By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST July, 2020
In the 1980s, Roberto Dutesco, a Rumanian-born Canadian, was a fashion photographer and doing well. “I was based in Montreal, mostly shooting lingerie and jeans for La Senza, a Canadian company, which would later by bought by Victoria’s Secret. It was the Age of the Supermodels,” he says. “The world was my oyster.”
He chanced upon a documentary about Sable Island late night channel-hopping in 1990, learning that the island is thirty miles long, a mile at its widest, two hundred miles off the Canadian coast, and so-called because sable is French for sand. A peaceful beach resort though it isn’t. Sable Island sits between two mighty currents, the Gulf and the Arctic Streams, has 400 plus recorded shipwrecks since the 16th century in its past and is home to the survivors; five hundred wild horses. Ravished by what he saw, Dutesco felt he needed to photograph Sable Island.
As the location for a fashion shoot perhaps?
“I never thought of that. It was curiosity,” he says.” I’m a very curious person.”
Just two humans lived on Sable Island, Zoe Lucas, a privately-funded biologist, and Jerry Forbes, the station manager, and permissions weren’t got easily. Dutesco spent eighteen months negotiating with the Ministry of the Environment in Ottawa and the Ministry of Fisheries in Halifax. A go-ahead from Forbes was also a must, which, in a pre-web and cellphone era, meant innumerable discussions on a satphone that was only usable when a satellite was positioned immediately above the islet. He soldiered on.
Dutesco put together his equipment, which included five Nikons, two Hasselblads, two Machinas – a Japanese camera he greatly likes - four Pentaxes, a Super 16/s and 400 rolls of black and white 35 mm. film, called Forbes to say he was ready to go, got a yes, and was landed on Sable Island by a private plane upon June 23, 1994.
Horses have no predators on Sable Island and they saw little of the two humans. Certain animals – dogs, cats – bond with humans naturally. How did the horses react to his working amongst them? “They were interested,” he says. “They approached me.” He stayed on the island for two weeks.
The following year Dutesco took an apartment on Sullivan Street in New York’s SoHo and in due course he would open a gallery, The Wild Horses of Sable Island, on Crosby Street in 2006. His sporadic two week sojourns on Sable Island continued and the horses seem to have accepted him as a sporadic presence, indeed a kind of intimacy developed. “A horse will lean on me, making me aware of its presence, or nibble my hair,” he says. On occasion indeed there has been a dynamic reminded him of a fashion shoot. “I will be shooting one particular horse for a long while,” he says. “And another will nudge me from behind, as if it’s telling me, hey, I’m pretty too.”
It’s tempting to compare the austere survival system that Dutesco shows us at work on Sable Island with the chaos elsewhere on the planet but the real lessons that can be drawn have to do with problems that will endure when Covid 19 is a dark statistic and a collection of ugly anecdotes. Because Sable is no longer the island upon which Dutesco’s plane landed because there have already been climate-induced changes, and not trivial ones. “There were some freshwater lakes on the Southern shore. The horses used to drink there,” he says. “They have been inundated by the rising sea”.
Where do the horses drink now?
"There is a lot of moisture in the air. The grass is totally soaked and sometimes they are digging into the soil with hooves for it."
We or some of us attempt to ward off the virus with masks but most of us are also making an excellent job of warding off acceptance that such climatic changes are only just beginning.
Just what does the future hold for the wild horses of Sable Island? That clearly depends on the future of the island itself. When I first asked Dutesco about this, his prognosis had been wholly dark.
Now it is a bit less so.
“There are two options,” he said. “Sable Island doesn’t sit on a giant rock like Manhattan. The island is a sand bar. Ocean currents may bring more sand.” Or? “They make take the sand away” he said. “The mystery continues”. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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