For the past decade, I’ve introduced myself as an adventure photographer and writer. To me, the most important word in that phrase will always be ‘adventure’. It’s why I crawl out of bed before sunrise and stay up long after dark. I value the quiet time spent in the mountains more than anything, but I spend far more time and energy on taking photos and writing about my adventures. Whenever I leave my house, I am usually carrying an arsenal of camera equipment and I often have a story idea in mind that I hope will inspire other people to live more active lifestyles.
If we rewind my life back to high school, I would have been the last person to believe this career was possible. Growing up, nobody would have called me artistic. I’d struggle just to score a passing grade in art, language or music courses while I’d ace physics, chemistry and math exams. After I finished school, I planned to take a year off before returning to university to study engineering.
One year turned into five, during which I lived the consummate vagabond lifestyle. I followed my passions for mountains around the globe, skiing in Norway, Canada, Argentina and Chile; hiking across the Kootenays, Patagonia, and the Canadian Rockies; and biking around New Zealand. I pieced together odd jobs – I had plenty: snowmaker, quasi civil-engineering technologist, bartender, hotel night manager, financial accountant, front desk agent, ski patroller. You get the idea – anything to pay the bills.
Whenever I was stuck at work, I dwelled on the fact my lifestyle didn’t seem sustainable, but I couldn’t grasp the idea of selecting a career. I loathed routine and simply wanted to spend more time outside, far away from time-consuming commutes and office space. I also flipped through stacks of magazines to inspire my next adventure.
I still remember flipping through a worn copy of Backpacker Magazine during a night shift in a remote section of Northern British Columbia’s oil and gas fields when it finally clicked: I wanted to become an adventure photographer and writer.
The odd thing was, it wasn’t an epiphany. It felt more like I’d finally found the courage to give myself permission to chase a lifetime dream. I ignored my lack of creative capacity and decided to give it a shot.
In the fall of 2006, I bought a camera, a notebook, and headed off to South America. I had a few short stories published; however, I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I enrolled in college and soon finished with a diploma in journalism and photography. For the next few years, I endured plenty of lean times. Query letters were rejected or left unanswered. My images still weren’t very good. But I embraced the challenge to become a better photographer and writer just like I welcomed preparing for my next adventure. I practiced constantly, watched hundreds of photography tutorials and published my own blog. Publication credits trickled in from various online publications. Eventually, I landed a magazine feature and wrote a guidebook. I still relied heavily on seasonal work to pay my bills.
After nearly a decade of nomadic life, I moved to Jasper, Alberta, in 2011 and signed an apartment lease. I also sat down and wrote out a business plan that I hoped would allow my photography and writing work to become a career.
What happened next? I failed! By 2012, I found myself behind a desk facing the first 9-5 job of my life. I lasted exactly six months before putting in my notice. I knew I’d rather work 100-hour weeks, chasing my own dream of turning my adventurous lifestyle into a career than spend Monday to Friday doing something I wasn’t passionate about.
Immediately after I quit, I found myself putting more energy and, perhaps more importantly, more focus into my craft. I flatly refused to take jobs like shooting a wedding or covering a news event. Instead, I scheduled my time to include plenty of outdoor adventure. I couldn’t wait for an assignment to photograph the mountain activities I wanted to capture. I had to get out and build my portfolio and soak in every ounce of experience that would help me improve my craft.
Thanks to a few friends – Lauren Bath and Garry Norris in particular – I quickly grew a social media audience that became the driving force behind my work. I suddenly saw the value in producing and publishing great work every day. Soon I was being invited on social media campaigns for destinations around the world. Not long after that, I began building and managing the campaigns on their behalf.
From the outside perspective, it looks like I travel from one adventure to the next. In 2015, I visited a handful of new countries, cycled the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, skied several couloirs in the Canadian Rockies and spent dozens of nights in the mountains. What is not seen however, is the long days behind the computer editing images, responding to clients, and writing proposals. These tiring acts are invisible but essential.
Before each project, no matter its scope, I still never sleep through the night. I lie awake staring at the ceiling, worrying if I’ll get the job done. No two projects are ever alike and as I gain more experience, I’ve watched my work evolve. Ultimately, it feels like I am constantly striving to one-up myself, because, suddenly calling myself an adventure photographer and writer isn’t ambitious. It’s accurate.
The challenge is working hard enough to keep the job for my lifetime.
Follow Jeff Bartlett’s journey on his website, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Steller.
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