WE STILL PHOTOGRAPH
By Crispin Cannon
Making it as a snowboard photographer has always been tough. Borderline impossible. Everyone thinks they’re a photographer these days. And there is a long line of talented people who would love to do it full time. The lure of snowboarding in the best locations, with awesome people, documenting the most progressive snowboarding sounds amazing. And it is. But it’s not that simple. The photographer names you see on a regular basis have committed everything and sacrificed plenty to get where they are. When they arrive, and when they “make it” it’s not home free. Home rarely exists, and the cheques are eternally “in the mail.”
It’s not the glamour you’d imagine but it’s different for every photographer. They all do it for different reasons; or maybe similar reasons.
We spoke to four snowboard photographers. Three well-established Canadians at the top of their craft and one talented up-and-comer. To shed light on what snowboard photography is, what it means to them, and the sacrifices they’ve made to document the beauty of sliding sideways.
RUSSELL DALBY Squamish, BC | Shooting: 12 Years
You’ve made it as a photographer. How did you know?
When somebody on the beach in Tofino recognized me. I was taking photos, and we were talking and he said, "Yeah, I know who you are." That's how I knew. This was about eight years ago, maybe seven, maybe six.
Why do you shoot snowboarding?
I love snowboarding. I lived in Whistler, and I knew I wasn't going to make it as a rider. I’ve always loved taking photos, and I just put it together.
What’s best about it?
Snowmobiling is probably my favourite part. Being out in the backcountry with my friends and snowmobiling, exploring, finding new spots, making good jumps and taking photos. It's definitely not the money. That's not where the reward is. Being out there I think that's the best part, and then, of course, seeing the photos in print is second.
Can you survive as a snowboard photographer?
I don't think you could be a snowmobile backcountry photographer and have that be your only job. I don't think so. You’d have to shoot other stuff. I think you could be a dirtbag rail photographer; you could probably do that because it's so cheap. You don't really have expenses. Going out in the backcountry every day is expensive.If I went sledding 40 days in a winter, I'd say it's probably $500/day or something. That's twenty grand for 40 days. I don't think that's that far off, because when you go sledding each day it's maybe $50 or $100 for gas and food. Then there's insurance, the sled and truck, and insurance on the truck, camera gear, backcountry avalanche gear. All that stuff adds up.
Do you think anybody's making it 100 per cent on snowboarding?
I don't know. I always think Andy Wright is, but I don't know why.
“My favourite part is going out snowmobiling with my friends in the backcountry. As long as I can still afford to do that and I know some snowboarders that are still doing it, I'll keep shooting.”
The most challenging aspect of shooting snowboarding?
Trying to sell the photo. For me, I think that's the hardest part. I've been sledding now for a long time. I kind of know how to take the photos, and I know some people so honestly I think the hardest part is selling the photo. Nobody has any money. People give a little bit of money to certain photographers to shoot their entire campaign, so it doesn't leave much room for the freelancer. I think the biggest factor is the internet. There's just not as much money as there used to be.
What do you do?
I explained it to a guy the other day because he was talking to me about Warren Miller movies, how they used to be awesome. They used to wait for the Warren Miller movie to come out every year. I said, "Well, I basically tag along with the Warren Miller movie crew and just shoot behind the scenes," which obviously isn't really true, but that's how I explained it to a guy who has no idea. It's a movie crew. It's not a photo crew. They're making their movie, and I'm just also there.
How has your job changed?
Now you pretty much have to come home every day and post something from your day, whereas when it was film you just couldn't. By the time you got your film back it was too late. I mean there was no place to put it anyways. Now I think you have to take extra photos just so that you can post something at the end of the day. You're not getting paid for that, but it's still more work. Then you have to make sure you don't give away what you're actually doing that day so that when the photo actually does come out, if it does, that it's not already blown up.
Instagram has changed it, you flick it through and there's just epic photo after epic photo, and why is somebody going to want to buy one when they can just go look at it?
What does the future hold?
I think it's just going to be all on the internet, and then it'll just probably be the riders taking photos of each other, which they're already doing. Rusty Ockenden is taking more photos and he's getting them printed. Matt Belize is doing the same thing. I don't know. I think there's just not going to be room for a professional photographer to be out there anymore in the future.
