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25 Years of National Geographic Explorer

By Benjamin Shaw

More than 2,000 films. Nearly 60 Emmys. Tonight, the National Geographic Channel celebrates the first quarter-century of cable television’s longest-running documentary series with a two-hour special, Explorer: 25 Years. I spoke with long-time National Geographic Explorer host Boyd Matson about some of his most memorable moments with the show.

You were the host of Explorer for nine years, from 1993 to 2002. The first thing I want to hit upon is a story you’ve told before. (We’ve told many of these stories before on National Geographic Weekend.) People will instantly recognize the iconic image of the Afghan girl, and you were there when she was found again. Tell us about how that happened.

National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry took a picture in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, of a young Afghan girl who came out of the fighting when the Soviets had invaded that country. Something about her face, the expression, but primarily the eyes, captured the imagination of the world. They were these piercing green eyes that seemed to bore right into you and convey the whole plight of the Afghan refugee.

The photo became a famous magazine cover around the world, and people copied it and printed it on posters and calendars, and even wove it into carpets in that part of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Nobody really knew what had happened to the Afghan girl. We didn’t even know her name. Steve McCurry had taken maybe six pictures of her altogether, which is very unusual for a National Geographic photographer: When you find an interesting subject, you usually crank off a few hundred shots.

18 years later, the wondering came to a head because the refugee camp where he had taken the original photo was being torn down, and we decided to go back and see if we can find her–this is the last real shot. Of course, you can’t just walk down the street and look at people and see if someone looked like her because, at this point, women her age were all covered under a burka. It’s a very Islamic county.

We showed the picture around, and some guy said “Oh, I knew her. I grew up in the tent next to her in the refugee camp. And not only did I know her, I know her brother and where he lives today back in Afghanistan.” He offered to go try to find the brother. We weren’t sure anything would come of that, because we’d had several false leads people brought to us. They had said, “This is her! This is her!” And it turned out not to be the girl.

He called a couple days later and said, “Not only did we find the brother, but his sister is living nearby and we’re bringing her back.” They show up in Peshawar, and I was fortunate enough to be there for this great moment: To see the unveiling. Her husband agreed that she could lift her burka, let us see her, talk to her, interview her. I did the interview with her.

In the course of asking her questions about the day the photo was taken, her answers convinced me she was indeed the Afghan girl. And I just thought–this is the moment that we found this person. The entire world has been wondering what happened to her. People would call up National Geographic and say, we want to help her, we want to make a donation in her name, we want to send her to school. And we would have to say we don’t know where she is. Now, we’ve suddenly found her.

It was a big moment. A very thrilling moment.

Did she know how famous she had become?

She had no idea that her picture was out there. That is surprising, considering how pervasive it was across Pakistan and even into Afghanistan. In fact, her husband was working in a bakery, and in the shop next door to that bakery there was a big poster of her from that original picture. Not one National Geographic put out: People just copied it, pirated it, put it out there.

I said, “How have you never seen this photo?” And she explained to me, “Well, you have to understand, both my husband and I are illiterate, don’t read or write. We never go into a place that sells those kinds of materials. We’ve never been in a bookstore. So we would have no chance to see that.”

Nobody else had seen it and recognized her, because casually, somebody might bump into her, but she’s covered by a burka so they wouldn’t see her.

I understand that so many people asking about this woman led to the development of the Afghan Girls Fund.

Yes. We asked her what she wanted in life, what could we do for her, what did she really want? And she said, “I want an education for my daughters.” She had three kids, three daughters. That opportunity had been taken away under the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it was not easy for girls to get an education.

We established a school in her name and began to raise money. As soon as people saw the story, they asked what they could do to help. National Geographic put up money and matched the funds that were sent in. We’ve raised, I think, more than a million and a half dollars for the cause so far. We’ve built two schools in Kabul for girls. National Geographic’s name is not on the schools, we didn’t want any of that. We just wanted to establish someplace that girls could go that would give them basic skills in reading and writing and teach them a skill that they could use to make a little money. So for instance, we teach them how to sew and make items they could sell. And we provide them a hot meal, which encourages families to send their daughters. They might get their only meal of the day there.

