My Life As an Adventure Photographer | Nat Geo Live


– Hello everyone, thank
you so much for coming, my name is Becca Skinner, and I’m a National
Geographic Young Explorer, and an adventure photographer. Before I get started
and tell you why, in this photo, I’m carrying
110 liters of camera gear, across the coast of Canada, I just wanted to give you
a little bit of background, so I’m based in
Bozeman, Montana, it’s so beautiful, and
this is a little cabin that I stay at quite often, but most of the time,
I’m on the road. And I know most of you
have houses or apartments, and maybe you’re looking out
the door at a front yard, or backyard, but my view
often looks like this. This is my front
yard, or back yard. I’m also based out of my bright
yellow truck, named Happy, very unstealthy, it’s about
National Geographic yellow, but this is my view a lot of
times when I’m on the road, and I was spending so much
time on the road last year, that I actually
had a friend help build me a bed in the
back of the truck, it’s way more
comfortable that way, so you can see the two
storage systems on the side, and then I have this
bed in the middle, which my dog and I fit
perfectly in that little nook, and obviously, a coffee
device, in the corner. (laughter) And I would argue
that this is actually more comfortable
than my bed at home. So I know I just said I
spend a lot of time outside, or on the road, but I
just wanted to give you some statistics about how much time I actually spend outside, so last year, I kept track, and last year, I slept
outside for 242 nights, which estimates to be roughly
eight months of the year, that means I was inside
about 123 nights, which also means, I only took about 123
showers last year, (laughter) which is not that much,
but don’t be dissuaded, I showered this morning, please still come
talk to me after the show. (laughter) But most of my showers
looked like this, so being an adventure
photographer means I get to see incredible places, my day is not ever the same, it just keeps me on my toes, as you can see, there’s
quite a diversity of images in this picture. But yeah, it’s always different, and that’s part of the
reason I love this job, the only thing
consistent is I drink a very, very strong cup
of coffee every morning. But 90% of my job is really fun, and right now, I’m working for
a lot of outdoor companies, creating content, a few of these photos have
not yet been published, so you get to see them first, so yes, quite diversity. 90% of my job is really fun, and the other 10% is
totally miserable, well, kind of. Being an adventure
photographer also means I’m dealing with the
elements 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when
I’m out in the field, not something you
typically think of, when you see beautiful
images on Instagram. So like, this day, we were
up at about 8,000 feet, and the winds were
about 30 miles per hour, and it got to the
point where it was such a terrible
blizzard outside, that I could no
longer see the people I was taking photos of, so I hunkered down
for about 10 minutes, until the whiteout passed, and then we decided
it was probably okay, we could go home. Or there’s days like this, where the elements turned me into a beautiful Lady Gandalf, (laughter) with an ice beard. On this morning, it is
negative 20 degrees, I am wearing five
jackets, in this picture, and the condensation
from my breath, because it was
so cold outside, created this awesome
ice beard in my hair, and I couldn’t pull it
apart, until it melted, which wasn’t until about
11:00 in the morning. And at these
temperatures, you’re also, I’m being very
aware of frostbite, and one of the people I was with started to get
frostbite on her toes, so again, turned
around and went back, because, also part of this job
is knowing when to call it. Or there are days like this, it poured rain, last year, I was on an
expedition with this guy, Bertie Gregory, and we were
filming for Bertie’s digital series for Nat Geo Wild,
it’s called wild_life, and it just finished
its last episode, so you can still watch
it, check it out. But in this photo,
we’re about 75 miles off the coast of
Vancouver Island, we’re the only
people on the island, and we waved at our float plane as they dropped us off, hoping that we had
enough food and gear, and that our sat
phone was working. And Bertie is building
a wildlife hide, which is, basically,
a wildlife blind, and it breaks up your shape, because we were on the coast, and we wanted to try and find coastal wolves for
this expedition, we needed a way to
break up the shapes, so we would sit in this hide, and this actually
contributed to about one month’s of my not showering, because you can’t
alter your scent, wolves will smell you, or wildlife has pretty
great sense of smell. So no showering was a
strict rule for this trip, and I feel bad for
our float plane pilot, that had to take us home. But in situations like this,
where it’s pouring rain, you’re starting to be kind
of concerned about your gear, and that’s a question
that I get a lot is, how are you dealing
