Story Behind the Image: The Best Time to be a Photographer is Right Now

Nikon D700 / 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens / ISO 200
Nikon D700 / 17-35mm f/2.8 lens / ISO 200

Today David Lama is one of the most successful professional climbers in Europe. But at age 19, his climbing career almost ended before it even began.

In the austral summer of 2009/2010, Austrian climbers David Lama and Daniel Steurer made the long journey to Patagonia with their sights set on doing the first free ascent of the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre. The son of a Sherpa father and Austrian mother, David started climbing at an early age and exhibited a preternatural gift for this sport that earned him fanfare and big-time sponsorships, including Austria’s largest sports beverage company, Red Bull.

David’s objective was to be the first person to free climb the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre, one of the toughest mountains in the world. This objective had already been tried by some of the best alpine climbers in the world without success. It was an audacious goal. Were he to succeed, it would be major news and a great story worth telling.

Adding to the climb’s interest, the southeast ridge of Cerro Torre holds an infamous place in the annals of mountaineering as the site of controversy. To make a very complex story short, in the 1970s an Italian climber named Cesare Maestri placed over 450 bolts on the mountain using a gas-powered compressor, a wholesale construction project that incited climbers such as Reinhold Messner to denounce the ascent as the “murder of the impossible.” The climbing community continues to debate the demerits of these egregious actions over 40 years later.

David’s sponsors recognized that this would be an incredible story to capture, and Red Bull put together a seven-figure budget to make a movie about their star climber’s efforts on Cerro Torre.

Still rather young and inexperienced, David Lama inadvertently ended up becoming the face for yet another Cerro Torre imbroglio that all but ended his promising climbing career. One of the riggers on the film project added at least 30 bolts to the mountain, apparently for the safety of the camera crew. To the climbing community, however, this act was as sacrilegious as spraying graffiti on the walls of Mecca. Though he didn’t personally add those bolts, overnight David Lama became the most hated climber in the world: a symbol of brash young egotism that lacked vision, talent, boldness and respect for mountaineering.

Any lesser human would’ve been crushed by this degree of community ire, not to mention the public relations nightmare David had created for his sponsors.

But not David. To his credit, he really stepped to the plate, matured, and apologized profusely on behalf of himself and his entire team—eventually accepting full responsibility despite the fact that he didn’t actually place any of the problematic bolts himself.

David returned to Patagonia two more times and eventually achieved his goal of free climbing Cerro Torre. When he free climbed the mountain in 2012, it was in perfect style without the help/aid of any bolts. He had achieved his goal and in the process, he both greatly matured as a climber and regained the respect and admiration of the entire climbing world through his talent and actions.

Pretty incredible, if you think about it.

As grim and dark as life got for young David during this three-year saga with Cerro Torre, he never gave in, and he always held fast to a positive, optimistic attitude that better days lay ahead.

This picture of David Lama and Daniel Streurer walking through a dark valley toward a brightening, sun-kissed Cerro Torre has become a really apt visual metaphor for David’s optimistic attitude, and I often look back on this picture to remind myself how important it is to maintain a positive approach, whether that’s in the mountains or in the business of photography. No matter how dark the valley gets, it’s good to remember that you are responsible for shaping your future, and that better, brighter times are up ahead.

I recently returned from the 8th annual Adventure Photography Summit Series workshop in Jackson Hole, a workshop in which I am a cofounder alongside one of my mentors, Rich Clarkson.

Rich Clarkson is in his 80s, but his mind and attitude are as sharp and optimistic as any college kid. He is one of the great living legends in the photography world, a storyteller who has virtually seen and done it all. As a teenager, Rich fell in love with journalism, interviewing guys like Orville Wright and running in the same circles as guys like Ansel Adams.

Rich went on to become one of the most decorated sports photographers of all time, shooting for Sports Illustrated as a contract photographer, not to mention other major publications like Time and Life magazines. Mind you that this was back in the heyday of magazines, when those publications held as much sway as the hand of god when it came to determining which photography careers lived and died.

Rich then went on to serve as the director of photography at National Geographic and The Denver Post. His perspective on this industry is invaluable. But perhaps his greatest gift is his amazing ability to select the most talented young photographers in the world, and bring them up. He has probably identified and mentored more great photographers working today than anyone else.

Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that when Rich Clarkson speaks, you best shut your trap and listen up to what The Man has to say.

