About halfway through Vice’s video about the hallucinogenic-honey harvesters of Nepal, correspondent Abdullah Saeed, dressed in a beekeeper suit, complains to the camera: “There’s bees everywhere. As soon as we got to the top of the hill our camera guy Billy [Voermann] got stuck in the back, so I know he probably hates holding that camera right now.”
For Igor Kropotov, the video’s director of photography, this qualifies as Type 2 Fun. Kropotov explained the concept to me shortly after returning from the shoot in Nepal in mid-July: “Type 1 Fun [is] where you’re having fun while you’re doing it, and it’s great,” he said. “And then there’s Type 2 Fun when you’re really, really uncomfortable and having a really shitty time.”
The latter scenario is comparable to riding a rollercoaster: “There’s all this fear that builds up within you before you drop, but then when you go through the rollercoaster and it finally stops, you’re like, ‘Man, that was really fun.’”
Kropotov had always wanted to go to Nepal. So when producer Chloe Campion—who he worked with on another Vice documentary about an aging hermit born in Siberia’s remote taiga—invited him to work on Mad Honey, he immediately signed up for a climbing class at Brooklyn Boulders, to prepare himself for descending and ascending the Himalayan cliffs by rope.
To harvest the honey, dozens of men, from teenagers to an elder who is nearly 80 years old, descend a bamboo-woven ladder that weighs 300 pounds, smoke the bees out from their hive, and strain the honey—a process that lasts three days. The spicy, reddish honey contains grayanotoxin, a toxin found in rhododendron nectar. When consumed, you go from feeling hot, to cold, to hot again on the inside, sweating on the outside, and feeling lethargic and dizzy, said Kropotov.
The effects of “Mad honey” have been well documented. But one thing that was impossible for Kropotov to prep for was the weather in Nepal: in the high 70s, humid, with zero breeze. He wore hiking pants, boots, and a long-sleeved dri-fit shirt underneath a canvas bee suit, with the additional weight of his camera equipment.
“Because there’s so many bees, you can’t just take off your suit,” said Kropotov. “You can’t unzip your hood—we would drink water through the mesh. We would leave to shoot at 8:30 in the morning and come back at 5 or 6. Nobody peed. Everybody was sweating so much. It sucked. It’s almost like you had to be dehydrated because there was no way you were gonna take the suit off.”
Despite such challenges, the shoot was “also kind of incredible,” he said, remembering the power of the massive honey bees. “When they land on the mesh, you can feel the wind from the flutter of their wings. Or when they land on your hands, you just feel all the vibrations of them buzzing. It’s kind of amazing.”
And then, of course, there’s the high of mad honey. “It doesn’t sound like very positive effects, but it’s kind of like taking a hit of a joint,” Kropotov said.
The recommended dose is two teaspoonfuls, and it’s used by the local Gurung people in more of a homeopathic sense, he explained, for issues like back pain and insomnia. People say that if you have too much of it, you’ll get sick and start to hallucinate (Kropotov called it “ayahuasca-ish” in that sense). But Kropotov stressed that the Gurung people “never saw it as a substance to abuse. Nobody. Not even the youngest kid there, who after the honey hunt would be smoking cannabis. There was wild cannabis growing everywhere.”
Last year, the honey hunters produced 70 liters of honey, selling most of it to Japan. “We got one liter for 10 bucks, which is a friendly deal,” said Kropotov. “In Kathmandu, you can buy 200 grams for $25. That’s not a lot. But that’s in Kathmandu, which is six hours away. Once it gets out, it’s expensive.”
Kropotov is from a city called Novokuznetsk in Siberia, located in central Russia. Originally established for industrial growth, Novokuznetsk has long been associated with metal refinery. Kropotov’s parents both met at the university for metallurgy—his mother studying engineering for coal mines and his father specializing in the logistics side. Shortly after Kropotov completed second grade, his father’s work took the family of four—Kropotov has an older sister—to Brussels. Four years later, the family moved to Moscow.
Kropotov was happy to leave the Belgium rain and gloom behind. “When we moved to Moscow, within months I realized: ‘There’s so much happening. There’s people in the streets. There’s cars. Things are happening,’” he recalled. “And I felt like I actually belonged.”
Kropotov remembers getting a phone call from a friend. “Hey, you should come to my house,” he said. “The cool thing to do now is skateboarding.”
Kropotov bought a skateboard and made friends with like-minded kids in the neighborhood. By the time he turned 15 years old, he had seen his fair share of skate-related injuries. When he was 16, he experienced it firsthand and broke his left leg. To help him pass the time while he was confined to a hospital bed for three weeks, his parents brought him a bunch of Hollywood blockbuster movies to watch.
“They were movies that weren’t very good at all,” said Kropotov, remembering one where Vin Diesel played a cyborg. “But I laughed when I usually wouldn’t laugh, and I cried when I usually wouldn’t cry, because I had nowhere else to go mentally.”
When he was eventually released from the hospital, he wasn’t in top form to skate. So to still be part of the community, he grabbed his dad’s Handycam and mimicked the American skateboarding videos he and his friends would watch. He soon befriended a few guys associated with the website Skateboarding.ru, who were making a feature film involving the same group of skaters. They expressed an interest in using Kropotov’s footage, and they began working together.
His experience documenting the skateboarding community inspired Kropotov to take the art route in high school, refining his photography skills for his International Baccalaureate. But he decided to apply for colleges abroad as a business management major.
“If you’re a child of self-made parents that are from villages from Siberia, and here I have an opportunity to go to university in London or the United States, I better fucking succeed,” he explained.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about film, skateboarding, and photography, so at the last minute, he applied to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After spending the first year in Florence knocking out general studies requirements, Kropotov finally landed in New York. It was a professor from an introductory documentary class, an instant mentor, who urged him to go the cinematography route, taking him on a grueling, fascinating journey through the documentary world ever since.
He misses Nepal—the jungle and its people—and has considered living there for a little while.
“There was this one time we stopped at the side of the road to buy something to drink, and then our host bought a bottle of Coke. There was a line, and he just didn’t bother to wait for the change because it’s an insignificant amount. The owner of the store ran across the street with the receipt and 25 cents of change to give back to the guy,” said Kropotov, still in awe. “For 25 cents, he ran across the street. It’s unheard of.”
For now, Kropotov continues to work out of Williamsburg, attending meetings and using the equipment room at Vice’s new offices on Kent Avenue. Vice has expanded rapidly– to some controversy— since Kroptov started freelancing there. He still remembers the days when he knew most people at the office, as opposed to about 5 percent of them now. But he sees this as “part of the process” of growing, and is glad the company was able to stay in the neighborhood where it took off. “Part of the reason [Vice] stayed in Williamsburg is because it’s something that works towards their image of something trendy, hip, and cool. I think they pride themselves in being a Brooklyn-based, and especially a Williamsburg-based, company.”
As for him, he’ll continue to seek out the Type 2 fun that comes with shooting video around the world. “You get put in these really stressful conditions that will just completely destroy you as a human,” he explained, citing conditions like open-door helicopter rides in 25-degree weather to get that one perfect shot, or scorching weather that makes you sweat so hard you’re drenching the camera and an assistant has to keep wiping it off.
“It’s sort of masochistic in a way,” he said. But “then you see the end product. You only remember the good parts, and that’s what counts.”