with your gear when you’re out in the field in the elements
for the whole time? And the truth is, it gets
first priority in your tent, (laughter) you must have a good tent, you need to really
trust your equipment. But this is about a
quarter of our gear, actually, I’m
holding one camera, there’s a few more behind
me that you can’t see, this is a four person tent, and in the spaces
where two other people would typically lay, was
all of our camera gear. When you want to
stretch out, you can’t, because there’s batteries behind
you, batteries beside you, and we had to start sleeping with batteries in
our sleeping bags, and it’s not because they’re, like, I have a weird
thing with batteries, it actually helps
prolong the life of them, so if they’re not, warmingup
and cooling, and warming up and cooling, you can just stick them
in your sleeping bag, and your body heat
helps keep them warm and they last longer. But I haven’t always been
an adventure photographer, I haven’t always
been on Instagram, which I will tell you about, but I started Instagram in 2012, and at the time, it was just
being used as a really casual way to share parts of your life. And no one was really
using it for business or for promotion
and so part of a, a really fun part of pulling
together this presentation, is I dug through my images and found my very
first Instagram photo, which I am so
excited to show you. It’s really compelling, (laughter) my dog, (laughter) this is my dog Vedauwoo, this is her sun
bathing position, and I saw her draped over this
garden hose in the back yard, I thought it was funny, because she pulls her
legs up like a T-Rex, when she gets like that. And obviously, pretty comedic, so on my iPhone, I
though it was funny, snapped a photo, put
like four filters on it, because that’s what you did, and then posted it to Instagram, so not a lot of forethought. Also, my favorite
section of the bookstore, (laughter) again, though it was funny,
took a photo with my iPhone, posted it immediately,
not a lot of forethought. So I had, Instagram, as an app, and I was also
storytelling on the side, but it never really
occurred to me that I could do both, that I could
combine that effort, because no one was really
using it like that. So in 2010, I had won a grant, from the University of Wyoming, to go document post Hurricane
Katrina in New Orleans, and how they were recovering, so this was kind of my first
experience in the field, and that project led to
a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant
to document post tsunami, Banda Aceh, Sumatra, that was pretty
decimated by the tsunami, and if anyone in
the crowd is between the ages of 18 to 25, or if you know
someone in that age, that you think
might be interested in the Young Explorers grants, they’re such an
awesome opportunity, and please come talk
to me afterwards, because it got my foot in the
door with National Geographic, and it funded my first
big field project was documenting the tsunami, and I had a kind of similar idea for my Young Explorers grant on how Banda Aceh
was recovering, and I feel like this
photo really sums it up, in my entire project,
into this image. I like to play a
game with this photo, called find the boat, yeah, sort of in the middle. This barge had floated inland, and you can see the coastline, in this photo, so a couple
miles it floated in, and it settled there, and instead of tear it apart, the Indonesians decided,
we’ll just build around it. So you can pay a penny, and you can walk
up onto the barge, and look out over the city
of Banda Aceh, Sumatra. But really, really interesting. So I came back from my
Young Explorers project, so jazzed about photography, like, this is what I
wanted to do, I was living my dream. But there was this
big jump in my head between what I just
got to do as a grantee, and being a full
time photographer, and I didn’t really know
how to make that jump. So I was working for
the State of Wyoming, as a grant writer, and I decided to save
up a bunch of money, and that I would go travel. So I ended up taking
time off of that job, and traveling to
just shoot photos, because that’s the only
thing I knew how to do, and the only thing I
really wanted to do. So this road trip ended up
being about 32,000 miles around the American West,
just with my dog and I, this is on a small break. A mouse had climbed into
my engine compartment, and at the time, I was
sleeping in this vehicle, like, I was sleeping
in the truck, and the entire night, I could hear it run
across the dashboard, and it kept me up all night, so this is like 5:00
am in the morning. And little did I know, my traveling around the West
and creating these images, just because I wanted to,
and because I loved it. It was creating this kind of
visual diary on Instagram, I made the switch, I stopped
taking pictures with my iPhone, and posting them, just
taking photos with my camera, and posting them there. And I had no idea that
people were paying attention until I started to