You’ve traveled extensively with Explorer over the nine years you were there. But not only traveling. You’ve put yourself into the story, put yourself out there for the story: Hanging off a helicopter over a volcano, skydiving, cave diving, being charged by hippos. What was the most harrowing moment of the nine years?

I have really been lucky working at National Geographic, especially those years at National Geographic Explorer where we went on location to do almost every show. We’d do 40, sometimes 60 shows in a year. So I’ve had a chance to experience a lot of adventure. It was all pretty exciting at the moment, although sometimes in retrospect I’d say, wow, how did I ever talk myself into doing that?

boyd_matson.jpg

Photograph of Boyd Matson by Jason Orphanon

Before I went out to have my first adventure with National Geographic, I remember them saying “Is there anything you don’t want to do or would feel uncomfortable with?” Two things, I said: One, I don’t want to appear on camera in a bathing suit (for personal reasons). And two, I don’t want to handle a lot of snakes, because I grew up around snakes, and I know if you handle enough of them you’re going to get bitten. I just don’t have a desire to be bitten.

Well of course, I ended up doing a lot of scuba diving. You didn’t see the bathing suit because it was always under a wetsuit. (And by the way, that also had its downfall: I remember once swimming with humpback whales. I’m in my big black wetsuit, and apparently I was quite attractive to a whale, because a male humpback rolled over and approached me in the mating position.)

I don’t even know why they bothered to ask me, because in the course of working for Explorer, I handled a lot of snakes. It didn’t bother me, but as predicted, I did get bitten. Fortunately, not by a venomous snake, but I got bitten a few times. It really didn’t bother me, though: I’d been sort of joking when I said that originally. Snakes are easy props–easy to find, easy to get, easy to hold, and they get people’s attention. So I’ve held hundreds of snakes, maybe thousands of snakes.

Sometimes, it’s not the venomous creatures that are hard to work with, it’s the ones that are a little more thoughtful, right? You had some experiences with chimps you were working with…

That’s right. We’re always fascinated with animals that, one, are related to us but, two, exhibit behaviors that are similar to human behaviors. So we love primates. You can clearly see they’re not human, but they act like little people sometimes.

Once, I was working with a chimp at a facility. They really are like teenagers with Attention Deficit Disorder–it’s hard to keep them focused, or to keep them sitting still long enough to actually do something with them on camera.

We were explaining a little bit about the chimp’s relationship to humans. Trying to keep the chimp calmed down, I was grooming him the way chimps do with each other. I had a little piece of grass, straw, and I was picking around in his fur before we began, just to keep him occupied. Then he proceeded to pick up a piece of grass and start grooming me while I’m talking.

I knew I should have stopped him, because he was pushing the straw around my ear. But we’re so close to finishing, I thought, I’ll just keep going. Sure enough, he took that little piece of grass and stuck it right through my eardrum. I heard this “Whoosh” as he poked a hole in my eardrum and the air rushed out. It prevented me from going scuba diving the next day. But it healed up. You recover.

You’ve spent plenty of time filming animals in Africa. Have you ever been surprised by one? I assume that chimp was used to people, but elephants, lions, hippos in the wild aren’t always so used to seeing people.

Yes, wild animals are totally unpredictable. Even captive animals are slightly unpredictable, because they’re still wild at heart. But in the wild, it can go any direction. You’re never sure what to do. There are certain behaviors you try to follow, but the bottom line is I’ve been charged by a few animals out there.

It can get the heart racing, being charged by hippos or elephants. I’ve had lions check me out. It wasn’t like going out in a tourist vehicle, sitting inside the vehicle. I actually was out, sitting down on the ground by a termite mound with wild lions walking behind me for a shot we wanted to get as I was explaining something. There was nothing between the lions and me. And the vehicle that was filming me was some considerable distance away.

