Luckily, it’s never too late—or too early—to begin moving in this direction, as all of your life experiences, as well as any formal work positions you’ve held, can add to your offerings as a photographer. Viktoria Haak, Adam Mowery and Josh Snow, the judges from our Fall Adventures contest, admit that their time as firefighters, conservationists and engineers prepared them for their photography careers in a number of ways. Each of their paths looks different—as will yours—and if you’re brave enough to float with life’s current, you’ll end up where you belong.
Here, our judges open up about creativity, responsibility and how they continue to walk their unique paths in this ever-evolving industry.
“Keeping the Door Open to Creativity”
British Columbia-based photographer Viktoria Haak earned her first commissioned piece while working for The National Trust, the UK’s largest conservation organization. For 10 years, she lived on Brownsea Island (population: 30), and photographed endangered wildlife and landscapes as a hobby outside of her conservation work. The untouched land was prime material for her growth as a photographer, and just months before she moved to Canada, the National Trust hired her to contribute her images to the island’s tourism efforts. “When you’re in a tiny space, you have to work hard to get different compositions—but you also have a year round view of nature’s dramatic changes,” Haak says. “It really trains you on patience and observation.”
At the time, she was shooting with an SLR camera that she received as a gift for her 18th birthday. Today, Haak has upgraded and accumulated more equipment—and a much larger area of exploration—but she still believes that human traits like curiosity and passion make a skilled photographer. “I’ve been on shoots with people who have all the best and most expensive gadgets, but they don’t notice the steam rising off the fungi in the morning light,” says Haak. “The human behind the camera still has to have the eye.”
Over the years, Haak has regarded her intuition as another important tool for her work, agreeing to projects that feel aligned with her interests and values while allowing her to keep the door open to creativity and change. “I really try to avoid pigeonholing myself into specific genres because I want to remain open to new possibilities,” Haak says. “First and foremost, I want to support my evolution as an artist and as a person.”
“Navigating client work”
Adam Mowery, on the other hand, specializes in outdoor adventure photography for commercial clients such as Big Agnes, Hero Clip and Eagles Nest Outfitters—and in this industry, he believes that determining a focus is key for landing projects. “If a client is looking for the best mountaineering photographer, they’re not going to choose someone who dabbles in mountaineering on the side of weddings and portraits,” Mowery says, a lesson he learned from first-hand experience.
Mowery navigated through several genres—studio furniture, wedding and portrait—and worked as a firefighter for 13 years before following his passion to full-time outdoor photography. And each of those positions paid off: “I’m able to bring all of my accumulated skills to the present—my ability to remain calm while hanging off the side of a mountain for a brand shoot, for example, is a direct reflection of my time as a firefighter,” says Mowery. “Everything I learned about light in the studio transfers to the fieldwork I do now.”
Especially with on-location outdoor shoots, Mowery advises photographers to be conscious of their responsibilities—both to the client and to the land. “Professionalism, to me, means using all of your skills and resources to get the shot, despite the weather conditions, the time frame, everything,” Mowery says. “And at the same time, being aware of how your presence affects the land that you’re shooting. Your work could increase the foot traffic to a particular location, so you have to be mindful of where and how you’re working—and always treat the earth with respect.”
“Surrender to the power of nature”
Josh Snow, a Utah-based photographer, is not one to underestimate the powerful connection that we humans have with our natural environment. Snow dedicates his time and energy to teaching young photographers through private and group workshops in some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes, a niche that allows him to remain focused on his art, without the pressures of deadlines and client goals.
His time in the mountains and canyons of Utah and surrounding regions has taught him to surrender to presence, a practice that inevitably leads to more profound art. “My best work comes when I’ve shaken off the self-induced pressure of ‘getting an image’—usually a day or two into a trip,” Snow says. “I start listening to nature, seeing more clearly, feeling the intense connection to the location. When your mind is right, the conditions are right, and your heart is right—amazing things happen.”
As a former engineer, Snow has a knack for the technical side of the craft, techniques that he passes on to students hoping to learn composition, consideration of light, and pre-visualization of a scene. Yet, his most lasting lessons are visceral: “At the end of the day, the most important thing is how you feel about your creative choices,” Snow says. “If you feel doubt or worry creeping in, focus on yourself, your growth and what means the most to you. Your mindset and how you harness your passion can make or break your work.”
An educator through-and-through, Snow advises photographers to stay humble and never consider themselves to be ‘above’ learning— no matter where they are in their careers. “I’m always searching for my own balance, examining things around me when I fall into a rut, and finding my way back,” Snow says. “Never give up, but be prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.”