Neil Shea@neilshea13

writes, shoots, makes films for National Geographic. Short stories + collabs here.

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Neil Shea

Resolute Bay — A few hours north and the world is transformed. The word that comes first to mind is “simplified,” but that is misleading. The visual clutter of the south has been sheared away. Beyond that, nothing is simple here. The yellow lichen on the stones, the few tiny shrubs here and there between the cobbles. They work hard to live. So do the animals, and the human families. I’m stuck here overnight with bad weather. So I hike, heading away from where the polar bear was spotted, to the top of Signal Hill. Facing south there is no sound but the wind and the faint distant growl of a generator. When the wind shifts, laughter and dog howls rise from the village by the sea. A photographer I know, somewhere out in the Arctic sea on an icebreaker, warns in an email that there’s more rough weather headed this way. Fingers crossed. Keep moving

#arctic #canada #resolutebay #northwestterritories #ellesmere #nunavut #cornwallis #eurekaweatherstation #cold #inuit #tundra #wolves #southerneyes


Neil Shea

Yellowknife — Last days of summer on Great Slave Lake. The light is thick, sweet, and in the morning there is a coolness telling of what will come. At the public dock a woman sits in a boat, selling fish. She watches me kneel and dip my arm into the dark water. Jump, she says. Jump in. It’s warm as it ever gets. And it is—at least much warmer than I expected. A raft of dead summer insects whirls past my hand. Gulls loop over bright houseboats. Two flights to go, and then Ellesmere, where warmth is something you carry, like water, keeping it close and trying not to let it spill out. My pals up there keep sending little notes about the wolves they have been working with. Right now the pack is sleeping on the tundra, in freezing rain. Like it was nothing. Last night an Inuit friend teased me about my southern eyes, which are untrained and no good for picking out animals across distance. He said, Good thing the wolves up there let you get close.

#arctic #canada #yellowknife #northwestterritories #ellesmere #nunavut #eurekaweatherstation #cold #inuit #tundra #wolves #southerneyes


Neil Shea

Saul, laying out supper late last year. Tomorrow I head north again, to Ellesmere Island, and this image helps me choose what goes into my pack. There is still some time, though, before north looks like this. Snow hasn’t hidden the earth and the white wolves may still wear their summer coats. But from the day I arrive the sun will begin setting. Slowly at first, dipping below the horizon briefly like a child fighting sleep. Then it will fall faster. And soon it will go down and stay there, tucked out of sight for months. Some say it has been a strange year in the north. More rain, less sun, the wolves not where they’re supposed to be, their dens filled with ice instead of pups. Farther south, some Netsilik say more bears have wandered in, others say they have seen fewer. So far the hares and foxes seem to be doing the same old. I sit in my apartment gathering information and balling up socks and breathing in the licorice scent of new rubber boots. I have never been to Ellesmere, but in my daydreams it has already taken shape, and the cold I am preparing for is in my mind like the cold I felt last year, with Saul. These memories and data points come along like extra baggage, and they remind me that, in this some sense, we are always traveling toward mirages, imaginary places. This richest, most transcendent human ability is also a great hazard. A book I’m reading tells of explorers who sailed north in 1879 expecting to find a tropical sea at the pole—it was the leading scientific theory of the age. Later, as ice crushed their ship, they must have stared at the horizon, wondering where the cold turned warm.

#arctic #canada #ellesmere #eurekaweatherstation #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #tundra #inuit #natsilik #elders #hunter #char #polarbear #cold #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes


