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From the Rooftop of the World

Michael Hawley’s record-breaking photographic book on Bhutan is raising money for schools in the Himalayan kingdom.
February 1, 2004

Michael Hawley, PhD ‘93, slowly opens the black cover of the huge book lying on the floor outside of his Media Lab office. Staring up from the 1.5-meter-tall page is a dark-skinned man with dozens of cornrow braids framing his face and a multicolored cap on his head. On the opposite page another man stares out, his face lined from years in the sun. A coarse-looking black wool hat sits atop his head, and three taillike twists of fur fall over his gray hair. The first is a musician, Hawley says, the second a yak herder-both from the small Himalayan kingdom Bhutan. The photos fill the entire 1.5-by-2-meter spread of the book with startlingly vivid color. The images are so clear that the chin whiskers on the musician look as if they could be plucked off the page. Hawley raises the book to stand on end, and suddenly the men look as if they will step out and start talking.

These are two of the approximately 100 photographs included in Hawley’s recently published Bhutan, which has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest book ever published. Although it is strictly a photo book, it’s definitely not of the coffee-table variety. In fact, you can’t hold it. The book weighs in at more than 50 kilograms, and the pages are so large that it takes both hands to turn them. But these images of a country often called the world’s “last Shangri-La” are more than just stunning-they are also technological marvels. In the process of producing them, Hawley squeezed the maximum image quality out of his professional-grade cameras and on-demand-printing equipment, solved one of the biggest problems in field photography, challenged a bindery to make the big book work, and established that digital images are every bit as good, if not better, than traditional film photographs. Best of all, he created the model for a series of books to raise funds for new schools in developing countries around the world.

Expedition Gear

Bhutan is nestled along the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau just east of Nepal and north of India, in the shadow of the highest mountains in the world. It has one of the globe’s last unspoiled cultures: it’s visited by only 5,000 tourists each year. Deep valleys harbor exotic flora and fauna, as well as distinct cultures and languages: a population of 700,000 speaks 19 dialects. Hawley, who first visited Bhutan in 1998 after an MIT expedition to Mount Everest, calls the country “the most photogenic place on earth. I figured if we couldn’t take good pictures there, we shouldn’t be allowed to use a camera.”

Taking book-worthy photographs wouldn’t be the problem, though; identifying and cataloguing them was what had Hawley worried. He knew the team would amass thousands of photographs during the project and wanted to avoid the mislabeling difficulties that have plagued field photographers for decades. The solution, he decided, was the Global Positioning System (GPS). Every time Hawley took a photograph, a GPS device-fitted onto the flash mount of his camera-automatically recorded the time and coordinates of the image in its memory. He then used a software system called Curator, which he had developed with Zhang, to manage and archive the images.

At the end of each day, Hawley used Curator to download the GPS information and digital images from his camera onto his laptop. Then Zhang and the other photographers who used digital cameras gave their memory cards to Hawley, who repeated the process with each card. Curator matched the time stamp on each image from the other cameras to the GPS data that Hawley had downloaded and then embedded that information in the metadata of the photograph.

The photographers entered a brief caption for each of their images, and then everything was backed up onto a 60-gigabyte pocket disk drive. When the teams returned to MIT, Hawley loaded thousands of images onto the 2.5-terabyte image server (large enough to hold half of the books in the Library of Congress) in his office.

Using high-technology equipment in one of the most remote countries on earth presented many challenges. “You had to fix problems yourself,” says Zhang. “Back in the lab you’d ask someone how to fix it or you’d read a book. In the field you have to come up with wacky solutions to problems. It gave us confidence that we could fix anything.”

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