gather this audience, and when I hit 20,000 followers, my mom wanted to get me a cake, (laughter) and I was like, no, no, no. No, no, no, people don’t
do that, thank you though, very, very kind. But I didn’t really realize that people wanted to see
what I was shooting until I started to
gather this audience. So at the very end
of 2014, I decided, I would make the jump into
full time freelancehood, and it was like, a major,
major leap of faith for me. And, so as soon as I, like, publicly announced that I was going into full
time photography, I immediately panicked,
I was like, oh no, maybe this isn’t right. And so when I panic,
I go fly fishing, so I left for a week
on a fly fishing trip in the back country of Montana. And when I came out
of the back country, I had an email from someone, and I thought it was spam, it wasn’t spam, it was
from a fly fishing company that wanted me to shoot their
entire campaign for that year, and when I finally spoke
on the phone to them, and asked them how on
Earth they had found me, they said, through Instagram. And that was my first
freelance job was, they found me there. So, for most of the half of
the 2015, the first half, this is last year, I got
that fly fishing job in 2014, and then I didn’t get
another email for months. Again, panic, so I decided, okay, I would go on more trips, because I knew that
it was a gamble, but it was an investment
in making more images, things that were compelling, and things that I wanted to see. And I think it shines through, when you’re doing something
that you really love. And so, I started
creating things like this, just totally diverse, and then it struck me
part way through 2015, that I could kind of start
leveraging the audience that I had built on
Instagram to companies, or for projects
that I wanted to do, I wanted to travel, and so I would send
out notes to companies, and say, “are you interested
in this expedition?” And that’s how the expedition
to Panama was born. This is my friend
Clare Fieseler, who is a fellow Young
Explorer grantee, and my favorite
expedition partner. And we had been in
contact with this company called Oru Kayak,
and we had proposed, it was Clare’s idea, to circumnavigate this island outside of Panama
called Bastimentos, and you can see it up
there, with the little pin, it doesn’t look that big, but it was a four day trip. And we had two
objectives for the trip, one, do a social media
story for Oru Kayak, and then two, to
write a blog post for National
Geographic Adventure. And there were
only some problems, to begin with, problem number one, or
complication number one, Clare and I had never
worked together. And this may not
seem like a big deal, but sometimes your
expedition partners, or sometimes your
friends don’t make the best expedition partners. So we had been talking about a much larger circumnavigation, but we decided we
should probably make sure we like each other, before we jump into
a multi-month trip. So we started having
these Skype phone calls, and we’re, at this time,
in two different countries, and both of us are
traveling really frequently. So this Skype conversation
was the last one before I went to Panama, and I’m, obviously
had a headlamp on, and I’m, like, standing
on my tippy toes, at the top of a peak, because that’s where I can
get cell phone service. And Clare is in
her room in Panama, and she doesn’t get
cell phone service on the island either,
so we’re, like, trying to piece together
these Skype meetings. Problem number two, or
complication number two, we had never used
the kayaks before, just keep that one in mind. (laughter) Complication number three, we had no idea how much
carrying capacity they had, which might not be that big
of a deal, thinking about it, but when you start
adding things up, like, our self-supported gear, tent, sleeping pad, food, water, and then camera gear. And I don’t know how many
of you have a camera body, with it’s various,
heavy, heavy appendages, but it starts to add up. So we had no idea how much would actually fit
into the kayaks. Just a little bit of
background on the kayaks, they start as a
two by three box, and they unfurl into
those large white kayaks that you saw Clare and
I standing in front of, roughly about 16 feet. They are really, well, the
website and directions said, give yourself 15 to 20
minutes to put them together, and so, Clare and I
are like, awesome, that’s great, we can do that. So we put it off until
the last thing we did, it took us a little bit
longer than 15 minutes. It took us, about two and a half, three and a half, hours. They are a little
bit more complicated than we initially thought, (laughter) so you can see it
getting darker, (laughter) and darker. (laughter) The other thing that
kind of put off, because we didn’t know
the carrying capacity, was the grocery list, and knowing that we were
going to be kayaking, multiple miles a day. I had put together
a last minute, but very calorie
efficient grocery list, with what was available at
the Panamanian grocery store on the island of Bocas del Toro. Cheese, peanut butter,
apples, water, rum. (laughter) Calorie efficient. So Instagram became this way to tell these little