Neil Shea

photo by @dguttenfelder | words by @neilshea13 — You’ve been waiting for this. Suit up, sit down, engines on. In a cartoon skin you’ll cruise the neon dream of Tokyo a few inches off the pavement, head level with the wheels of passing trucks. It costs less than a hundred bucks. Takes an hour or two. Probably you’ve wanted to do this for a long time, maybe without knowing—to bash through this city, indestructible, invincible, even a little kawaii. To dye your hair blue, green or purple, do battle with a tentacled demon and finish your run with beers and a bowl of ramen. How much of your imagination do you owe to Tokyo, anyway? How many games, movies, monsters and heroes rolled out of Japan’s cramped studios and into your childhood? Giant robots, Hello Kittys, Power Rangers, dragon balls. You learn a lot about a person based on the mecha they remember—Gai-King, Gundam, Voltron, the Evas. Or the way their afternoons vanished into Sailor Moon or Super Mario Bros., Naruto, Pokemon, Tetris* on a Game Boy. This country’s culture flows deep and swift through our memories, and its roar—the bleeps and burps, one-ups and game-overs—has become our background noise, like apps we never closed, like TVs left on till dawn. In the stories we saw Tokyo fall and burn a thousand times and each morning rise again from the ashes, resetting the stage. So when you arrive here it will be a kind of homecoming. Signs and symbols may seem foreign at first but relax, get in the car. You’ll know what to do. You’ve been training for years and years.

#japan #tokyo #akihabara #ueno #asakusa #ginza #anime #mecha #manga #mariocart #maricar #kawaii #gocart #otaku #gundam #neotokyo #ngmtokyo


Neil Shea

At dusk the largest city in the world becomes most clearly a map of desire. Crowds pouring homeward, following quiet rivers in their concrete channels, pulsing through the subways, clean and bright. 38 million people passing expectantly through the stations of work and sleep. They are all waiting for someone, hoping for something. In between office and pillow, there’s a certain kind of room, and the city too has been waiting—the pubs and markets, fish stalls and manga cafes and everything else without name. It is mostly a male geography. The rules are old and easy to follow. Just beyond the subway are the gambling parlors which flash and bang in endless frenzy. Clouds of cigarette smoke roll out the doorways like thick wet tongues. Beyond these, in the pleasure districts, men in ties stand at the roadside hoping to catch your gaze. Come inside, sir? Excellent selection here. With decks of cards they show you the faces for sale. And beyond these are quiet neighborhoods where last trains drop columns of exhausted red-faced salarymen. And here, finally, is where the old rules run out. Here, among the sleeping temples, coin laundries and lost bicycles wait desires less well-mapped—the dark matter that drives the universe. You will find it in any neighborhood. Pick one. Walk it after dark. On a balcony high above the street a window opens and out reaches a pale thin arm, pulling in laundry. There is the chirp of a pulley, a cat watching on a ledge. Somewhere children are laughing. This is the city of the future. You notice that nothing is ever dropped.
#tokyo #nihon #nakameguro #shinjuku #asakusa #arakawa #cities #urbanity #desire #ngmtokyo #onassignment With @dguttenfelder


Neil Shea

Photo by @dguttenfelder | words by @neilshea13 — The little god is heavy. Divinely dense. Forty men at least sweat and burn beneath the weight as they haul the god in its miniature shrine through the narrow streets of Minowa, a blue collar neighborhood in northeastern Tokyo. Slow progress, thick happy crowds. Halfway down each block the men pause and then begin to rock the shrine back and forth, back and forth, shaking away evil spirits. It isn’t gentle work. Not the slow roll of a baby’s crib but the desperate pitch of a boat in a storm, riding a sea of sunburnt arms and shoulders. With each wave there’s fear of a wreck. This Shinto festival celebrating good fortune and close-knit community comes once in three years, and by evening the men show off bruises, broken skin, strange lumps that swell behind the neck. There’s a word for them: mikoshi-tako. It means something like “shrine callus,” though these are fluid-filled and jiggle like Jell-O, like water balloons. Here is the price of exorcism. But the crowd is grateful and thrilled—chanting along to a rhythm of grunts and shrill whistles. A man with a megaphone shouts Work harder! and the crowd answers with a cheer. All around is the scent of grilled meat and incense, and from ice-packed coolers at the sidewalk plastic cups of booze flow quickly toward the weary shrine-carriers. Go home bruised, not thirsty—it’s a faith St. Patrick would know. Outside his flower shop a man named Kurihara watches the god rock. No other neighborhood shakes their shrine so violently, he says. His face is red with drink, voice coarse with smoke. He tugs back the collar of his cotton robe, pats the lump and says Our god likes it rough.

