We first heard about Roger Ressmeyer (from Amy’s endo) when he was selected as one of the top 20 finalists for the Space Race 2012, with a Grand Prize of a sub-orbital space flight! Unfortunately, we later learned Roger is no longer in the running, but his track record of pushing boundaries actually starts much earlier. Diagnosed with type 1 at age 13, Roger started work as an international photojournalist in the 1970s. Although he has yet to visit outer space, he spent much of his career working with NASA and photographing stellar phenomena for magazines like National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Discover.
Roger got his start in photojournalism with another type of star: celebrities! Some of the people he’s photographed include Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg, and Aretha Franklin — to name just a few! Roger has also photographed volcanoes and observatories around the world.
At age 58, Roger has retired from his career as a photojournalist, and sold his body of work to Bill Gates’ photo agency Corbus. In 2004, he founded his own science photo agency, Science Faction Images, which represents some of the best science photographers. He lives just outside Seattle with his two kids, Ryan, 13, and Rachel, 8.
As you can gather, Roger has quite an impressive resume, and has done all of it while dealing with the struggles of managing diabetes pre-glucose meters and insulin pumps! We wanted to find out more about how he’s done it all, and what he’s learned from his trials and tribulations along the way:
RR) The mother of a friend found out about it many months ago. I threw my name in the hat, which was just a simple thing of going online and filling out a form. 50,000 people did that, and then they did a random selection of 1,000, and I was one of them. The 1,000 people were invited to make a two-minute video about why they should be selected.
There were hundreds reviewed by a panel of judges, and 20 were selected to be voted on. Then it became sort of a ‘voting beauty contest’ on Facebook. The unfortunate thing for me was that I didn’t find out about it until halfway through the voting period. I didn’t even know I was a finalist until I was actually asked for an interview by the local paper. The others had already been campaigning for weeks.
So I started a late campaign and spoke from my heart. The momentum built incredibly over the last few days, especially since it was all about diabetes and the negative beliefs about what it does to our lives. At the end, I made it to the top 10, but only the top 5 moved on to the next phase. I’m out of the running now, but I’m sure I’m going to fly in space one day!
Have you always been interested in space?
Yes! When I was diagnosed when I was 13, there were no support groups and no one I could talk to. In 1967, no one knew how to deal with the emotional trauma that comes from something like diabetes. The messages given to me by the doctors were horrific. I know that’s the messaging used at that time because a CDE I met was told the same thing. She was told she’d be lucky to live 20 years, and that the last 5 years would be the worst with complications.
Basically I was also told: ‘You’ve got 15 good years, and you can do anything except be an astronaut.’ But that’s all I had wanted to do since I was 8.
Wow! I can’t believe you were told that!
What’s amazing is that I almost became an astronaut about 10 years ago, because I became such good friends with astronauts. I was teaching them how to take better space photography from the shuttle. I gave classes to the key senior executive at NASA. Then I did a National Geographic book with an astronaut called Orbit and we edited pictures that astronauts had taken. That book was like my flight in space through pictures.
I have been in every NASA simulator, I’ve been on the vomit comet (a low-gravity training aircraft) and to all the world’s observatories. I’ve taken my lost dreams and I’ve lived them. But I’m gonna fly someday. You better believe it. I’m gonna fly.
Did diabetes play a role in your interest in photography?
What’s interesting is that I wasn’t a photographer when I became diabetic. When I was diagnosed, I was depressed, but I couldn’t admit that I was depressed. I faked headaches just so I didn’t have to go to school. When I finally forced myself back, my parents foolishly let me keep diabetes a secret. I thought people would leave me and wouldn’t want anything to do with me because I had to take shots.
I was basically depressed and didn’t want to talk about myself, and that’s when I turned to the camera. I was able to be with the children in my school and I could photograph them without having to talk about myself. I became really good, mostly because I understood telescopes and understood lighting. In 12th grade, I was the editor of the high school yearbook. The cheerleaders always wanted me around, but I didn’t think I was worthy of them. I was also shooting pictures through my telescope of star trails and the moon. That’s where my heart and soul went.
The camera was my therapy. So I became a master photographer because of diabetes.
It seems like having diabetes while being a celebrity and science photographer would be difficult. How did it work out for you?
My photo career ended up being perfect because I would do my shoots and I could keep it together for a little while on set, and then come home. It wasn’t a typical 9-5 job, so everyone thought I had it together.
The worst part was that there was no blood sugar testing. We tested urine and a strip would either turn green or stay yellow, which was normal. Basically, it said where you were two or four hours ago, and it all depended on how much liquid you had in your bladder. I went into insulin shock unexpectedly over and over again, and that continued throughout my photography career. It continued until the early 80s when meters became available.
But I couldn’t keep my personality stable because of diabetes. I really had two personalities. I saw myself as a really sweet nice caring person, and then I’d go into insulin shock. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know it was shock. I wouldn’t know it because the test strip didn’t say “oh, you’re low.” It was still yellow, so it looked normal. When I went into shock, and it was frequent, it was like a monster took over. My logic would shrink away and couldn’t think a sentence. If I was sad, I would get hyper-sad. If I was angry, I would start yelling. I’m lucky I didn’t lose any friends. Sometimes it would take two to three days to feel normal again.
Has diabetes ever hindered your career as a photographer?
I’ve had many close calls. During my career prior to the start of glucose testing, I thought my life would be very short. I was burning the candle at both ends, taking risks, putting myself at serious risks. I’ve had approximately 30 near-death experiences because of insulin shock or putting myself in a close-call situation. To think I’m still alive is a miracle. Some angel or some kind of spiritual energy was watching out for me because the probability that before glucose monitoring I didn’t run into anyone while driving is astronomically slim.
