It’s 2010, and a young Ted Hesser is in Nepal, rappelling into a cave from a mega-sketchy anchor: Two pieces of two-foot rebar hammered in the mud. He’s joined an expedition team, supported by National Geographic and The North Face, and it just so happens to be Cory Richards’ first-ever photo assignment for arguably the most well-known publication in the world.
But how did Hesser find himself dangling from a rope as a model for Richards’ shoot, and how did this experience shape his journey as a photographer and adventurer?
Hesser was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Though, in high school, he began making frequent trips to the Tetons, where he was exposed to rock climbing and a mountainous lifestyle that heavily contrasted the city’s hustle and bustle. “I grew up in Philly without any exposure to the wider world of climbing or adventure.” Hesser said. “After my parents moved to Jackson, I was immediately hooked on the big mountains and had a strong reaction to the wild landscape.”
After climbing the Grand Teton in high school with his dad and Exum Mountain Guide Jim Williams — who eventually became a lifelong friend and mentor — Hesser dove deep into the climbing world. He began working for the world-class guiding service in the summers and eventually was able to work with Jim on an Everest expedition.
“I never really meshed with the vibe in Philadelphia,” Hesser said. “But I found my tribe in the mountains.”
While studying engineering and physics in college, Hesser discovered a love for photography. During these years, he frequently visited Nepal, at first staying with family friend and photographer Thomas Kelly.
“I lived with his family for about six months and it was the first time I was exposed to a real photographer,” Hesser said. “He had a small team of people who worked with him, and had beautiful archival prints and photo books throughout his house. I’d study all his books and got really psyched on the idea of photography.”
Then, during his sophomore year, Hesser — armed with a small point-and-shoot — trekked alone through the Khumbu region of Nepal. While on this journey, Hesser was able to teach himself and practice photography. “I was on a different, more academic path in the physics world, but this planted the seed in my brain and soul, and I was motivated by it,” he said.
Because he was already in the climbing world, and because of his connection to Kelly, he became aware of an expedition partially funded by National Geographic and The North Face. So, he pitched himself to the crew. The founders of the trip were archeologists studying Nepalese sky caves, and they needed climbers — it was a natural fit.
This was the same expedition that Cory Richards first worked with Nat Geo and it was also the first time that Hesser was exposed to a “real media expedition, with world class climbers, scientists, film-makers, and photographers.” When Hesser returned home, he bought his first DSLR. A few years later, he picked up a copy of the magazine and saw an image of himself jumarring a rope on the front cover. “It was pretty surreal,” he said.
So, Hesser started to take photography more seriously. While wearing a shirt and tie working in New York City and San Francisco as a financial analyst in the clean energy market, he was also shooting images on the side, bringing his camera on each climbing trip and expedition.
Hesser frequently traveled to Africa for market research while working for an innovative start-up in the off-grid solar space. His job allowed him to to experience places and people uncommon to western tourists, and photography became a bigger part of his life. “But I had this career in solar energy, and I couldn’t see a path for full-time photography,”.Then, he had an opportunity to work on a solar project in Angola with the Honnold Foundation, and it was on this project where Hesser was hired by The North Face to photograph the expedition.
“That blew me away. I worked with them a little in Nepal, but this was a big step,” exclaimed Hesser. “So I started to get photography opportunities that began to substantiate the beginnings of a career.”
“It started to become clear to me that if I didn’t give this a shot, if I didn’t give it 100-percent and take on the risk associated with structuring my life around photography, that I might deeply regret it later in life.” Hesser said. “The photography opportunities in front of me were next to zero at the time. It certainly wasn’t enough to feel any sense of financial security, but it was the time of my life where I had to make a big decision. I didn’t want to grow old and look back with a deep regret.”
So, about three years ago, Hesser quit his job and career in clean energy. Then, he and his girlfriend sold all their belongings and moved into a van. What they thought would be a few-month hiatus turned into a three-year-long adventure. While on the road, Hesser was able to fully focus his time on exploration and developing as a photographer.
“I was terrified for such a long time. I walked away from a predictable salary, job title and career … But it was totally worth it,” Hesser said. “ Our society is structured to minimize risk. That’s what Honnold is most famous for — he’s a walking metaphor for viewing risk differently. It’s never the perfect time, but at some point you just have to take pretty uncomfortable steps to chase your dream, even though it might not feel right.”
Now, Hesser is living the dream as a full-time freelance photographer, climber and adventurer with a long client list including Black Diamond, Oakley, Goal Zero, Reel Rock, The North Face, tourism boards, La Sportiva, Outside Magazine, Rock and Ice Magazine, and many more.
“The biggest thing that changed my photography is deeply studying other photographers and styles. I mentally deconstruct others’ work,” Hesser said. “It’s like if someone is getting really into hip hop and wants to write a rap. They’ll take their favorite rappers and deconstruct the patterns of syllables and consonants, almost getting mathematical with it. They’re teaching themselves different patterns of lyrical expression. Photography is more about shapes and colors than words or numbers, but that process is analogous.”
And Hesser goes further than the sea of social media to find his inspiration. For Hesser, social media is like pop music — some of the work floating around doesn’t have much depth. If anyone wants to become a meaningful artist, of any category, he argues, they have to have the capability and curiosity to create "pop," as well as other more niche genres.
“Moving with trends found on social media is a commercial endeavor, and totally valuable in its own right. But it has less staying power than other mediums,”he said. “Things like street photography, photojournalism, black-and-white photography, and other entire categories that are lifelong photographic pursuits don’t perform well on Instagram, but studying those in addition to the ‘pop’ is important, and gives a well-rounded approach.”
In addition to studying the work of others, Hesser says investing in learning rather than the newest technology is important, too. Editing, in particular, is a huge component of making powerful images. Just because a photographer might not always need to utilize certain skills in Photoshop and Lightroom doesn’t mean they shouldn’t know how to do them.
“I studied the work of really good landscape photographers, because they’re generally the masters of compositing, perspective warping, luminosity masks and of bringing a magical realism to landscapes,” Hesser said. “For my imagery, I try to utilize a journalistic approach in terms of shooting style, and then combine it with an ultra-paired down edit style from the landscape photography world.”
While in the field, Hesser shoots Nikon, and lately has been hooked on the newer Z system. He’s drawn to the rich colors the cameras produce, and the sharpness of the lenses. Additionally, the photographer aims to keep his kit light. Because a lot of his work is produced while dangling from a rope high above the ground, it’s important to have the lightest, highest quality gear available. Not only does he have to carry lenses and bodies on his back, but also climbing and safety gear as well as food, shelter and water.
“If I’m on a commercial shoot,then I’ll gladly bring multiple lenses and strobes,” Hesser said. “But I love going to places that are harder to get to, and I love capturing compositions that aren’t common in magical light. That requires an ultralight approach to camera kit.”
In the near future, his projects involve teaching workshops for the Summit Series in Jackson, a Mountain Hardwear shoot in the Sierras and travels to Yosemite, Antarctica, Patagonia and beyond.
“There is always a possibility of failure, but people have a lot more capacity to take on structural risk in their life,” Hesser said. “At some point, you just have to jump off the cliff and develop wings on your way down.”
All images used with the permission of Ted Hesser.