#tokyo #minowa #nihon #matsuri #shinto #festival #religion #arakawa #cities #urbanity #amaterasu #onassignment #ngmtokyo


Neil Shea

photo by @dguttenfelder | words by @neilshea13 — You can go up a little higher. There’s a roof deck above, with room for a helicopter, plenty of sunshine, a breeze to whisper through your hair. But the view won’t change: in all directions this city flows to the horizon, except where its ambition breaks against the sea. Tokyo is the world’s largest city. It’s the largest city the world has ever known. And while you understand this as fact—it’s countable, measurable, easy to get lost in—superlatives never capture beauty. They don’t tell how a thing survives and evolves, where it frays and heals or fails to. So we’re walking across this city. Ward by ward, hood by hood, for an upcoming story in Nat Geo magazine. We’re looking for the knots that draw 38 million stories together into the human epic called Tokyo. Edward Glaeser wrote that cities are proximity, density, the removal of space between businesses and people. Yes, and. Tokyo is the brown-and-white pony we met on the sidewalk this morning, eating a carrot from a cardboard box. It’s legends of samurai and print-makers, alongside the hidden stories of brothel girls whose ashes lie in a temple near the city center. It’s the little monument honoring the souls of fish who become sushi, and it’s the old fishmonger families who work next door. A city is a story we tell ourselves, each day a different version. So we’re walking. Join us for more as we go.

#tokyo #japan #nihon #roppongi #roppongihills #tokyocityview #edo #cities #natgeo #NGMtokyo


Neil Shea

Kan’ei-ji temple, Tokyo — Through the lightning and earthquakes, the battles and the fires that followed, some places outlast the worst of us. / More than a decade ago I landed in Japan with a handful of vocab words and no idea what I was in for. First time I’d traveled abroad, first time I’d lived outside my own language. I didn’t know then how much language shapes our perception of reality, or how lost I’d get in the year ahead. Now I’m in Tokyo for a story and old words flood in. Some of them are helpful, practical: Arigato, shinkansen, sumimasen. The rest are odd, like details from a fading dream—inoshishi, higurashi, inari. I guess I was thinking a lot about wild boar, cicadas, and fox-gods. Who knows. Japan does that to you. I’m glad to be back.

#tokyo #nihon #ueno #taito #kanda #kaneiji #tokyonationalmuseum #buddhism #shinto #miyazaki #natgeo #instajapan


Neil Shea

photos by @randyolson | words by @neilshea13 — At that time of year the water ran high and from a boat you could spot trails made by gravid females as they hauled themselves up the riverbank to scratch nests in fresh mud. If you were daring or hungry or poor enough, the nests waited like prizes at the tops of those raw slick ruts—caches filled with 40, 50, 60 eggs, each a tiny universe of salt and protein. The best hunters worked in teams. Some of the boys dug into the nest while others watched for mother, who might return at any moment. It was hard to imagine, during those raids, the one-ton potential of the creatures curled inside the eggs—to imagine those baby crocs hatching and growing huge on a diet of dogs and barramundi, haunting the rivers for a century. Easier to just fill a bucket and trade them in at a croc farm for a few bucks. Anyway you’d never see how they turned out—flensed and stretched into belts. You’d never wear the expensive boots made from bellies and tails. Hunger was your outfit, and so you scooped out the eggs and let the cash warm your pocket for a while. The rest of us, having forgotten the ancient nightmare—the one about being eaten alive—watch from safe distance. We stay in the boat, daydreaming of close calls, Crocodile Dundee and animal welfare. Not needing to risk all for an egg, we pay for reminders of how often we ended up lunch.

#australia #topend #northernterritory #outback #bush #outback #adelaideriver #saltwatercrocodile #crocodile #barramundi #rivers #natgeo #photographers #writers #adryseason #watershedstories

Part of a series exploring the small stories that surround and connect us, and how we stumble through them—capturing, missing, and making meaning.