For example, I specialized in observatories and volcanoes and so I was often climbing mountains, and I was very often at a high altitude. I would get low blood sugar and the doctors couldn’t understand why. This wasn’t an experience that people with diabetes had had in the mid-70s. As far as I can tell, since I was consulting for a number of diabetes meter companies at the time, I’m the only one who figured out that when I get above 9,000 feet that if I sleep at that altitude, I’m breathing with so much more energy, almost aerobically, that I’m basically exercising even while sleeping. My insulin needs would drop by 1/3 or 1/2, so I had a number of close calls at a very high altitude.
Wow, that sounds scary!
Another close call happened at the the first space shuttle launch in 1983. I’d had virtually no sleep for three days, and had to fly from San Francisco to Florida and then I had to set up remote cameras around the rocket. After the rocket went up, the media had to get on a bus to be driven to the launch pad to get our remote control cameras. I was at my wit’s end and was on only one shot of insulin a day. There was a time bomb of insulin waiting and I didn’t have food because I thought I’d be gone for just an hour.
What happened was that the first space shuttle had tiles that had fallen off, and NASA had to search to make sure there were no other fragments of the space shuttle missing. They were very afraid the astronauts would die on re-entry. The bus was held at a gate for hours.
I eventually went low and no one had any idea. While blacked out, I woke up, drove, got out of the car, and got a bottle of orange juice from the gas station, and then came to in my car like out of a dream. I don’t even know if I paid for the orange juice or if I just walked out. Luckily I don’t have those kinds of experiences anymore.
This experience drove me to find out about better glucose testing. I started the process of cleaning up my life and eating healthier.
How did you “clean up” your life?
I was at space camp with my son, and I met a father of a diabetic son who saw my insulin pump and started telling me about Bernstein, because doctors don’t usually tell you about him. I spent 3 days with Dr. Bernstein, and went on a high-protein and low-carb diet. My blood sugars stabilized much better than ever before. I had to get over my carb addiction, and now I’ve eased back into it without the cravings. My cholesterol hasn’t gone up and my levels are good, and I feel better.
I also use an insulin pump now and have since 1997. I use the Medtronic continuous glucose monitor, and test my blood sugar about seven times a day, sometimes more.
At a diabetes training camp a few years ago, I actually sat with a group of type 1s, and learned that it’s impossible to keep your blood sugars perfect. All this time I’d hated myself for not doing it perfectly, and here were all these people who were saying that your blood sugars are going to fluctuate, especially if you’re an athlete.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the road, traveling in some pretty remote locations. Do you have any advice for folks who want to travel internationally?
First of all, there is risk. I tried to minimize the risk and I still do. You can get infections, and doctors don’t handle it the same as here. Often I was traveling by myself or with one assistant. When I was photographing the volcanoes, I was by myself and would hire people on location to translate or carry my bags. Fortunately while I was on assignment, there was always enough money to have a hotel room. I knew how to research so I could put myself in a part of town where there was food available.
It’s definitely something that can be done, and it’s something that I can still do. I took my children to China two and half years ago for a solar eclipse. The thing about it is that you need to be prepared. I would also carry antibiotics. I get a prescription in advance. I traveled heavily in the 1980s and early 1990s, and then later became a distributor and an agent for photography, and in those days there weren’t cell phones. You were pretty much out there on your own. I’m glad I did it, because I feel like I overcame diabetes and I have done everything I’ve ever wanted.
Now that you’ve retired from your big photography career, what are you working on currently?
I’ll always be a photographer, and I still shoot weekly. But my heart and soul are going into my new documentary film called Visions of Tomorrow — Solutions for Earth, Hope for Humanity. I had the idea, and visualized the name Visions of Tomorrow, in 1991. It’s been a long time coming!
Over the past 20 months I’ve put together a team, and while we’re in the earliest stages of production, and still working on fundraising, it feels like this is the most important project of my entire life.
What’s the film about?
In a nutshell, people feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems, and a sense of hopelessness has spread around the globe. The film will present in artistic / scientific form, which is my area of expertise, solutions to the world’s biggest problems. Everything from overpopulation and resource depletion, to saving the planet’s climate while creating clean, safe, limitless energy. And in the process, most reasons for war will disappear.
I’m building a film that will give people excitement and hope and merging that sensation with the empowerment that comes with some timeless, non-denominational spiritual messages that motivate us to get working on a better tomorrow.
In short, Visions of Tomorrow is about hope, empowerment, and solutions for the world’s problems. It’s about taking world’s problems and elegantly / artistically shrinking them so they’re not so overwhelming.
When you come so close to death, over and over, life takes on a precious new meaning. That precious perspective about life is one of the amazing gifts I’ve received because of my diabetes.
Diabetes was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me out of the norm, and it put me on the road with my favorite rock band at 17. I was able to see the cutting edge of what’s going on on this planet. I never would have been propelled to do something like that unless I’d had something to overcome.
I’ve gradually peeled away layers of the onion and now I’m really happy that I’m diabetic. I think I see it now as a gift. I had that last click from being a victim of diabetes to it being the best thing that have ever happened, because it’s made life so much richer. I obviously don’t mind talking about the negative sides of it, as long as people understand that I’ve won. I’ve overcome it. And you can overcome it too.
Thank you for everything you’ve done and shared with us here, Roger. May you live long and prosper!