A question of style, substance, and Teddy Bear Grylls.
A lot of people really love Bear Grylls. A lot of other people really don’t. I recently went to see Andy Kirkpatrick giving a talk during his UK tour and (needless to say if you’ve ever read Andy’s blog) he’s one of the ones who really doesn’t. Poor old Edward. Sorry, Ted. I mean Teddy. Teddy Bear. Whatever his name is, people just seem to think he’s a money-grubbing fake.
But the thing about Teddy Bear Grylls is that he can’t be a fake, because he doesn’t really exist. The Bear that we know is both a product of our society and a product marketed right back at us in order to sell us stuff. Bear is branded adventure moulded into exquisite human form, and adventure is the new sex, ergo Bear sells.
The logic seems to work, if landing a sitting US President as a guest on your adventure show is anything to go by. Bear is now the ubiquitous muddy face of adventure and exploration, and the public perception of both of those worthy pursuits are unfairly diminished as a result. Again, that’s not his fault. If it wasn’t him they would have found someone else, and before too long these kinds of roles will be performed by robots and code in virtual reality machines.
I don’t claim to own the right to define either adventure or exploration, but I do think there is a need to claw back our collective ownership of these definitions, because by displaying them exclusively within the frames of danger, drama, and conquest over nature these Teddy Bear marketeers deny space for the more traditional and humble frames of curiosity, scientific inquiry, personal introspection, the widening of perspectives through contact with other cultures, communion with nature, and a desire to expand our collective human wisdom and experience.
They carelessly poison the section of society that eats this stuff up, and they make a probably large section of the rest of society suspicious of all adventure and exploration, no matter how rarely either of these pursuits require their participants to eat raw or indeed living animals in order to survive.
Which puts those of us working in this burgeoning industry who are somewhat reliant on our own personal ‘brands’ for our incomes into a bit of a quandary. I will speak only for myself here but I know I’m not alone. I can sum up the question we face in six short words: to Bear or not to Bear?
Style vs Substance
When we see what sells the temptation is to emulate, in style if not in substance. If I call myself a modern explorer (because I don’t know what else to call myself and I’m in a book that lists so-called modern explorers) but I don’t present myself as the dominant image of how an explorer ‘should’ look, then will I be taken seriously?
If I think about my peers, grant applications and awards then I know that the answer is yes, I will be taken seriously: substance counts over style every time. But one of the main goals of exploration is to reach a wide audience with your findings, discoveries and stories, and in this case I’m not so sure of the appeal of my own unfiltered ‘style’.
When it comes to many things I take style quite seriously. I’m a creative person and I appreciate good design. I think I would consider calling myself an Expedition Designer if I thought I could get away with it, since I consider the design of an expedition to be something of an art form, and I get a deep sense of satisfaction when I create and deliver a project that both works well and ‘feels’ aesthetically pleasing. It’s one reason I am so excited about the planned Sanduki Pinnacle Expedition.
Crafting the style of an expedition is one thing. I don’t think an expedition needs to be presented as incredibly tough and dangerous with the constant threat of being eaten alive by something or someone in order to interest people. But I’ve always found ‘marketing’ myself incredibly difficult. I think it’s because of this fear of not appearing like the popular forms of either traditional or contemporary ‘explorers’.
It’s probably simply because I can’t grow a massive beard and have a tendency to smile instead of scowl. I don’t look how people have been trained to expect people who do what I do to look, so how can I be trusted to have actually done the things I claim to have done? Perhaps I look so fresh faced because I really just sleep in a 5 star hotel for the duration of my projects while other people do all the hard work.
Bukit Batikap Expedition
All of this was prompted by a series of selfies taken with a go pro on top of one of the most remote mountain peaks in Borneo. That expedition was one of the most incredible things I have ever done, but the photos that capture my moment at the summit are all just a bit crap (all my camera batteries had died except for one GoPro battery that lasted about 2 minutes at the summit). I’m constantly tempted to edit them to make me look as epic as I felt at the time, especially when I’m looking for promotional photos.
A few weeks ago I applied a new filter and I got the look that I was after, but then I just laughed at myself because it was just so over the top and completely false when compared to the original.
So here is one of the originals that resembles how I ordinarily look during an expedition: tired and kind of geeky.
And here is the scowling version with filter and various edits applied:
I’m pretty sure I know which one would sell more books or tickets to see me give a talk, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m above that. Who knows, maybe this image will make it onto the home page of this site, with this little blog acting as my get out card (“I’ll play the game but I’ll also tell you that I’m playing it if you care to listen…”).
But I write this to perhaps create a little debate, and also to remind myself that no matter what presentational artifices I adopt either now or in future, I will never put style before substance.
THANKS FOR READING :)
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This is probably the biggest debate I have with myself trying to pursue a living in adventures. A big part of what I write about is trying to convey how adventure felt for me, regardless of how many people would struggle/not struggle with whatever I am doing. So I constantly worry I'm being overly dramatic or narcissistic. It's also hard to balance between just getting on with stuff against having to market yourself to eek out some income or support. While I'm not a huge fan of Bear, I do think he is a bit of a gateway drug to the outdoors for a lot of kids who wouldn't normally think about going outside. What he lacks in authenticity he makes up for by marketing organisations like the Scouts, which in turn help create the next generation of explorers. A sad sign of how things have gone that you need to eat poo to catch people's attention perhaps?