February 11th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
When I first saw Alexandre Buisse’s work and read his eBook Extreme Perspectives my first thought was that here’s a man who’s living life on his own terms. Mountaineer, adventurer, author, photographer – this is truly the stuff of dreams. It’s an attitude that we can all learn from, and I was curious to find out more about the man behind the book. Alexandre’s story is an interesting one, and the tale of his path into professional photography will be useful for anyone contemplating taking up a life of adventure.
How would you describe your creative vision – what themes are you trying to explore in your work?
I think the main drive behind my photography, the reason I picked up a camera way before I had any thoughts of making a living with it, was the deep awe I have of the natural world, and especially of mountains. I hiked and skied in those places from a very young age, and acquired both love and respect for wild places. Trying to express those sentiments is the largest motivation in my photography.
Later, when I started climbing and got introduced to the large community of outdoor lovers, I discovered a new world of adventure. I keep being impressed by the feats performed in mountains and other such playgrounds – not only the stuff that makes the covers of magazines, but also the simple fact that some people love those places so much they keep coming back to them again and again.
I love photography because I think it is the only medium that can convey a small part of what it feels like to see the sun rise on a knife edge snow ridge or how elating the sensation of free movement over warm granite can be.
Who are your three favourite photographers and why do you like them?
Adams arguably ‘invented’ landscape photography and one of the things I really like about his work is that he does not shy away from expressing the grandiose nature of some scenes (and Yosemite Valley is nothing if not grandiose). Sometimes, the view is so spectacular it can feel like being punched in the face, yet I find many photographers are almost apologetic about it.
Galen Rowell is the father of adventure photography and a role model to, I believe, every single one of us trying to make a living out of it. Not only through his images, but even more through his modus operandi, his way of shooting, what he calls participatory photography. He is not a passive spectator capturing the action like a photojournalist – in most cases, he is a full participant, who just happens to carry a camera. He often has to do just as much, if not more, as the people he shoots, and it’s a great part of why his images feel so sincere.
I used to joke that when I grew up, I wanted to become Jimmy Chin. He is at the very top of the (small) field of adventure photography right now, and crucially, one of the best alpinists in the world. He inspires both through his climbs and his images (and now increasingly, his films). He is also pioneering new ways of communicating, be it by the way he produces his material as part of a collective of like-minded, equally talented photographers and filmmakers, Camp 4 Collective, or with live dispatches from high camps on the mountain, during the climb itself.
Define adventure photography. What does it mean to you and what does it take to be a successful ‘adventure photographer?’
A somewhat dry definition would be capturing images of athletes engaging in non-competitive sports in wild environments – things like mountaineering, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, whitewater kayaking, fell running or polar exploration. But I think there is another component to it: like Galen Rowell, a ‘true’ adventure photographer is also largely an adventurer himself, and often a full participant in the action. Sure, you can sometimes shoot from a helicopter or the banks of some rapids, but for the images to truly resonate with viewers, I think the photographer needs to be fully involved, fully committed. Interestingly, this often means that images get worse technically – angles and point of views are less than perfect, safety equipment shows, timing is slightly off, but what is lost one way is more than regained in sincerity and honesty, in the feeling of actually ‘being there’, and viewers are usually able to relate much better.
A successful adventure photographer, I guess, is simply someone who manages to make a living good enough that he gets to go on cool expeditions all the time, and gets the opportunity to work on innovative and inspiring imagery. That’s all I am dreaming of, really.
I’d like to talk a little about risk. How do you manage risk on the mountains, and how have you applied the lessons learnt to business and photography?
Risk is a very delicate subject, and it is inherent in the various outdoor pursuits. Some of it you can manage to an extent, for instance the risk of falling in the mountains, which you can mitigate by becoming stronger, training more and becoming more confident on rock. However, another type of risk, called objective danger, you can’t do much about – typically stuff falling on your head, avalanches and crevasses. You know an area is dangerous and you try hard to avoid it, but sometimes there is not really any alternative (other than staying at home in the first place) and you need to accept some level of risk. How high that level is can vary wildly between individuals and is probably the most important criterium in choosing a good partner.