I'm just talking about my corner of it, the rail side of it is totally different. Everyone's got flashes, it's more involved so you have to have a professional photographer. As far as backcountry goes I don't think you have to. Maybe I'm putting myself out of a job [laughs]. I said earlier that my favourite part is going out snowmobiling with my friends in the backcountry. As long as I can still afford to do that and I know some snowboarders that are still doing it, I'll keep shooting.
ERIC LAMOTHE Montreal, Quebec | Shooting: 4 years
How’d you get hooked on snowboard photography?
I started when I stopped snowboarding in the streets. I used to hit a lot of handrails and got injured a couple times on my last year. You just never want to stop. Doing photography was my way of being there; I could keep on living it with the guys, but without actually hitting the rails. That’s one of the reason why I started shooting. The other is after three years of being a full-time commercial photographer, I could afford to go back to doing photography and being in the snowboard industry. You just never want to get out of it.
What’s the most rewarding part of shooting?
Yeah, it’s actually getting the shot. I feel each time I get a shot, I get the same vibe as when I’d get a video shot riding or landing a new trick on my board,I’m out there. It’s the same. We got kicked out of a spot, and I was as pissed as the guys riding. We went back and got the shot. That vibe you get when you shoot snowboarding, it’s exactly the same thing as when I was riding but without consequences.
Does it support you financially?
It pays a minimum at the end of the year. I could say after three months of shooting I’m even. Being out there, I think we bought 400 beers last week with The Bruners crew, they’re always drinking beer. So at the end of the year, I don’t make money because it’s so expensive to be out there. Going to restaurants every day and sleeping in hotels… I don't do it for the money, but I would like to do it for a long time and without the money it's not possible.
“Everyone can create content, but we have to go back to that real content, something different. That's what I hope happens by creating something that not everyone can do, it will keep me getting work.”
What’s best about it?
Favourite thing is to make an image of a shot, like a video shot, but with a really different vibe. The way I shoot my images, I use a lot of lighting. When the riders land their trick and they see the picture and it doesn’t looks like what they’ve expected, that's what I like—that reaction of the guys looking and enjoying a picture. The picture isn't just like a still frame from the video shot, it's a totally different product.
Explain what you do?
I get a moment where I really feel like I'm working and I'm in my bubble. I need to get that angle, a good angle to make the trick look good. It's really important to get this and I kind of stressed about that. Because once the guys are setting up the spot, that's all the time I have to create my image. We arrive at a spot and I can figure out, "OK, I got about 30 minutes to choose my angle, choose my lens, then decide where I'm going to put my light. Once the guys are ready to ride, they go on. That time is the only time while shooting where I actually feel like I'm working. Once this is done, all the guys know it, they always say, "Oh, Eric, good, you got your angle." At that moment I always open a beer, whatever time of day it is. I open a beer and I'm just having fun, it's easy. I'm enjoying the moment and watching the guys snowboard.
What’s the future of snowboard photography?
Like you said, there're so many images that are being created not only with cameras but with cell phones, and it can be pretty much anything, any content at all. The only way I can detach from that is by doing something different. Then when the people look at my image, they have that reaction of, "I can't do that," or "I don't know how you did it." Everyone can go buy a camera and shoot natural light, it doesn't mean it's going to be a good image. On the internet and social media, not everyone has that talent. Everyone can create content, but we have to go back to that real content, something different. That's what I hope happens by creating something that not everyone can do, it will keep me getting work.
What have you learned from commercial photography you’ve brought to snowboarding? Or is it the other way around?
Lighting. I've learned it by shooting snowboarding. I really think that shooting snowboarding is probably the hardest thing you can do in photography. You're in the worst conditions, you have to kill the daylight, you work outside and with the most fucked-up lenses. Shooting with a fisheye and without seeing everything around, that's how I started to learn photography. And yes, my snowboard and commercial stuff looks the same, but that's all stuff I learned by shooting sport and shooting action in the worst conditions.
SCOTT SERFAS Whistler, BC | Shooting: 23 Years
You were hired by Transworld Snowboarding back in 1999 was that your, “I’ve made it” moment?
