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Extreme Photography

Seeing the world through a lens can come with a price

By: Kristen Kumakura

10 December 2018

The blazing sunlight and breezy weather blanketed the green Koolau mountains of East Oahu as photographer Matt Leong and his friends saw the perfect photo opportunity.


Not being your typical landscape photographers, Leong and his friends flirted with danger as they hugged the side of the Pali Notches hike and scaled the edge of the ridge to reach the very top of a narrow peak.


As the wind started to pick up and the sun lowered in the sky, Leong and his friends decided they had enough blood-pumping fun for the day. But their day was not yet over.  


Making his way carefully back down from the mountain top, Leong placed one foot in front of the other on the narrow one-foot wide ridge trail.

The ridge was steep and getting more narrow.


Leong started to stumble on loose rocks. The extra weight of his bag carrying his camera gear and supplies wasn’t helping.


Then it happened: He lost his balance and fell about 20 feet down the trail.


Opening his eyes slowly and looking around, he wondered what happened a moment earlier and why he was in pain.


“Matt! Matt! Are you okay!?!?” his worried friends yelled from above.


That day on Pali Notches could have been Leong’s last. Hikes and waterfalls are beautiful, but some can come with a deadly price.


Another photographer, Ricah Yokoi, for example, fell on the same Pali Notches trail as Leong.


As Yokoi and his friends were making their way back down from the peak, he stopped to take a last minute photo of the sunset. A strong gust of wind caught him by surprise, causing him to fall 35 feet down the side of the mountain.


“I immediately thought to myself, “this was it,”” Yokoi expressed. “Moments later I could hear the muffled screams of my friends calling out to me, wondering if I was alive or not.”


Not knowing what just happened, Yokoi took a few minutes to gather himself together and realized he was not seriously injured.


What could have been a terrible ending and another tragic news headline ended up causing only minor scratches along his shoulder and arms.


“I’ll just say that you should never underestimate the laws of nature even on its calmest days,”  said Yokoi. “Always be aware of your surroundings and know your limits.”

Yokoi is a viral Instagram photographer whose love for the art started during his freshman year of college in an intro to film photography class. He ended up falling in love with it after learning its process and development.


He then started to work on cultivating his skills, which paid off as he soon started to notice popular Instagram pages reposting and sharing his photos.


“When I would use certain hashtags of theirs [other Instagram pages] and my photos would be shared, I noticed my follower count would go up,” said Yokoi. “I believe my photos played a huge role in getting my Instagram name out there as to my style of photography which includes a variety of adventure-lifestyle themes.”


Leong was fortunate enough to be able to walk away with some bruises, cuts and a story to tell.


He’s a photographer that became popular on Instagram for his work. Although his primary job is working in finances, he fell in love with photography and wants to pursue it as a career.


“I started getting into photography when it was surf season,” Leong said. “Once surf season was done, I had nothing to shoot, so I started taking landscape pictures and loved it.”


At first, Leong did small gigs on the side, like shooting weddings, babies, graduation pictures and even just taking photos for fun with his friends. But he backed away from these recently to work on building his profile as a nature and landscape photographer and to expand his experiences in the field. As Leong’s photos gradually featured more of Hawaii’s scenery, his Instagram follower count grew. In 2017, his profile had 1,000 followers. Almost a year later, he now has more than 8,000 followers.


But capturing these well-liked photos is not an easy process.


“Not necessarily taking a shot is dangerous, but getting to where I want to take the shot can be dangerous,” Leong says. “If it’s a ridge, it’s narrow, and there was wind so it pushes you to the edge. There’s times you just get on your knees and crawl.”


Leong says he doesn’t do it for the “double tap” on Instagram. He simply enjoys and loves everything about photography.


Hiking has the potential to be dangerous for both experienced hikers and those who don’t go out often. In fact, it’s one of Hawaii’s ongoing safety concerns because many tourists and locals either get injured or die while attempting to conquer Hawaii’s playground, according to such accounts as this HuffPost report.

Leong has done many Oahu hikes multiple times, but he says to never underestimate a hike, regardless of how many times you’ve done it.


State lawmakers say that some websites like “Top 5 Best Hikes in Hawaii” or “10 Best Hikes Around Oahu” promote wrong or misleading information and lead to accidents where people need to be rescued. In the first three months of 2017 alone, there were 51 reported mountain rescues, according to state Senate Bill 2331.

According to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, if this trend continues, the annual number of mountain rescues will double by 2024.


Regardless of how much research you do to prepare for a hike, Leong says preparing for a hike is one thing, but knowing your limits is another.


In 2006, two women visiting Hawaii for a quick vacation fell to their deaths while on a hike on Kauai. The families of the two women ended up suing the state and received a $15.4 million settlement.


Despite news headlines of hikers falling and dying, Leong is still not scared. The warnings do make him more cautious. For Leong, it’s just another day at the office.



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Photo Courtesy to Matt Leong

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