery site.
Roberto Dutesco is a photographer, film maker and writer who divides his time between New York City, Montreal, Canada and San Paulo, Brazil. The wide range of his photography is viewable at www.dutescoart.com . His photographs of the Sable Island horses are on exhibition at the Wild Horses Gallery, 64 Grand Street, New York City, 10013. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday noon to 6; Monday by appointment or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (212) 219-9622.
Where They Roam
Or, the author’s personal and unexpected discovery of Sable Island
The dull roar of the Boeing 747 engines filled my ears as the aircraft gently arced its way along the Great Circle route from Paris to New York. While other passengers dozed or watched the movie, I gazed downward from my window seat, marking our progress (as I do on most flights) by matching the landmarks below with the maps in the small world atlas I always carry.
In the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago, advancing glacial ice heaped sand and rubble at its advancing edge, creating Sable Island (from the French sable, for “sand”). This fragile, wind-blown lip of sand (a mere 25 miles long and, in places, only half a mile wide) is home to a dozen intrepid environmentalists and weather- station employees as well as countless varieties of flowers (including 6 orchid species), sea birds, seals, and nesting migratory birds.
And, most notably, it has for centuries been home to wild horses! The island has served as a seaward way station of record for European cod fishermen and explorers since the 16th century. It is believed that, in the 1700s, some of the ancestors of today’s horses were released on the island by Thomas Hancock (brother of America’s own John Hancock) after they were confiscated from the Acadian farmers of Nova Scotia, who had been expelled from the then-English province because of their religious beliefs. Legend also has it that the many wrecks around the island over the centuries (this stretch of ocean is called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic”) have also contributed to the island’s equine population.
Sable Island last found its way into national headlines when the 1991 weather phenomenon that came to be known as “the perfect storm” caused the demise of the Gloucester fishing vessel Andrea Gail. Presumably it was the storm’s destructive rogue wave that deposited the boat’s electronic positioning device and other debris high up on the beach at Sable Island.
Now, government permission and Canadian Coast Guard cooperation is required even to visit the island in small groups—and then, only for expressed investigatory reasons. Remaining remote even today, the island has no town or dock; the beach serves as its own runway, with the point of touchdown marked for the pilot by a pickup truck that is moved into place for the occasion.
As a protected species, the feral herd has grown to between 300 and 400, with several dozen foals entering the herd each spring. The horses have learned to adapt in this forbidding northern climate, which is moderated by warming ocean currents and offers ample year-round supplies of wild dune grasses. Weather is their only natural enemy. Their thick winter coats and long manes enhance their survival, while lending them a distinctive “shaggy dog” look. Their primal beauty and complex social interaction, as they wander the beaches and low hills of the narrow island, have also made these creatures a subject of eternal interest to artists and scientists, alike.
Visit a comprehensive site maintained by a Canadian Sable Island envirnmental group at: www.greenhorsesociety.com
See clips from the award-winning documentary, Chasing Wild Horses, which has aired numerous times on Bravo!Canada, bringing the images of the horses to life and depicts Dutesco’s special connection to the island and its horses:
Chasing Wild Horses – Clip 1 of 4 from Roberto Dutesco on Vimeo.
Chasing Wild Horses – Clip 2 of 4 from Roberto Dutesco on Vimeo.