vignettes, these stories, and, or as I like to call
them, learning curves, of what was actually
happening on the expedition. So learning curve number one, Clare and I are in a
rush to get out the door, to start kayaking, we finally figure out that
everything fits in the boats, win, the boats float, win number two. We finally start paddling, and it’s been a year and
a half since I’ve kayaked. I was carrying
110 liters through a temperate rain forest in
Canada, I had not been rowing. So, a few miles into the trip, I am hoping that
my arms fall off, to give me an excuse to stop
paddling against the current. And I start to kind of panic, because the current is really, really strong on the ocean side, so it’s pulling me one way, and I’m just digging
with my left hand, and I’m starting to panic. And Clare’s a little
bit away from me, and so I’m paddling, and I yell, Clare, how much
further do have to go? And she’s paddling, digging
with her left paddle, she’s like, I don’t
know, look at the GPS. And I’m paddling, and I’m
like, you have the GPS, and we both kind of turn
and look at each other, and stop paddling, and
realize that we left the GPS. Yes, this is a circumnavigation, there’s an island on one side, there’s an ocean the other,
it can’t be that hard, right. Well, there are these mangrove
entrances with GPS coordinates, the mangroves are so
thick, from the outside, in a lot of the places
that we were going to stay, we actually could not locate where the mangrove
entrances were. This is when we
finally found one, on the first night, we were going to stay
at a fishing lodge. And they just happened to be blowing through conch shells, and we were like, let’s
follow the conch shells, that sounds promising,
and we ended up there. So good. So this is the Instagram
post that we did with this, the best and scariest parts about expeditions
are the unknowns, there were quite a
handful on this trip. Clare Fieseler
tending to the fire after a long day of open ocean, dealing with my seasickness,
and the lost GPS. Learning curve number two, because we were lost, we were supposed to sleep
at an indigenous village, and both of us were
so excited about this, because the southern
part of the island is not a tourist destination, it does not get
visited very often. And we had the opportunity to camp with the indigenous
people in their village, which was so exciting, because we were lost, we couldn’t find the
mangrove entrance, we decided to camp on
this beach instead, the last photo that you
saw, that’s where we camped. And we decided,
the next morning, it’s okay, we will
find this village, we will portage, which
when full of possessions, the kayaks, when we
lifted them up to portage, they started to bow the
other way under the weight. Which is not something you
want from a foldable kayak, so, scratch that plan, dump
out all of our possessions, refold the boats, start
portaging the boats with our camera
gear on our backs. And we start to go
down this trail, which, it starts on this bridge, and then the trail
was off to my right, and we start to go
down this bridge, and we run into a local. So exciting, and the
local gives us some very, very key information, Clare Fieseler in
a short portage, originally, Clare and I were
going to portage our gear, for a mile to an
indigenous village, right as we were packing
up to start hiking, we were told that
the dense jungle path we were going to use was
actually a crocodile trail. (laughter) Narrowly avoided that one. (laughter) So Clare and I had come up with the hashtag
#PaddlingPanama, you can kind of
see it down there, on the left, and we used that to curate
these images together, to do this eventual blog post. Mine is here on my left, and Clare’s, How
Circumnavigating an Island by Kayak Is Like Speed Dating. (laughter) And we were laughing and
joking while we were paddling, that expeditions are
like explore Match.com, because you’re trying
to put out these small little fires
when you’re panicking, and you’re like, oh, you
deal with it like that, me too, okay, we’re good, we can go into the field
together, we’re a match. So Instagram has done
so much for my life, it’s really broughtinto
my world, it’s allowed me to
connect to people that I never dreamed
of connecting with, and share my images, just
outside of my community. I will continue to share, it’s also introduced me to
some of my best friends, this is my best friend Heidi, and these are seven year old
chickens sitting on our heads. It’s introduced me to
some wonderful people, and as much as it’s
broadened my world, it’s really shrunk it too. I use it to check
conditions of places, if I’m going somewhere, and
need to look up the weather, then I will look
up the location, and see what has
recently been posted. I obviously use it for business, but, yeah, it’s also
shrunk my world, and introduced me to some
really wonderful people. It’s such a great
tool for connecting, so I hope you will
connect with me there too. (applause)

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