I'm looking back at 1999 saying, yeah, maybe that's it. But I don't really think I’ve “made it,” because I've always had goals and wanted to go further. I think the proper answer is; the “I’ve made it” moment is still to come. I've made the last 20 years work but I've got another 20 to think about. More than ever now, I’m hunting for another job or assignment or another trip to go on.
What’s changed about shooting photos? What’s different about the struggle now?
Photography and just media in general. It's not all about the print magazine. It's a combination of print, websites, social media and balancing that with commercial work for the brands. Snowboarding is not in the best state, so brands are tight with funds. They don't have money to send writers and a photographer on a trip or fund a week-long catalogue shoot. When I started, we were shooting on film, which was expensive, and you wouldn’t know what you had shot until maybe a week later. No idea if the shot turned out, if it was in focus, if it was exposed properly, if the composition was right. When a brand could rely on you to always produce shots that worked, then the jobs were easier to get. And there were less people doing it because it was so expensive.
Now because now you're eliminating the cost of film and processing, which into produce an A-plus shot could easily have been a $100 to $200 just in film costs. You've eliminated that. You've eliminated the unknown of what your shot’s going to look like. Instantly you can look at the back of your camera. You can tell if it's sharp, you can tell if it's exposed right. Even if it's not exposed right, you could easily fix it. Now, you’re just left to composition and the photographer's take on shots. It's just so much cheaper and easier now for people to get the gear and to go out and shoot. The competition's higher. In the past you had eight issues of Transworld or whatever magazine the brands were advertising in. You needed eight photographs throughout the year to meet those needs. Fewer issues, less advertisers. Now, a brand will be posting two, three, four photos or videos on social media daily. I find that a lot of brands aren't necessarily looking for A-plus shots. They're just looking for content, no matter what that is. Lower quality stuff or people that are willing to do it for cheaper. Maybe they’re getting it from people who are younger that don't have as many expenses as someone like myself who's got a family and a mortgage. A lot more to support. It's a juggle, I guess, trying to find the middle ground there, producing quality and quantity in a way that we can still make a living. I think that's getting harder and harder.
The need for photos has gone through the roof but the value of the images seems to have gone way down.
Well, that's exactly it. You're not staring at the pages of a magazine for a month or two months. You're looking at Instagram and you're flipping through photos almost as fast as you can scroll through your feed. People are flipping through content so quickly that brands and media outlets are having trouble finding value in it.
“I love snowboarding. I love being out in the mountains. I love watching it. I love documenting it. I love coming home from a day where nobody else was around and creating these images where nobody else got to see the tricks go down. And then be the one to show the world, I think that is pretty awesome.”
What’s going to happen in the future?
In the future, I don't know, man. I guess that's the million dollar question. Far as future of snowboard photography or the future of a snowboard photographer, that's a weird one. If brands are like, “I'll give you a couple $100 for a photo but you got to go and produce it.” Well, if it costs you $300/ day to go and shoot: the cost of a sled, the fuel, the oil, the time to go out and risk a full day to maybe make a couple good shots that you can sell to break even. That's not the smartest business move. I'm going to go out in January and spend X amount of dollars, shoot, in hopes that in August they'll agree to buy it and December I'll get paid? That scares me. You eliminate the photographer and what's next? There's nobody to shoot the professional snowboarder then how are they going to... is it two guys that go out and they take pictures of each other riding? And that's what it comes down to? That's never something I've thought about before. Never thought about if the professional snowboard photographer going to become non-existent or extinct? I don't know. Maybe there will just be the handful of the brands and media outlets that are still standing that can weather this storm and create enough profit to create interesting and unique content. I think that's what the industry needs.
You don’t get by on shooting snowboarding exclusively. Do you think there's anyone out there surviving solely on snowboard photography?
I doubt it. I'm trying to think who that would be… maybe Andy Wright?
Why do you shoot snowboarding?
I love snowboarding. I love being out in the mountains. I love watching it. I love documenting it. I love coming home from a day where nobody else was around and creating these images where nobody else got to see the tricks go down. And then be the one to show the world, I think is pretty awesome. That's why I shoot backcountry stuff. You're not going to see me too often at a contest, standing on a park jump at the X Games with 10 other photographers. There’re no rules in shooting snowboarding. There's nobody telling you where to go and what you can do. That's snowboarding to me. This sport that didn't have rules. To be standing on the deck of a pipe and have someone in ski boots telling me that I'm too close and I'm going to get hurt. I can't be there. I can't handle that. I can't picture myself not shooting snowboarding. Thinking that it's a possibility that I'll have to do something else to make a living kind of scares me.
