The Heaven-Held Secret to Moments of Wonder: Mark Gee at TEDxChristchurch (Transcript)

Mark GeeĀ – Award winning photographer


So, yeah, I have to ask: “Have you ever stopped and actually watched the moonrise?” A few people. I am… I’ve watched many moonrises actually, and I am always amazed by the beauty of it.

Back in 2012, I was watching one such moonrise over the Mount Victoria Lookout in Wellington. It revealed the silhouettes of all these people up there, and that moment was when the idea of “Full Moon Silhouettes” originated. It took me a year of chasing this moon around and failed attempts trying to get this moonrise, but finally, on this perfectly clear and amazing evening, back in January, end of January 2013, I managed to film this moonrise like no other. I uploaded this video to the Internet, and it just went viral.

I started getting thousands of e-mails from people all over the world. This included e-mails from mainstream media wanting to have interviews with me. I had all these skeptics saying: “Well, you know, you faked it, it’s all false, it’s not real.” And then I had astronomers and academics, and scientists, and they are all doing the math, and to their surprise, their calculations matched the moonrise almost perfectly.

But the thing is that the most amazing e-mails I actually got, the most amazing and memorable e-mails I got, were just from ordinary people. People from all over the world who just wrote to me to thank me, and wanted to share their experiences of watching “Full Moon Silhouettes”. Some of these experiences were incredible, and are very personal experiences. I remember a few in particular. There was one from a mother. She said her daughter had sent her the video to watch. They’d had a major, you know, break-up, – if you call that a break-up – they just hadn’t spoken to each other for like 5 years, and the mother watched the video. After she watched it, she called her daughter up and said, “Hey, don’t you want to come over, and we can talk about this?” So they watched the video again, and then they spent the rest of the day sort of reconciling their differences.

Another incredibly sad e-mail came from a woman in the UK, and she was terminally ill. She simply told me she was in her last stages of life, but “Full Moon Silhouettes” had given her the hope and strength to hold on longer, just so she could spend more time with her friends and family. Now, that e-mail really hit home for me, you know, how are you supposed to respond to something like that? I just couldn’t believe the response “Full Moon Silhouettes” was getting. It’s something I certainly didn’t expect, and at first, I just didn’t understand why.

What did all these people see in “Full Moon Silhouettes”? And why did so many want to share their personal experiences with me? It seemed like people felt a connection between their own lives and the video, and they put themselves in that simple moment of watching the moonrise. It was incredible, like out of all the people who e-mailed me, there were so few that had actually watched the moonrise. And then that got me thinking: “Why do I love taking imagery of the night sky so much?” You can get some really cool photos and really impress your friends with it, but, honestly, astrophotography would have to be the most frustrating form of photography there is. You’re dealing with remote locations, miles from anywhere, taking photos in complete darkness, all hours of the night, and there’s so many variables that can go wrong and that includes the sometimes local wildlife that, you know, doesn’t like you.

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I had this crazy fur seal who just felt really threatened by my tripod, and that was an interesting experience. But the thing is, just being there, standing under the stars, just looking up at these millions of stars far outweighs any of those challenges. Take a look at this picture. It’s Cape Palliser on the North Island of New Zealand, not far from where I live. I just remember this moment vividly, I woke up, and I went to go and check on the time-lapse that I was shooting up at the lighthouse.

When I woke up, I was just taken aback by the scene in front of me: the Milky Way was low in the sky, just projecting from the lighthouse. It was at that moment I felt like I was the only person on Earth, under the sky of millions of stars. I’m not personally religious – some people are, I’m not – but it was certainly a spiritual experience, and it had me buzzing for the rest of the next day. And that’s what I try to convey in my astrophotography, you know, it’s something that I try and take, and the camera does capture more than what the naked eye can see, but these images are real. They are my experiences in the moment, and they reflect the way I saw the scene in front of me. To add to this, there’s so many mind-boggling facts about the Milky Way Galaxy.

The galactic core of the Milky Way, like you see in this image here – that’s that big, white, bright thing there – it’s 27,000 light years from Earth, and the mind-boggling fact about that is that light from that galactic core left back in the Stone Age period of the Earth, and it finally got to us now. And beyond that, there’s billions of stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy, and we only really see a fraction of those, just a small fraction. Apart from that, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies within our known Universe. To get your head around these things – it’s certainly not easy, and I still struggle with it myself – but being under stars is a great place for learning.

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