Among the most notable images in cinematographer John Harrington’s vast cache of photos, a 2019 take shows a smiling Harrington with five members of a production crew standing in the Amazon rainforest, cradling an anaconda from 18 feet in their arms.
The rookie cameraman was there to search for the Rio Apaporis Caiman, a reportedly missing crocodilian, for an episode of Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive. There had been recent sightings, and their goal, as the show’s title suggests, was to verify that the so-called âColombian dinosaurâ was still alive. (It did.) The trip involved a flight to Bogota followed by a four-hour flight in a WWII-era DC-3. The plane landed on one of the abandoned airstrips of former drug lord Pablo Escobar.
That evening, before moving on to the final stop – an eight-hour canoe trip carrying $ 100,000 worth of equipment – they were invited to meet the village shaman. With lit tiki candles and the smell of heavy smoky herbs and plants in the air, the shaman gathered good karma for his journey. The next day, when they arrived at their destination, they began to set up their camp. “We started pruning the trees,” Harrington recalls, “and pruning wasp nests.” The bugs attacked, leaving one of his teammates on the verge of anaphylactic shock just as the anaconda slid, unscripted, out of the jungle.
“And all of this is happening,” Harrington later noted, “after being blessed by the local shaman.” Meeting the shaman again on the trip home, Harrington asked, âWhy me? Why have all the wasps chasing me?
âYou were the youngest of the crew,â the shaman replied. “The jungle was testing you.”
Harrington is used to being tested – although, perhaps, in a more benign way. A native of Newport, he spent an idyllic childhood splashing around Gooseberry Beach with his younger brother, filming videos and surfing the waves off Ruggles Avenue. He now travels the world as an underwater photographer with his team of External media | Project 1Z, the San Diego-based production company he founded in 2015. His images appear regularly on Animal Planet and Discovery and History channels, and when Shark Week aired last month, footage from two of the episodes – the one in Valdez, Alaska, and the other off Sirocco Island in Baja, California – was shot down by Harrington.
I met the self-described “traveling cinematographer living in my truck” (a custom 2020 Ram Rebel nicknamed Land shark) by phone about two hours east of Portland, Oregon, where he was finishing a three-month hike across the country. It was his mother, he said, who always brought cameras into the house. He and his younger brother Casey âmade some silly home videos. We were running around the Fifth Ward shootout. We took cameras to Fenway Park. One summer, their mother gave them a cheap underwater camera, which they used to film themselves riding, snorkeling and diving at Gooseberry Beach. âI loved having a camera and being able to see these images,â he recalls. “I was fascinated to watch them.”
When an injury sidelined his athletic career at Rogers High School, he picked up a camera and became the school’s unofficial sports photographer. He graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 2015 with a Fine Arts degree, having previously set his sights on a career as a director of photography. Friends introduced him to the underwater world during offshore fishing trips in the Gulf Stream. âWe were heading 150 miles offshore and fishing and diving with a number of pelagic species that most wouldn’t think they could find off the coast of New England,â he says. “It was another HUGE influence for me and an aha moment.”
Fresh out of URI, Harrington traveled to California and settled in San Diego. He’s posted his work everywhere – including spearfishing forums and Craigslist – in hopes of being discovered. Finally, he had a snack. Forrest Galante, the host of Extinct or Alive, found him at a spearfishing site and recruited him as a cameraman for a shoot in Mexico in 2016 launching a line of wetsuits. “Forrest asked me, ‘What would your rate be? âChicken scratch,â he adds with a thoughtful laugh.
A chicken scratch that pays off, nonetheless. Combinations in Mexico led Galante to hire Harrington for his first professional gig, filming an episode of the History Channel Confront the beast in Myanmar, where he and his team were the first whites most locals had ever interacted with. âNo words could describe the very simple but epic memories we shared as complete strangers,â he later wrote. In 2019, Harrington and his crew from Project 1Z accompanied Galante to the Amazon; the Galapagos for the first documented sighting of the Fernandina Island turtle in over a century; and in Vietnam and Son Doong cave in search of the saola (Asian unicorn).
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The recent trip to Baja was a total rush. Socorro is a volcanic island (it last erupted in 1993) and its underwater habitat is teeming with infant marine life. âThe lava provides structure,â says Harrington, and flora and fauna settle in and thrive. âThere were sharks and gravid tunas everywhere. It is a high place for diving.
“But it also gave me a sad feeling,” he adds, “to know that this is what the ocean looked like everywhere.” It also bothers him that humans kill 100 million sharks a year and that the shark population has fallen by around 70% worldwide since 1970, according to a recent study by the journal Nature.
âEvery species is different,â he says, taking on the role of shark whisperer. âThey have different temperaments, behavioral cues that you can focus on. You can tell when a shark is angry and when it is interested. They are like dogs. They growl, they move closer, they retreat. Harrington is never separated from the sharks by a cage and compares their sighting in their element to an underwater ballet.
Despite the fact that there is a letterbox in San Diego with his name on it, Harrington, who turned 30 on July 17, says he calls Newport home – despite not living in his truck . He becomes poetic about the happiness of driving on the Newport Pell Bridge after being away, and he searches for ways to reconnect. Last fall he began to partner with Newport Safe Harbor Shipyard develop video content for his website. Beyond that, he foresees a potential narrative “in the many stories in the history of New England fishing culture – the way things used to be, how they are now, and where we are going to move forward.” I can’t wait to tell them.
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When we spoke he was getting ready to take Land shark in another adventure for an episode of Shark week (Shark Week episodes can be viewed on discovery +). âLocked down and loaded,â he announced, âfor another cold dive with the gang somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.â This meant that there would be no annual summer trip to the house. And no Folk festival – which hurts a bit, since there was no music in 2020 because of the pandemic.
âSuch a disappointment! ” he says. âBut you can’t have it all.