OLI GAGNON Squamish, BC | Shooting: 17 years
When was your, “I’ve made it” moment?
Well shit, I guess when I got my first job with Snowboarder Magazine. That was in 2003. They asked me to be a senior photographer. My first solid job before that was just freelance stuff and that was hard.
Does snowboard photography support you financially? Do you shoot anything else outside of snowboarding?
Nope, I only shoot snowboarding. And yeah, yeah it does. I work for Salomon Snowboards, and I work for Snowboarder Magazine, so it's two pretty good deals.
Hell yeah. Why did you choose to shoot snowboarding?
It’s the only thing I know how to do, I guess [laughs]. Yeah, I've been snowboarding since I was eight years old—that's most of my life. That's what I love to do. I picked up photography when I was a teenager and it just sort of happened. Shooting my friends, moving to Whistler, and slowly shooting more and more. Next thing you know this is what I do.
What drives you to take the photos?
For me snowboard photography and documenting snowboarding is about the tricks and making them look good. That's how I see it and that's my goal every time I go out shooting. I think about what's happening and how to make that look its best. That's the most important thing to document it right. Snowboarding is about the snowboarder’s tricks they do and the spots that they're at. For me that’s it.
What are some of the benefits that keep you in the game?
I really love to snowboard. When I go on a trip and I get to actually snowboard that's the ultimate. I try to ride every time I go out shooting. I always bring my board, all my gear, even when I go on street trips I’ll try to ride all the time.
Amazing. What are some of the biggest challenges?
There're always two aspects: I shoot a lot of streets and then I shoot a lot of backcountry. I would say in the streets, obviously getting kicked out of spots, cops and all that. Mainly it's the elements really, running around trying to find good conditions, snow conditions, you know? That would be the biggest challenge—weather and snow conditions.
How has your job become more difficult over the years?
I feel like print is slowly dying. Every year for example, Snowboarder takes out one issue; everything is shrinking down. In print there's only so much space available and there're so many photo submissions. The photo editor will get so many photos and it’s just saturated I feel like.
People will pay money for print photos but for social media and internet use, there's just no budgets. Even for me, when I try to sell a photo, if I sell it for Instagram use, people will offer you nothing basically. There's just no budget for it yet. It's probably going to switch at one point, but the life of a photo on Instagram is only a day, tops. You'll see it, and then it's gone.
“I couldn't care less about Instagram to be honest. When I see a photo that's printed as a full page in a magazine, that's the reason why I do it, to see that.”
Do you feel a difference seeing your photos on instagram vs. seeing them in print?
Of course. It's day and night. I couldn't care less about Instagram to be honest. When I see a photo that's printed as a full page in a magazine, that's the reason why I do it, to see that. Whether it be an editorial photo, or an advertising photo, that's the only reason why I do it. To see it in the magazine big—it just stokes you out, and it's there forever. It just looks so much better than on a tiny little phone screen. My phone's all busted anyway, my screen's all cracked. I look at Instagram and all the photos look like shit.
You're not the only one I'm sure.
Exactly. Fuck, it’s so tiny, you zoom in and it's all blurry and stuff.
What do you think the future holds for snowboard photography?
I have no clue, man, I wish I could tell you. It looks like it's going towards quantity versus quality. If I take all the photos I shoot in one year there's probably 10 per cent that ends up in the magazine and 90 per cent on Instagram, you know? It's pretty scary to think about.
What does your day to day look like for someone that may not know?
Yeah, it's a lot of work. You're not snowboarding. Most of the time you're either shovelling or driving around, or you're hiking, or building a jump, or freezing your ass off somewhere standing around. Then you’re trying to argue with some security guard or something… it is a lot of fun though. I'm not going to lie, I love it, because I just get to hang out with all my friends. It's fun, I really enjoy it. I'm going to try to do this for as long as I can, for sure. As long as somebody's paying me to do it, I will do it for as long as I can move.