The ul­ti­mate high-flyer

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What is the most dan­ger­ous job in the UAE? Fire­fight­ing? High- rise win­dow clean­ing? How about pho­tograph­ing peo­ple as you are tum­bling through the air af­ter jump­ing out of an air­plane?

So far in his high-fly­ing ca­reer, Juan Mayer, from Ar­gentina, has jumped more than 11,000 times. He ad­mits be­ing a sky­div­ing pho­tog­ra­pher is a risky job.

“I’ve been on many jumps that have gone wrong and led to ter­ri­ble ac­ci­dents,” says the 45 year old. “Not be­cause of faulty equip­ment, but be­cause of hu­man er­ror. Sky­div­ing is a very safe sport but we make it un­safe, be­cause when you get into the sport you’re al­ways trying to push your lim­its.”

This is an un­usual line of work, as Mayer read­ily ad­mits. It is an ex­clu­sive club – there are only about 20 pro­fes­sional sky­div­ing pho­tog­ra­phers in the world, and they all know each other.

For the past six years Mayer has been based at Skydive Dubai, where he spends most of his time pho­tograph­ing peo­ple in the skies over Palm Jumeirah who are do­ing air­craft ac­ro­bat­ics, sky­danc­ing, wing­suit fly­ing, base jump­ing and wind tun­nel fly­ing, as well as just plain old run-of-the-mill sky­div­ing.

Some of his most hair-rais­ing jumps have been the world record at­tempts he has pho­tographed, in­clud­ing one that in­volved 168 sky­divers jump­ing to­gether.

“You can­not mess that kind of photo up be­cause hun­dreds of sky­divers are de­pend­ing on you, so they can prove to the world that world record hap­pened,” he says. “In those cases, it’s so high pres­sure and I’m feel­ing very ner­vous. At that mo­ment be­fore we jump, I’m think­ing, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ But once I’ve fin­ished, I want to do it again.” When you are at such a great height that you need an oxy­gen mask to breathe, as has been the case on some of Mayer’s ad­ven­tures (at 25,000 feet), there is no room for er­ror. Whereas a ground-based pho­tog­ra­pher gets the chance to leisurely shoot many pic­tures from a va­ri­ety of an­gles and pick the best ones, for Mayer, time is of the essence and he has to make split-sec­ond de­ci­sions. The proper prepa­ra­tion is also cru­cial.

“Once I’m get­ting out of the plane, I have 60 sec­onds – max­i­mum 90 sec­onds – to shoot the pic­ture, so I need to know what the weather con­di­tions are and how the light is,” he says.

“Be­cause once I’ve jumped out of that plane, I can’t change any­thing. At the same time, I have to fly my body and fol­low some­one else jump­ing be­fore me. Some­times I’m with a good flyer, so I know ex­actly what they’ll do, but some­times they’re not ex­pe­ri­enced and might be fly­ing about all over the place, so I have to be guess­ing what they’ll do next.”

Though it might be a sunny day on the ground in Dubai, the light at 32,000 feet in the air can be quite dif­fer­ent, due to cloud cover and the sun ris­ing or set­ting.

“Once I’m in the plane, I’m still look­ing at the clouds and the an­gle of the sun, and chang­ing the set-up of the cam­era ac­cord­ingly,” Mayer says.

Two min­utes be­fore he jumps from the plane, the door is opened and he awaits his turn. He wears a home-made dead­cam de­vice cre­ated from a car­bon-fi­bre mo­tor­bike hel­met, which en­ables him to take pho­to­graphs while keep­ing his hands free for sky­div­ing.

He ex­plains that an Amer­i­can sky­div­ing pho­tog­ra­pher who used a sim­i­lar photo-tak­ing de­vice who died left an in­struc­tion man­ual on CD for fel­low sky­divers to copy his de­sign. Mayer adapted the in­struc­tions to cre­ate his own de­vice, which can house two cam­eras at a time, and lights can be fit­ted to the sides, as well.

“My hel­met is quite unique,” he says. “It has a flat top, where I put on the cam­era, which has con­nec­tions at­tached to a tube. Ev­ery time I want to take a pho- to, I blow through the tube.” Mayer sees ex­actly the same view the cam­era will cap­ture through spe­cial cir­cu­lar frames po­si­tioned in front of his eyes. “It’s like shoot­ing a gun,” he says. “It is very re­li­able, but it takes hours to cal­i­brate ev­ery­thing.”

When he jumps and is fall­ing through the air, fo­cused on get­ting the per­fect shot, “noth­ing else mat­ters”, says Mayer.

“It forces you to live in the mo­ment, which is a relief for your mind,” he adds. “When you’re on the ground you’re think­ing about phone mes­sages, prob­lems or meet­ings – but once that plane door opens, your mind is clear of those stupid things.”

But he can’t be too car­ried away, as he has to also re­mem­ber to pull the rip cord to open his para­chute out, be­fore its too late.

“Some­times I get to the time limit when I have to open the canopy, but at the same time I see the op­por­tu­nity for a nice photo,” he says.

“So some­times I go a lit­tle bit lower than you should be­fore I open the canopy. I’ve had a few dan­ger­ous mo­ments, I can’t say [oth­er­wise]. But I’ve never been badly hurt.”

It might all sound in­cred­i­bly risky, but to Mayer, his job is child’s play. “I feel like when I’m sky­div­ing, I’m a kid again, play­ing in the sky,” he says, smil­ing.

Mayer has re­leased a book of his favourite sky­div­ing pho­to­graphs, Ul­ti­mate High, and last year he set up a com­pany, Aerosports Me­dia, that spe­cialises in cap­tur­ing pho­to­graphs and videos of dar­ing aerial stunts. He has pho­tographed plenty of high- pro­file vet­eran jumpers, but also those who skydive as a once- ina-life­time ex­pe­ri­ence.

“It doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence if you have money, or what colour or re­li­gion you are,” he says. “Up in the air, we’re all equal, and that’s amaz­ing.”

Check out a gallery fea­tur­ing more of Mayer’s most in­cred­i­ble pic­tures at www. then­ational.ae/arts-life.

Cour­tesy Juan Mayer

A sky­diver over the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Sky­div­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Juan Mayer is one of only about 20 pro­fes­sion­als in the world who cap­tures such thrilling images.

Cour­tesy Juan Mayer

For­ma­tion – in or­ches­trated group jumps the pres­sure is on and ev­ery sec­ond counts to get the best images.

Vic­tor Besa for The Na­tional; Cour­tesy Juan Mayer

Left, Juan Mayer at Skydive Dubai, with his cam­eras af­fixed to his spe­cially-adapted hel­met. Above and right, the sky’s the limit for the dare­devil pho­tog­ra­pher.

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