Neil Shea

Montgomery, Alabama — I have been looking for someone. He was murdered more than 50 years ago—lynched, shot, burned—and so I take what I can get to write his story: Letters, deeds, memories; I’ll take rumors, too, and forgotten details, gaps, dates misremembered and yellow faded newspapers. Even the lies, once worthless, may now after ages have value. For while there is no statue of limitations when it comes to murder, most lies have a shelf-life and these are thin as old onion skins. One of the places I search is the new museum and memorial dedicated, in part, to victims of lynching. The man I seek is not here, but the names of thousands of others appear, cut into 800 monuments beautiful and terrible and not quite wide as a coffin. You should come. Wander, wonder in the heat. Let this place work on you. In America we are each part of the unfinished business. The night before I visited, I heard John Lewis tell how he had been arrested 40 times before his election into Congress and five times after that. I suspect, he said, smiling, that I have yet more arrests ahead. Everyone in the audience laughed and believed him for Lewis is the sort of man who does not stop. “There are forces today in America trying to take us back,” he said, “but we will not go back. We will redeem the soul of America and put an end to racial violence.” There was more than hope in his words—there was the authority of its long and meticulous practice. And later, standing below the steel boxes, I knew I could not look for one murdered man without seeing all the others.

Thanks to @eji_org, @repjohnlewis, and the many others whose hard work and dedication made this memorial possible.

#montgomery #alabama #eji #civilrights #lynching #memorial #monument #unfinished #endmassincarceration #bryanstevenson @lynnnottage @tgerber63 @tator_hmmm


Neil Shea

photo by @randyolson | words by @neilshea13 — Listen to locals on Easter Island and they’ll tell you the big statues once walked—loped out of the quarry and over the treeless hills to set themselves up on dark stone pedestals near the shore or plant themselves, backs to the sea, farther inland. It’s a good story and true, but if it does not answer your questions then archaeologists will offer another, one of earthly forces, friction and gravity, ropes and logs. Teams of men and maybe women who tipped, wobbled and pulled nearly 900 moai across the landscape to anchor the sky to earth and the ancestors to their children. This also is a good, true story. So, which will it be? Magic or data, faith or muscle? Both have their attractions. Both deliver you into a world that Europeans glimpsed only for a moment before it vanished. You could choose the middle ground, somewhere between a stroll and a drag, but these days nobody lasts very long in there. Take your time deciding, then. There’s really no wrong answer. In the meantime, I feel compelled to mention that this moai—sunken, surrounded by divers—is fake. Yeah. It’s concrete. Cast onshore and then dumped, not so long ago, into the sea. I’m sorry. I wanted it to be real, too—this figure, alone, walking out beyond the others. It would have been the best story of all.

#chile #easterisland #rapanui #polynesian #moai #captaincook #oceans #science #myth #archaeology #carving #engineering #wildcountry #explorer #scuba #natgeo #photographers #writers #adryseason #watershedstories #remulon

Part of a series exploring the small stories that surround and connect us, and how we stumble through them—capturing, missing, and making meaning.


Neil Shea

photo by @randyolson | words by @neilshea13 — Larry said he did it all the time, walked Coco down a path behind the general store to the river and let him play. Nobody paid much mind. Normal to hear them crashing through the water, wrestling, like brothers. The guy who’d owned the store previously kept pit bulls, loud and mean, the neighbors said, awful things, and so Coco was an improvement even if people had never seen such a creature before in the Ozarks. Larry called him a cinnamon bear, though the chest stripe suggested a land far more exotic, and in the mornings you’d find him sitting on the bench swing outside the store, straight-backed, folded paws, just another customer waiting for Larry to open shop. Imagine that—You come over early looking for coffee and find Coco, silent and watchful, like you hadn’t yet come all the way up from a dream. Larry kept him on a chain most of the time and used the stick not for hurting but for guiding. Suggesting. Keeping a little distance. On this day, though, the play turned bad and Coco ended up on top of Larry, pinning him to the bottom of the Little Buffalo, watching his air go. It was a great game—all those bubbles, the little arms flailing, the lousy stick floating downstream. When Coco finally let off, Larry slowly rose and stood there in the water, half-drowned and drooling. Eventually the two dripped back toward shore. There were chores ahead, customers waiting. Day was getting hot. Who knows what had passed between them or where things went from there.

#arkansas #ozarks #littlebuffaloriver #bears #sunbear #bearsofinstagram #rivers #adryseason #watershedstories #new_haiga #wildcountry #backwoods #explorer #natgeo #photographers #writers

Part of a series exploring the small stories that surround and connect us, and how we stumble through them—capturing, missing, and making meaning.