My Husband Just Photographed Every Country in the World

 Tikehau, Tuamotus, French Polynesia

A few weeks ago, Michael sent me a What's App message from Guinea-Bissau, a post-Portuguese microcosm on the coast of West Africa that shoulders the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Sammy, I made it to G.B. safely. Almost didn't get to the hotel but it worked out. Crazy here. Oh, and it's my last country. Can’t believe it.

It was an interesting moment to articulate, for a wife who had shepherded him, in spirit, through the final stragglers of his quest, all mostly in Africa. Nobody really cared about the tiny, forgotten specks on the map, nobody except Michael.

To think I had followed him into the discarded, abandoned places, the so-called shitholes that had been left behind from society’s future-barreling or war or hurricane or political overthrow, places deemed too dangerous for a westerner to go, places too naturally beautiful, with people too kind to someone who had never prevailed the struggles of poverty as they had, well, I guess I had to turn the lens on myself.

OMG, I replied. Five heart emojis.

Peshmerga, Kurdistan
 Michael Runkel holds 13 passports after completing traveling through all 193 U.N. countries.

Michael and I met six years ago on an expedition ship in Antarctica. He was on a round-the-world trip for a year, flushing out his speciality of UNESCO World Heritage Sites: he had one of the most extensive photo libraries of its kind.

At this point he wasn't officially trying to reach all 193 U.N. countries in the world. He had been to many two, three, more times over and spoke about his favorite places with the fervor of a scientist on the cusp of inventing a time machine. I remember thinking his eyes actually glowed, they glowed, when he talked about the earthquake he survived in Iran.

 Bunt geschmückte und bemalte Volksstämme feiern das traditionelle Sing Sing in Mount Hagen im Hochland von Papua Neu Guinea, Melanesien*Colourful dressed and face painted local tribes celebrating the traditional Sing Sing in   in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, Melanesia

He showed me his photos: aerials of Afghanistan, intimate portraits of the Mujahideen, howling gelada baboons, Assyrian architecture. Nothing was sacred. Everything was sacred. After knowing him only a few days, I concluded, yes, this was the type of person who would eventually photograph everything this planet offered.

 Camel Carawan between Faya-Largeaux and N´Djamena, Chad, Africa
 Beduin children walking under a dramatic sky in the Sahel, Chad, Africa
 Soldier in a village at Ounianga kebir part of the the Unesco sight Ounianga lakes, northern Chad, Africa
 Colourful horse riders at a Trribal festival, Sahel, Chad, Africa
 Baby is cleaning a male Gelada baboon, Unesco world heritage sight Semien or Simien mountains national park, Ethiopia
 Man enjoying the beautiful desert scenery in northern Chad, Africa

"You should meet me in the Philippines!" he said to me one day on the ship. As if everyone just met for a Kapeng barako at high noon in Manila. 

I was planning on a doing some traveling myself (or maybe because this funny German guy asked me to meet him in Manila- you never know), either way, it was something I'd never allowed myself to do within the context of my music career.

Well, why not? I mulled it over as we surveyed lines of Adélie penguins follow in step with one another, a thousand little Charlie Chaplins, operating out of some purely darwinian rhythm.

At the very least, this man spoke five languages, had a photographic memory and was able to distill every geopolitical relationship into the playbook of our time. He was also cute (very important), and despite us coming from different cultural backgrounds we had a similar sense of humor (also important: German self-deprecation compliments American self-deprecation, when held in the right light).

If his favorite music was German political podcasts and Tom Clancy audiobooks, so be it. It would be the epitome of "worldschooling for adults”.

I said “yes” with resolve.

 Flying Adélie Penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), Port Lockroy research station, Antarctica
 black and white image of a couple on beach in new zealand

Every country in the world. A thousand provinces. I let it sink in. Only 150 people have traveled to all countries in human history. About a third of them were done during our relationship, sometimes with me, sometimes without. Sometimes with our baby daughter.

 Tradfitional dressed Kuna indian woman holding a white baby, Achutupu, San Blas islands, Kuna Yala, Panama
 White tourist with his baby in a Himba village, Kaokoland, Namibia
 White tourist with a baby interacting with Himba women, Kaokoland, Namibia

What is it like being married to a person who has been to every country in the world? 

Six years later, a book of passports stamps for places as peculiar as Yap and Saipan and living in Germany, life is decidedly not how I envisioned it would be when I was a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles. 

Our house, emulating a scene from the Skeleton Key, will either enamor or petrify guests with the various ceremonial urns, masks and daggers lurking about on the bookshelves. We have more Lonely Planet guides than one cares to admit. Our guest room is a wall of photo slides from Michael's analog days (which will also either enamor or petrify guests).

Our mutual friends, once reserved to Americans and Europeans, have expanded to Eritrean refugees, surfers from Pohnpei, Kamchatkan heli-skiers, polar expedition leaders and Egyptian archeologists. 

Daily conversations are a mélange of geo-politics and what we want for dinner. Michael will regularly call down from his office with news spanning the exuberant: “Sam! Did you hear? Asmara was just named a UNESCO World Heritage Site!" to the heartbreaking: "Sam. Please turn on Amanpour. Coverage of Sana'a and the Saudi blockade."

Michael Runkel Photographs Eritrean Girls

These are, after all, the places we have traversed together. We were in Sana'a only a few months before the war broke out. We helped our friend in Eritrea, restricted to the confines of his country, with his son's education. These are the people whom we've formed friendships, sung songs and broken bread with. We acknowledge almost on a daily basis the privilege of living in a safe and peaceful society. We don't take it for granted.

I suppose there is a Campbellian element to Michael's quest, accepting his hero's cup of destiny. But when you see him in the world, you realize it is the space he occupies, the space he has always occupied.

And it is, by default and through the virtue of love, the space I have also come to occupy. 


1 | Tikehau, 2016.
2 | With the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan, 2013.
3 | Michael holds 13 passports after traveling to all 193 U.N. countries.
4-6 | Photos from the past.
5 | Photographing the Sing-Sing in Papua New Guinea.
6-9 | Faces of Chad, Expedition, 2018.
10 | Simien Mountains, Ethiopia, 2017.
11 | Michael in Chad. 2017.
12 | Port Lockroy, Antarctica, 2011.
13 | Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand, 2012.
14 | Sia with Kuna Women, San Blas, PAnama, 2016.
15-16 | With a northern Namibian Himba community, 2016.
17 | Asmara, Eritrea, 2014
18 | Samantha in Sana’a, Yemen, 2014.