As a photographer, there is an additional issue: that, because of the presence of the camera, athletes will push themselves further than they normally would, and will do things they wouldn’t normally feel comfortable with. I have to be extremely careful with this, and it all comes down to building a relationship of trust with the athletes.
I think the most important lesson I learned of being regularly in dangerous situations is the very important role of fear, and learning to differentiate being afraid of the unknown and being afraid of a potential, real danger. I am scared on nearly every single pitch of climbing, especially when it is traditionally protected (with removable pieces of gear placed by the lead climber, with no guarantees they will hold a fall), but I am slowly teaching myself to overcome that fear when I know the chances of actually getting hurt are low, and to listen to it and consider backing off when that risk is higher than I’d want to.
It seems to me that you’re living life and making a living on your own terms. You’ve found a way to live what for many people is just a dream and spend time doing the things you love. What are your thoughts on this? What advice would you give someone contemplating leaving a ‘regular’ job to embark on your type of lifestyle? How did you manage the transition yourself?
I remember when I was first living abroad, doing my Master in Sweden. Climbing wasn’t yet ruling my life then, and I had barely started taking photography seriously, but travelling just for the sake of discovering new places was something that had always appealed to me. Growing up, I kept telling myself “Someday. Later”. And then, on a winter day in Sweden, I had this amazing realisation. Later could be now if I wanted to, I just had to decide to do it and, well, do it. It’s all too easy to just keep postponing things we dream for an indefinite future, for someday when things align perfectly.
I later started a PhD, still in Theoretical Computer Science, but as time went on, it became more and more obvious that, pleasant as the work conditions may be, I just wasn’t enjoying myself. Every bit of vacation time was spent climbing or taking pictures, often both at the same time. A year in, I made a pact with myself: I would try to finish the PhD and stay for the whole duration (three years in Denmark), but as soon as it would be over, I would give myself the freedom to do something else, to pursue my dream, whatever it may be. At the time, I was just starting with climbing photography, had no portfolio to speak of and not the first idea how to run a photo business.
I spent these few years of transition making a lot of important legwork: saving money, acquiring equipment, learning about business practices and marketing, building a portfolio, introducing myself in the community, becoming more proficient at climbing, contacting clients and getting my name out there. I even wrote a book! This all allowed me to hit the ground running last September, when I handed in my dissertation and left academia forever. Having a reasonable business plan, enough resources and the work and reputation to be taken seriously by prospective clients gives me hope that I’ll be able to keep at it for a long while. I am now pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to survive if I had made the transition even just a year earlier, let alone at the beginning of my PhD, as I was once tempted to.
To anybody contemplating a similar jump into a more adventurous lifestyle, I can only offer one advice: if this is something that is really important to you, you should go ahead and do it. But do it in the right way, giving you every possible chance to succeed. Do your homework, don’t rush into it thinking you’ll figure everything as you go, and keep in mind you’ll still need to pay for rent every month.
You have a lot of beautiful photos – many of them taken in terrifying situations. But if you had to pick one as your favourite, which would it be – and why?
That’s a really difficult question, especially since I don’t like ranking images, but I’ll give it a try anyway.
Perhaps my very favourite image, and certainly one of my most popular, is the one of the northwest ridge of Nevado Chopicalqui, in Peru, at 6345m of altitude. June 12th, 2009 was extraordinary for me: four images taken this day are still in my portfolio, and another three I only removed recently! But this landscape shot, taken as the weather worsened on our descent, has amazing snow formations, an evocative shape, gorgeous light and plain looks out of this world. Incidentally, this is almost straight out of camera, I only adjusted brightness down as I had gotten exposure slightly wrong when shooting.
I’ll also cheat and select a more recent one, taken on a traverse pitch on the East Buttress of El Capitan, in Yosemite, last September. Like a lot of my photography, the real subject is the environment, but what really strikes me about this image is the strong geometric shape of the rope. In a world where a lot of climbing images are very similar to each other, this is something I had never seen before, and originality is very valuable to me. I also really like how it directs the eye straight to the climber.