So if the lion in that instance had charged, well, I guess I would now be one of those stories–it wouldn’t have been nine years with Explorer, what would it have been? Fast Animals, Slow People! I’d have been the star of that show.

So what do you do when an animal charges you?

That’s always been a debate–the rules that you’re supposed to follow if you’re charged. You shouldn’t turn your back and run, because that will often encourage the animal to keep coming towards you. If they see they’ve got you on the run, they’ll come after you. So the thought is you should stand your ground. They say if you’re approached by a bear in the United States, you should stand your ground, avert your eyes slowly, try to back out of the situation.

When I was charged by a hippo, we were actually in the water. Again, in retrospect, you ask yourself “What were you thinking?” But it made a great shot.

We’d had the discussion before we went into the water. You can’t turn and run, because you can’t run fast enough in the water, you can’t run as fast as a hippo. So what are you going to do? You try to stand there, hope they’ll realize you’re not moving, and then they will stop and reevaluate–think maybe this animal is tougher than I am. But they see that you’re not approaching them, so they’ll say, well, he’s not after me, so we’ll have a standoff, a stare-down.

It’s what you hope for, but of course, it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the animals do keep coming. People do get killed. That’s why there’s a debate. Maybe you should turn and run. Particularly with elephants, you kind of have to read what kind of charge it is. There are times that, if you’ve done it enough, you’ll know it’s going to be a mock charge and the elephant will stop. Usually.

And there are charges where it’s clear they won’t stop. We’ve had Mike Fay on the radio show talking about realizing that an elephant charge was for real, that it wasn’t going to stop, and getting stabbed by the tusks. So it can be serious.

This probably isn’t a fair question, like asking if you have a favorite child, but do you have a favorite Explorer show?

Gosh, do I have a favorite National Geographic Explorer episode? When you do the show for nine years, with multiple stories each week and maybe on average there were 45 shows a year, that’s a lot to pick from. There are things that stand out: Obviously, the Afghan Girl story because of its significance to so many people around the world, and actually being involved in a story that had so much impact. Knowing that as a result of it schools were established for young girls. Sharbat Gula, who is the Afghan Girl, her family now has a better life because she was found. That was important.

But I also remember adventures I’ve been on that I would never have had a chance to participate in had I not been working for National Geographic. Part of the adventure is being able to do it, and part is being able to do it with some of the best people in the field because I work for National Geographic.

Whether it’s scientists we’re out with, researchers. Or climbing through the icefall at Mt. Everest, when I’m there with a couple of the best climbers in the world, such as Pete Athans, who at that point had summited Everest more than any other American. You’re there with the people who understand the place where you are in a way that very few do, and you’re getting to experience it through their eyes and with their knowledge. So what really stands out, then, is the opportunity I’ve had being at National Geographic.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Working at National Geographic is a dream job. Well, I guess it’s a dream job for some people. If you don’t like sleeping on the ground and extreme weather and roughing it, it probably wouldn’t be your dream job. But for me it is. I’ve had a few injuries, fallen off of horses and motorcycles, had some broken bones, been in the hospital a few times, had some illnesses. Which only, to me, added to the experience. It’s all part of the package.

Mainly, it’s just been a great opportunity to work for a place and a company where, not only can you be proud of things that you’ve done, but you’re also proud of what the organization stands for. Here, you know that everything National Geographic is doing is about helping people care about the planet, learn about the planet, want to protect it and preserve it and make sure that its beauty and wonder exist for future generations. To be just peripherally part of that mission has been thrilling and rewarding.

Thanks for joining us on this 25th anniversary of Explorer.

Watch the premiere of Explorer: 25 Years at 9 p.m. EDT/PDT tonight on the National Geographic Channel.

Benjamin Shaw.jpgBenjamin Shaw produces the weekly radio program National Geographic Weekend with host Boyd Matson. Hear it on on XM/Sirius satellite radio (XM channel 133 Sundays at noon), subscribe to the iTunes podcast, or get the show streamed to your iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, or Android OS phone with Stitcher Radio.