Through A Wild Lens with Toby Strong
During these unprecedented times, it’s hard to remember a time when we were permitted to amble around our home towns with friends and loved ones. When we would fly to distant corners of the world for work, for leisure and to enjoy joyous times with our families, carefree and jubilant. The landscape that now makes up our new normal significantly impacts not only us, but everyone around us and with travel still restricted, I find recalling my trip to London only a few months ago a peculiar memory.
Commandeering a table amongst the heave of a bustling café in the Marylebone district of London, I sat down to meet multi Emmy and Bafta award-winning Director of Photography, Toby Strong. Credited as one of the Cinematographers for a plethora of renowned titles, including Blue Planet 2, Planet Earth 2, Human Planet and one strange Rock, I was at a bit of a loss at where to start when it came to discussing his vibrant film-making career that has seen him shooting stretches of stark deserts, vast oceans and from the Himalayas to the Congolese Jungles, heaving with exotic wildlife. What do you ask the man who has seen corners of the Earth you’ve probably only ever seen on a computer screen or in a travel magazine?
So where did I start? With what I knew of course, which was craftsmanship and shoes. With two Cheaney styles in his collection, the Scott fur lined Derby boot in Almond Grain and the Elliot capped Derby boot in Mahogany Grain, I asked Toby what it was about Cheaney shoes in particular that appealed to him.
“Cheaney is the perfect marriage between honouring British craftsmanship and contemporary style. Craftsmanship itself is of paramount importance – I live hard and things get broken during the production process, so the workmanship needs to last and the integrity of the craftsmanship has to be taken in to account. You buy the best you can afford so it lasts and I do this with everything from my footwear to my camera equipment.”
Travelling the world for over 30 years, Toby comments that traditional materials have always served him best in terms of wear and performance. Toby always wears tweeds and canvas cottons and recalls fondly that that when visiting tribes, indigenous people will always wear their best when greeting new arrivals. The meeting is considered a celebration and he states that when he met a rarely visited tribe in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the idea of throwing on a t-shirt and jeans would simply not do. “You want to mirror the care offered by the welcome, so only the best will do.”
Toby describes himself as very English – as a child he was inspired by the great Victorian Explorers who would investigate unknown lands. The equipment was made in England and the attire was manufactured in England. He always knew he would be a traveller and comments that he wanted to show people the beauty in the world and it was at this point that he began leading expeditions. Realising that the uncovered stories deserved to be told through film to garner a deeper understanding, his self-imposed mission evolved to encompass not only showing beauty but also inspiring wonder and telling stories of injustice and environmental destruction that needed highlighting.
When asked what he would herald as a career highlight, Toby commented that, “Every job is a once in a lifetime experience, of course. But filming the last 2 Northern White Rhinos in Africa with Sir David Attenborough for the Seven Worlds series was an incredible personal highlight. “Seeing something that was registered as an extinct species was a very sobering experience.”
We discuss the fragility of the world and its collective inhabitants, by this point over a second round of coffee. In a sombre tone he went on to say, “Everywhere I go in the world, I see crisis. I can’t change the destruction, but I do my best to be as conscious as I can to it. I make purchases that are local, within budget and that won’t need replacing in an effort to reduce environmental impact. There is a level of service standard with Cheaney whereby the shoes can be repaired and mended and given new life rather than discarded and that is a factory that resonates with me.”
This notion of supporting British businesses and small, global collectives has manifested itself with Toby on a larger scale than just individual purchasing. Ashburton Craftmongers, Toby’s own shop in Ashburton, Devon, displays specially curated stock of beautifully-crafted homewares and personal goods from the United Kingdom and abroad. Supporting over 30 local makers and groups of indigenous people around the world, including women’s groups and co-operatives, the shop typically offers crafts that have been made using traditional materials and techniques. Bolivian Alpaca scarves sit alongside striking Masai Jewelery and local Devon ceramics in his magical shop.
Leaving his shop in the trusted hands of a local artist, Toby continues to leave British shores to film otherworldly landscapes across the globe. His most recent expedition at the time was taking him to the salt flats in Bolivia and he chose our Scott boots to accompany him. ‘I knew they were going to be warm, they had style and substance and nothing else compared to them. Cheaney have history and excellence with a contemporary edge so the style and craftsmanship fitted in to what I wanted and needed.”
Looking back, during what is now a global pandemic, the notion of globe-trotting feels so far removed to what has become our daily lives of lockdown. However, it’s important to remember that this time will pass and the ability to travel to far-removed corners of the earth, as Toby usually does on a monthly basis, will be a possibility in the (hopefully) not too distant future. Many thanks to Toby Strong for his time sitting with me for this discussion and for his continued support of Joseph Cheaney & Sons.
Toby is currently working on a number of global high-profile landmark series for the BBC and National Geographic. He is also set to start work on a Panda feature film…just as soon as he can get on an aeroplane again.