The first gig adventure photographer Curtis Jones ever had was an unsupported kite traverse of the Greenland Polar Ice Cap. Before that, he was a pharmacist on remote Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The surprising jump from pharmacist to adventure photographer actually makes sense when you hear Jones’ story and could give hope to photographers out there who want to make the leap, but aren’t sure where to start.
Not long after earning his pharmacy degree, Curtis Jones realized he wasn’t happy in his work. So, when the opportunity came to work on Baffin Island, Jones thought it would be the perfect chance to pay off his student loans while also expanding his horizons. He already had a lifelong love of outdoor sports like climbing, so although he would work as a pharmacist, the move sounded like an adventure right up his alley. Looking at the images Jones captured of the Canadian Arctic, it’s easy to see how the stark beauty of the place inspired him to pick up photography as a hobby during his tenure. It was this hobby that landed him the kind of gig most aspiring adventure photographers would kill for.
Baffin Island sits at the opening of the Northwest Passage, so meeting adventurous people was almost a given. While living there, Jones formed a friendship with Sarah and Eric McNair-Landry, a brother and sister adventuring team who needed a photographer for their snow-kite trek across the Greenland Ice Cap. They weren’t worried about his lack of expeditionary experience, because they could train anyone, but they said they needed someone who would be a reliable team member with a compatible personality. As you’ve already guessed, he didn’t turn them down. What he did do was quit his job and sell off almost everything he owned so he could afford to start training for the trip. The team completed the expedition unassisted, meaning there were no drop points for things like food or gear, a couple of days under their deadline as the first Canadians to traverse the Greenland Ice Sheet by snowkite. With sponsors like National Geographic, Jones’ career as an adventure photographer was off to a resounding start, and with little more than a Canon Rebel.
With their next adventure in the Gobi desert, Jones found himself riding a wave of success and working with international sponsorship, something most adventure photographers dream about. Yet, over the course of the next three years, Jones realized that price of riding the wave so early in his career was not having time to discover whether working with large sponsors on expeditions was something he actually wanted. He said that there is a sense of urgency in that kind of work, of never really being able to rest, because there is a constant hustle of chasing sponsors and trying to find the next biggest, most unique adventure. There was always someone else right behind you ready to do it bigger. “You have to work hard to stay relevant in that world,” he said, “and you realize you’re replaceable.” Companies are able to leverage social media more and more, which makes the market more competitive, even for something as niche as adventure photography. While that is a dream life for some people, Jones realized it wasn’t right for him. He needed to find a way to make his new career fit his heart.
Jones traveled, found mentors, and experimented with different kinds of photography. He discovered he enjoyed writing and realized that his passion for the work actually lay in using photography as a way of connecting people to their environment, and through that connection, helping them understand themselves better. He began work with a social enterprise with a focus on implementing projects that improve the viability of the traditional economy, and commercial work to bring awareness to local harvesters that could form a link in the chain of a sustainable food industry that would also help small local economies. He built a company called Newfound Shores with fellow Canadian photographer extraordinaire Renee Robyn that gets photographers outside and engaged in the unique environment around Newfoundland, his home, and he leads photo expeditions on behalf of other companies that help people find their own adventures while fostering a love of the environment and admiration for the people who make their homes there.
Jones’ path might not be the right path for every budding adventure photographer, but I think it mirrors the journey of many photographers in important ways. We all start off full of passion, but not as full of direction. Sometimes, it takes surprising sacrifices and more investment than we’re prepared for, but if we’re willing to chase our own idea of success, we end up exactly where we want to be, doing work we love.
When I asked Jones what advice he would give to photographers feeling the pull of an adventurous life, he broke down some solid steps that could help them find their feet.
- Adventure photography is a big umbrella that covers a lot of niche work. Break down why you are drawn to the work so you know how to move forward. Is it the production and big punchy commercial images you are intrigued by? Is it telling the story of the people you photograph in extreme locations? Is it the environment? Once you know, you can begin building your plans.
- Start practicing that kind of work and build up a compelling portfolio that tells a story. Use other people’s work as examples to get started, but focus on your own perspective and try to tell the story only you can tell.
- Don’t wait for someone to approach you. There are a lot of photographers out there, so it probably won't happen. Start making your own projects based on things you care about.
- Give yourself permission to start. You don’t have to be “the guy with a tent and a camera.” You can grab a friend and head to a local park. Think creatively about how you can use your skill and the space to tell a story.
- Don’t wait until your work is perfect. That won’t happen either. Just get started. You’ll learn as you go.
- Approach the kind of people you want to work with. You can start with local businesses or outfitters to gain experience.
- As with all photography, this takes time. The investment is always heavy on the front end, but if you stay committed and remember why you love this work, you’ll get there.
My favorite part about this interview was how much Jones’ journey mirrors the journey of every photographer, despite being wildly different in the details. Aside from his great advice, I think the best takeaway is that it’s worthwhile not to settle for some predefined idea of success. We need to spend some time in self exploration and discover why we want to do this thing called photography and how we can bend and shape it to suit our hearts. We need to realize that other things, like writing, teaching, or guiding others can become valuable contributors to our careers. And if we’re willing to commit, life as a photographer is its own adventure.
Images used with permission of Curtis Jones.