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Roberto's World

There is a mystery to Sable Island born not just of the rolling mists and sea fret that shroud its grassy dunes more days than not. Nor is it the seemingly implausible existence of a narrow sandbar – barely 100 metres wide in places – standing firm between the relentless, swirling blows of the Atlantic as the Gulf and Labrador currents collide.

Even the island’s Cheshire cat smile silhouette, 200 miles adrift of Nova Scotia, reveals nothing – although that crooked grin clearly knows.

It is the power of the island to thwart humankind’s numerous attempts at domestication, the victory of Mother Nature over pioneers and colonists to preserve this tiny sanctuary for herself. From wrecking the ships that dared veer too close – some 500 over 500 years – to driving away those would-be exploiters of the island’s resources with a salvo of storms, Sable Island remains a true wilderness in a world where such places are ever-dwindling in number.

Ironically, it is the evidence of these many doomed voyages that the island has allowed to flourish. Horses. Hundreds of horses, of no particular breed but one exceptional beauty, have thrived where humans could not. The descendants of shipwreck survivors and those left behind by once-hopeful settlers have grown in number to around 500, scattered the length of the island – 27 miles east to west. From booming herds of mares and foals to bachelor bands and solitary souls, all of equine life is here among the wispy marram grasses and flat sands.

That we know of these remarkable animals is in large part thanks to photographer Roberto Dutesco, who has spent almost three decades documenting the wild beauty and harsh existence of life on this tiny island.

Two horses grooming one another, a ritual of both purpose and pleasure. The stallion chasing away a young pretender to his crown. Herds trotting against the backdrop of a wild sea. Wilder manes brushing the long dune grasses, a secret handshake between the island and its chosen residents – while another image captures the wreck of those it rejected.

“I never thought of the horses as just horses,” says Dutesco. “The intention was not so much to discover their surface but discover their interior, and bring to the surface some of their feelings – fear, love, what we call human emotions, although they are thoroughly not human, they’re universal.”

Love is the title of one of his most popular Sable Island images – often spotted on the walls of million dollar apartments listed with high-end realtors – discovered by many in the gallery Dutesco and curator Peter Tunney opened in 2006 in Soho, Manhattan. Now relocated to Brooklyn, it became the longest running exhibition of its kind in the city – over more than a decade, thousands of collectors, enthusiasts, critics and passers-by were transported from one of the world’s busiest islands to its polar opposite, cast adrift from their busy lives for an hour or two.

However, with the success of the project came greater notoriety for Sable Island, previously the domain of biologists and mariners. Requests to visit increased, and in 2013 the island became a national park reserve, both protecting it for future generations but also opening it up to tourism.

“There’s new governance in place now, and they have a different mandate,” says Dutesco. “There’s the idea that some visitors should be allowed, which I’ve always been opposed to. My contribution to the national park was the idea that visitors cannot be within 60ft of a horse, myself included, so of all the images I’ve taken, I can’t do again or recreate, and I’m very fortunate to have all this film from over the years.”

Balancing awareness with conservation is a classic conundrum the world over, and it was the difficult juxtaposition of bringing a magical place to the people, but discouraging them from visiting it, that, coupled with extensive charity work through the gallery, led Dutesco to his next venture.

“That is why the I Am Wild project came about. Because of all the requests to visit Sable Island, I thought, what can I do to recreate Sable Island and take it at large?”

The result is a ‘nomadic museum’ as Dutesco bills it – a large portable structure in the shape of an upturned ship through which visitors can experience Sable Island.

“If you imagine, between every rib of the ship there’s a different view on to Sable Island, and now that we have all the tech available – virtual reality, augmented reality, holographic imagery – I’ve designed an experience so that basically I can take you to Sable Island, you can see what I’ve seen through my eyes, and maybe by learning how I see it, you’ll be more protective of it.

“And if I can design an experience the way we have done based on my time with the wild horses of Sable Island, my intimacy of it, then other photographers and other filmmakers, other people at large can bring their knowledge and replace what I’ve done. The intention is, if I can do it with Sable Island, we can do the same for the Amazon, the horses in Camargue, orangutans in Borneo or the rhinos in Tanzania.

“It goes back to an old philosophy that you can only protect that which you love, and in order to love it, you have to see it.”

All images are from the 1994 to 2019 documentation 

of The WIld Horses of Sable Island © series 

photographed by Roberto Dutesco 

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