On the last day of the workshop, something happened that really blew me away. Around 60 of us were seated at a round-table discussion in an outdoor amphitheater. Among 43 students and 5 faculty members, I was sitting alongside my fellow instructors: Tim Kemple, Keith Ladzinski, Sadie Quarrier, Scott Wilson, Ryan Taylor, Andy Bardon, Bob Smith, Ron Taniwaki and Lucas Gilman. We fielded questions and talked about the photography business. Then one of the students, a young guy just out of college, asked me a rather cynical question that went something like:

“You know, Corey, when you were growing up in this industry”—and then all of a sudden I’m feeling like an old fart! … Anyway, he continued: “When you were growing up it was real simple. You interned at a newspaper, then you went on to work for magazines, and then you started doing commercial jobs. What do guys like me do today? All that shit is gone! Do any of us honestly expect to have a future in this industry?”

And before I could even figure out how to answer, Rich Clarkson stepped up and launched into one of the most eloquent, badass monologues that I’ve ever heard in my life. His answer to this young kid’s question couldn’t have been said better than if one of Clinton’s speechwriters had penned it. Basically, imagine the scene from A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson shuts up the young Tom Cruise in the courtroom, only Rich was much friendlier, more optimistic, more in the right, and way more badass. (I’m going to paraphrase here, but just know that the actual monologue was at least twice as good.)

“Let me just make something real clear guys,” he said. “You know, I’m tired of hearing people talk about how the future is not bright. The future for photography and filmmaking and journalism has never been brighter!

“Has journalism changed? Yes. Certainly journalism has changed. You’re not going to go shoot black-and-white for newspapers. And you know what? Frankly, you should be thankful that you’re not going to shoot black-and-white for newspapers because that’s a thing of the past.

“The future is this thing called the Internet. The future is this thing called technology. Today we photographers, journalists and filmmakers get to write our own tickets. When we have stories that we’re passionate about telling, we have more freedom and more resources available to us than ever before. Equipment is affordable and our potential outreach is unlimited. Wherever that funding comes from, whether it’s philanthropic sources, a corporate underwriter or whether it’s by working in a 9 to 5 job, you can get it.

“We not only have all the sophisticated tools and channels we need to tell our stories online, but we can deliver those stories to a targeted audience instantly. And if your story is really well told, then guess what? It does this thing called, ‘It goes viral,’ and millions of people see it.

“Not only that, but if you’re doing it really well, you can actually sell the advertising on your site. All the old publishing paradigms have changed, and the power is now in your hands. Don’t lament today’s new media environment. There are more opportunities for creative individuals like yourself, like everyone here, than ever before.

“We are no longer just photographers. We are all-encompassing storytellers. We are self-publishers. We do our own promotion and marketing. We build websites and fill them with incredible, original content. Today you are only limited by the scope of your own imaginations, and the originality of your own creativity.

“Don’t say the future isn’t bright. For photographers, filmmakers, journalists, freelancers and production companies—for everyone here. You get to leave this workshop and go out there and write your destiny. The future is yours for you to create.”

Everyone in the workshop was sort of left reeling after this incredible monologue (which, again, was twice as good as what I’ve paraphrased above and I only wish that someone in the room had recorded it). We all sat there silently for a moment feeling these waves of optimism washing over us—empowering us. The message was as clear as day: Don’t ever complain about the state of publishing and media today because, in the 80some years that Rich Clarkson has been on the planet, this guy thinks that right now we are living in the most golden moment ever for entrepreneurs, photographers, filmmakers, storytellers and journalists.

And that was a pretty amazing idea for everyone to hear. It was a good reminder that, no matter how dark the valley may seem, maintaining an optimistic attitude and continuing to persevere forward in the face of adversity, will get you to the top in good style. Thanks to David Lama and Rich Clarkson for being living examples of this message.

About the author: Corey Rich began his prodigious career at a young age, shooting photojournalistic stills for local newspapers and documenting his weekend climbing adventures with his friends. By chasing his love of climbing with a camera in tow, he learned to sell his images to magazines and companies, landing him just enough gas money to fill up his Honda Civic and buy another brick of slide film.

Ultimately Rich would go on to become a Nikon USA Ambassador. Today his clients include some of the biggest companies and editorial publications in the world. He is also at the forefront of the emerging HD-SLR “small footprint production” style of filmmaking techniques, bringing that same creativity and passion for shooting stills to the world of motion.

This essay is part of Corey Rich’s ongoing “Story Behind the Image” series. Check out Corey’s blog for more stories like this one, as well as tech tips, news, advice, videos, galleries and other fresh content that is updated on a regular basis. Also, be sure to follow Corey on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Google+.