What is the most dangerous job in the UAE? Firefighting? High-rise window cleaning?
How about photographing people as you are tumbling through the air after jumping out of an airplane?
So far in his high-flying career, Juan Mayer, from Argentina, has jumped more than 11,000 times. He admits being a skydiving photographer is a risky job.
“I’ve been on many jumps that have gone wrong and led to terrible accidents,” says the 45 year old. “Not because of faulty equipment, but because of human error. Skydiving is a very safe sport but we make it unsafe, because when you get into the sport you’re always trying to push your limits.”
This is an unusual line of work, as Mayer readily admits. It is an exclusive club – there are only about 20 professional skydiving photographers in the world, and they all know each other.
For the past six years Mayer has been based at Skydive Dubai, where he spends most of his time photographing people in the skies over Palm Jumeirah who are doing aircraft acrobatics, skydancing, wingsuit flying, base jumping and wind tunnel flying, as well as just plain old run-of-the-mill skydiving.
Some of his most hair-raising jumps have been the world record attempts he has photographed, including one that involved 168 skydivers jumping together.
“You cannot mess that kind of photo up because hundreds of skydivers are depending on you, so they can prove to the world that world record happened,” he says. “In those cases, it’s so high pressure and I’m feeling very nervous. At that moment before we jump, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ But once I’ve finished, I want to do it again.” When you are at such a great height that you need an oxygen mask to breathe, as has been the case on some of Mayer’s adventures (at 25,000 feet), there is no room for error. Whereas a ground-based photographer gets the chance to leisurely shoot many pictures from a variety of angles and pick the best ones, for Mayer, time is of the essence and he has to make split-second decisions. The proper preparation is also crucial.
“Once I’m getting out of the plane, I have 60 seconds – maximum 90 seconds – to shoot the picture, so I need to know what the weather conditions are and how the light is,” he says.
“Because once I’ve jumped out of that plane, I can’t change anything. At the same time, I have to fly my body and follow someone else jumping before me. Sometimes I’m with a good flyer, so I know exactly what they’ll do, but sometimes they’re not experienced and might be flying about all over the place, so I have to be guessing what they’ll do next.”
Though it might be a sunny day on the ground in Dubai, the light at 32,000 feet in the air can be quite different, due to cloud cover and the sun rising or setting.
“Once I’m in the plane, I’m still looking at the clouds and the angle of the sun, and changing the set-up of the camera accordingly,” Mayer says.
Two minutes before he jumps from the plane, the door is opened and he awaits his turn. He wears a home-made dead-cam device created from a carbon-fibre motorbike helmet, which enables him to take photographs while keeping his hands free for skydiving.
He explains that an American skydiving photographer who used a similar photo-taking device who died left an instruction manual on CD for fellow skydivers to copy his design. Mayer adapted the instructions to create his own device, which can house two cameras at a time, and lights can be fitted to the sides, as well.
“My helmet is quite unique,” he says. “It has a flat top, where I put on the camera, which has connections attached to a tube. Every time I want to take a photo, I blow through the tube.” Mayer sees exactly the same view the camera will capture through special circular frames positioned in front of his eyes. “It’s like shooting a gun,” he says. “It is very reliable, but it takes hours to calibrate everything.”
When he jumps and is falling through the air, focused on getting the perfect shot, “nothing else matters”, says Mayer.
“It forces you to live in the moment, which is a relief for your mind,” he adds. “When you’re on the ground you’re thinking about phone messages, problems or meetings – but once that plane door opens, your mind is clear of those stupid things.”
But he can’t be too carried away, as he has to also remember to pull the rip cord to open his parachute out, before its too late.
“Sometimes I get to the time limit when I have to open the canopy, but at the same time I see the opportunity for a nice photo,” he says.
“So sometimes I go a little bit lower than you should before I open the canopy. I’ve had a few dangerous moments, I can’t say [otherwise]. But I’ve never been badly hurt.”
It might all sound incredibly risky, but to Mayer, his job is child’s play. “I feel like when I’m skydiving, I’m a kid again, playing in the sky,” he says, smiling.
Mayer has released a book of his favourite skydiving photographs, Ultimate High, and last year he set up a company, Aerosports Media, that specialises in capturing photographs and videos of daring aerial stunts.
He has photographed plenty of high-profile veteran jumpers, but also those who skydive as a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It doesn’t make any difference if you have money, or what colour or religion you are,” he says. “Up in the air, we’re all equal, and that’s amazing.”
• Check out a gallery featuring more of Mayer’s most incredible pictures at www.thenational.ae/arts-life.