Portrait by Gordon Wiltsie
Issue: Summer 2004
Alumni Profile - Through a Lens, Naturally
From the perilous cliffs of Mount Everest to the canopied Congolese forests, National Geographic filmmaker David Hamlin MFA ’94 documents the collision between civilization and fragile natural habitats.
His films also reveal the dangers that lurk in the wilds. This winter, he filmed the deadly power of avalanches in Avalanche: Surviving Tragedy,
which later aired on MSNBC’s “National Geographic Ultimate Explorer.”
The film looks at the deaths of 14 skiers, snowboarders and
snowmobilers in two Canadian snow slides in 2003, with Hamlin
interviewing survivors and relatives of those who didn’t make it out
“In the wake of disaster, these people are moving
forward, knowing the risks and rewards of venturing into the
wilderness,” says Hamlin.
The poignancy of the film recalls his earlier documentary, Stolen Days,
made during his days at USC’s School of Cinema-Television. Later shown
on PBS and at film festivals nationwide, the piece delved into the
emotional lives of young adults during their final months with terminal
cancer. With his brother Mark, then 36, dying of cancer, Hamlin was
intimately familiar with the weight of his subject. “It was the hardest
thing I have ever done,” he says. “But that film became my calling
Among his subjects has been world-renowned primatologist
Jane Goodall. On his first of two National Geographic films with her, Chimps in Crisis,
they revisited the preserve where she began studying chimpanzees in the
1960s. Hamlin captured Goodall’s exultation after they tracked down a
chimp named Fifi, whom Goodall first befriended 40 years ago.
moments like that when I feel two contradictory feelings: I feel lucky
to capture a moment so genuine that I know people will connect to it,”
he says. “But I also feel awkward to be there, as I intruded on Jane’s
Goodall, however, says she appreciated Hamlin’s fine eye and care for detail.
“He was enormously careful to get everything right,” she says. “He was a huge asset.”
first professional break came in 1984, when he took his camera on a
kayak trip to South Korea, then sold segments to NBC that aired during
the summer Olympics. Two decades later, he has solidified his
professional standing. He won an Emmy for a 1999 National Geographic
film on rock climbing on Baffin Island in the Arctic Ocean. And for the
past two years, he has produced a 26-episode series,“Reptile Wild,” for
National Geographic Channel, which documents the struggles of species
imperiled by the march of “progress” into once-pristine habitats. For
Hamlin, the experience reinforced a need for sound environmental
“I’ve come to realize that animal conservation is not
a wildlife issue as much as it is an economic issue,” he says.“People
need to develop sustainable economies so they don’t have to tear down
the forests or poach wildlife to survive.”
– David McKay Wilson
||Hamlin’s films capture both the intricacies and subtleties of the man/nature dynamic.
Camera Photos: NGT Inc.