EXPANDING THE HORIZONS
Inspired by the spirit of mountain exploration captured in the Montblanc 1858 collection, August Man Malaysia presents avid travellers Michael Helfman and Ismael Ma
Ismael Ma CAPTURING NATURE’S BEST
A photographer by trade and an outdoor enthusiast, Ismael Ma has all the makings to explore the world in detail and turn scenic views and personal moments into lasting memories in the form of evocative, panoramic pictures. Upon receiving his first camera at the age of 18, he set off to Egypt on an exchange programme and had his first taste of photography. What he soon discovered was a passion for documenting his travels and new experiences in vivid style.
It was later, while pursuing his higher education in Hawaii, that Ismael’s budding passion really flourished and inspired him to take up the job of a photojournalist at the student-run newspaper. Today, he credits the beautiful islands and their rugged features, tropical foliage and colourful beaches for having helped him find his focus - nature and landscapes - and hone his skills.
“In Hawaii, almost every weekend we would go out on a hike, or chase the waterfall, especially when it had been raining the day before. Whether it was a lookout point or a cliff, it was always breath-taking,” Ismael recalls.
Since then, Ismael has carved out a career in photography for himself and joined a group of individuals at Domus Creative, a mutli-disciplinary creative studio specialised in content creation and social media management. While producing commercial work, he continues his love affair with nature, capturing a new discovery with every shot he takes.
What is your approach to photography in your travels?
When you see something breath-taking, you usually want to take a picture first. And then you take your time and walk around, and really take in the scenery and atmosphere, study the landscape and go over the framing, and finally take the shots that you want to get. It’s a lot of trial and error, but, thanks to digital technology, you don’t have to worry about wasting film strips.
What do you enjoy most about exploring the outdoors.
It’s a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, to feel recharged and rejuvenated. You will feel lucky to be alive, especially when you arrive at somewhere breath-taking and feel like you want to stay here a little longer.
Are there any specific elements or features that you’re particularly drawn to?
Often I discover that there is more to a location than what it is popularly known for. For example, during my recent trip to the Tip of Borneo, Sabah, I knew what the tip was going to look like, what kind of landmarks and symbols it has, like the big bronze globe monument, but I didn’t know that the surrounding beaches are so pristine. Everyone asked me where I took those pictures and said that they never knew such places existed in Malaysia. They are like these little hidden gems that you accidentally stumble upon, and they are usually the finest.
What is the main takeaway for you every time you take a photo?
A picture without a caption is just a picture. It’s the story behind that makes a photo meaningful. For example, the Bajau Laut people, the “Sea Gypsies”... I have just learned a lot about their culture, how they barter trade, etc. They don’t even know their own age because they are born and raised on an island and all they do is barter fish for rice and other basic needs. That background story that goes with the photos is what I’m trying to capture the experience.
Nature can be unpredictable. How do you cope with an unexpected change in weather?
Once, we were hit by a storm on the way to our destination, but when we got there, the storm cleared up and, for a moment, a small window of sunshine appeared and it was breath-taking. Things don’t always go right and that’s fine. You just have to take one step at a time, play it by ear and stay positive - that’s when you find your silver lining.
Michael Helfman THE HIKE OF A LIFETIME
Hailing from the US, New Yorker Michael Helfman has made Malaysia his second home for close to 10 years now. He started out in media and advertising, and, later, charmed by the mystique and rich culture of Borneo, produced and directed the adventure-thriller The Borneo Incident (2012), starring Henry Golding in his first feature-length role. The found-footage film tells the story of five fun-loving friends documenting their travels from New York to Borneo, particularly Henry’s search for his Iban roots, and the horrors that follow after delving too deep into the wilderness.
Since then, Michael has gone from capturing the imagination to delighting the palate, in characteristic New York style, by establishing his own F&B business which now includes Mikey’s Original New York Pizza, set up with the help of famous New York pizza chef Andrew Bellucci to bring the New York Slice to Malaysia, and the newly open NY Burger Co. at 1 Mont Kiara, designed to offer gourmet-quality burgers at an accessible price point.
“I think food is a very important way to experience a culture. Wherever I go, I would try the local cuisine. Being an American, from New York, I miss my cuisine. That’s why I want to bring it here and have something that reminds me of home, a bit of my hometown that I can share with the people here,” said Michael.
In addition, Michael has started a family of his own with Gabrielle Tan, the director of marketing for The Gardens Mall, and together they have a son. Having hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia all the way to Maine and climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the F&B entrepreneur inspires his wife with his wanderlust and love for the outdoors. Together, they have trekked the Annapurna Circuit and, just two years ago, hiked as far as all the way to the Everest Base Camp. In the following, Michael gives a personal insight into their extraordinary journey and what they took home with them.
What kind of landscapes did you have to trek through and what did you see along the way?
When you get near Mount Everest, it’s almost like a desert, huge fields of sand, miles of glaciers, a 5km-long quarry with gigantic boulders. You feel like you’re on another planet, because it’s like nothing you’ll ever experience in everyday life. There was no road, no car; the trail is the highway. It’s the highway of the people, the highway of business. You’ll see some people walking with 10 rolls of toilet paper or a few cases of beer on their back. The person is basically the beer truck, unbelievable. The mules are like the trains. We were just awed by the completely different way of life. It’s incredible how they managed to build a community there. As you go higher, the landscape just gets more barren, but then everything just seems so much bigger - the mountains, the valleys, everything. If you ever want an ego check, you go to Nepal and you go hiking.
Which part of the adventure did you find most thrilling?
The flight from Kathmandu to Lukla, the jumpoff point into the Everest region. The airport in Lukla is certainly one of the most dangerous airports in the world. I would say it has a runway with a range of about 250m, cut into the side of the mountain. If you overshoot the runway, you’ll crash right into the mountains; when taking off, if you don’t have enough airspeed, you’ll fall off the mountain. These pilots are badass. They are landing at this airport multiple times every day.
How has the journey changed your life?
It makes you appreciate what we have. It gives you the perspective of just how small we are, but it also gives you the perspective of how much a person can accomplish from being able to climb a mountain like that. My wife and I have decided that going to the Everest Base Camp is going to be one of the rites of passage for my son, something which I’ve noticed is largely missing for kids these days. Traditionally, cultures have had initiations or ceremonies of some kind where a person goes from a child to an adult, usually a physical task. But we’ve lost a lot of that. That’s something that we’re going to reinstate in our family. Also, it felt really great to be disconnected. Once you’re disconnected, you will realise that so much of all these things happening in the news, in our lives, don’t matter as much as you think they do at the end of the day. And then you realise you’re not missing that much. The world goes on, and when you come back, it’s like it never happened. AM
Ismael Ma wears MONTBLANC1858 Geosphere in steel with aged Sfumato calfskin bund strap