Where did the idea for the eBook Extreme Perspectives come from? Talk us through the process you went through – from gestation to publication.
To start at the beginning, I was browsing the photo section in a London bookstore sometime in early 2010. I stumbled upon David Duchemin’s Visionmongers, a book on the transition to pro photography, which I bought and read in a couple of days, finding it a formidable resource to help my budding career. Since I had liked it so much, I sent a short email to David to thank him for writing him, and offered to send him a print of mine. He accepted, and as we talked a bit more over email, I mentioned how I was writing “Remote Exposure” and would be interested in publishing a shorter eBook version, some form of adventure photography primer.
Corwin Hiebert, the man behind the scenes at Craft & Vision, got involved, and after checking with Rocky Nook (publisher of Remote Exposure) that a Craft & Vision eBook wouldn’t be considered competition with their book, it was on. There was a tentative schedule for it, but I was about to leave for a long expedition to Nepal in mid-October, so I ended up writing the text quite quickly, in a couple of weeks. I made the choice of including a lot of “example” images and associated discussion of what I like and don’t like about them, which many people seem to have enjoyed. I also sent Corwin a large number of images for the designer to work with.
After that, it was mostly out of my hands. There were some unexpected delays, and the eBook ended up being released a short while after Remote Exposure, in May last year, and ended up being quite successful.
Can you also do the same for your print book, Remote Exposure?
This was a much longer process, since the book is about 40,000 words long (against 6,000 for Extreme Perspectives). The genesis came from a long article I wrote for Luminous Landscape in 2009, after an expedition to Peru’s Cordillera Blanca, sharing all I had learned so far about mountain photography. I initially had no intentions to turn it into a book, but a good friend suggested it to me during dinner one day, after a climbing session in the Fall of 2009. I only knew about two photo book publishers: Peachpit and Rocky Nook. The latter had a form you could fill in to pitch book ideas, so I spent a few days crafting a proposal which was essentially “turn the article into a book”. A week later, I had an email back from them, and a few days later a contract in the post.
The hard part, of course, was writing the whole text. I had just moved to London at the time, and ended up spending hours in various coffee shops, just writing. I found that what worked for me was to take my laptop to an internet-less place (to cut distractions) and write until the battery died, which usually took 2 to 3 hours. Having this cut-off really helped me get the required discipline to finish in time.
Selecting images was also very challenging, as I essentially reviewed my entire photo library, at the time about 40,000 images. This took me from January to August 2010, with September busy with proofreading and rewrites. Then, when I came back from Nepal in December, we made the last-minute decision to replace many of the images with fresh ones from the Himalayas, just a couple of weeks before going to press!
Finally, in mid-February 2011, I had the first advance copy in my hands and was able to check that the printing quality was doing justice to the images. The official release came in April, and I have been busy promoting it since.
With the publication of Extreme Perspectives you’ve become a published writer. What are the key lessons you learnt from the process of writing the eBook? What advice would you give someone who would like to write something similar? What lessons did you learn from writing Remote Exposure?
When I grew up, I had no interest in photography but always wanted to become a writer. Life can be full of irony! I never managed to finish any of my ambitious novels, probably through lack of discipline and focus. Using the “tricks” mentioned earlier, especially cutting distractions out, was key in allowing me to actually finish writing a book!
I think that what convinced Rocky Nook to give me a chance was seeing the article on Luminous Landscape. It was long and detailed, and took me a long time to write, but I chose to make it publicly available, giving this knowledge for free. I think this illustrates perfectly how the internet works, and how the more you give, the more you get back!
Any more eBooks or books planned for the future? If so, can you drop a hint at this stage to the topic?
I am leaving for a very exciting trip in less than 48 hours, shooting one of the most extreme adventure races in the world, in Patagonia. I have some ideas on writing an ebook about it and the many lessons I will undoubtedly learn on the trip.
Another idea I have been toying with for a little while is to write about my personal history in transitioning to pro photography, as I think it is a topic that interests many.
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All photos copyright Alexandre Buisse. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.