For some, a car is nothing more than a mode of transportation. But for AJ van de Water, it's a vehicle—in every sense of the word—for photography and adventure. When AJ got his first 4Runner back in 2016, it opened up the door for a new way of traveling and experiencing the outdoors. Today, he works as an adventure photographer, both exploring and off-roading on his own as well as leading workshops for those looking to improve their photography skills and join in on the off-road experience.
We caught up with AJ, aka FOTORNR, to talk about how he got into photography, where it has led him, and what has kept him motivated along the way.
How and why did you get into photography?
My very first camera was a 1.3 megapixel, Sony Cybershot that I picked up in 2001. I started by taking landscapes, quick snapshots here and there, and found that I was really enjoying it. I wanted to move into the commercial side of photography, but ended up going a different route and started photographing weddings, lifestyle and portraits. Something was still missing, so I started shooting cars, action, and now off-road based adventures. I have always enjoyed photography and am stoked that I’ve been able to make a career out of it.
Which came first, off-road adventuring or photography? Talk about how you combine those passions.
Photography definitely came first, but I’ve always been an outdoorsy type of person. I grew up in Redding, California and lived in the country most of my childhood. My parents bought five acres and built a house in the middle of nowhere, so I had to find things to do. We had creeks, fields, (lots of fields…) and plenty of animals to roam with. I honestly think we had 23 cats at once. It was insane! Off-roading, getting dirty, riding dirtbikes, and sleeping under the stars in hammocks with my dogs were all things I did often. I didn’t have my own 4X4 until I got my 4Runner in 2016. I always went camping and adventuring, but not necessarily accessed by vehicle. Once I got my 4Runner, I was able to get to remote locations I’d never seen before and it sparked interest in a whole new avenue of photography.
What has been the greatest challenge so far in your photography career?
Taking the risk to actually pursue my photography full-time. It was the most challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done professionally. From there, it was figuring out which direction in photography I wanted to go to support what I love.
What is a recent off-road and/or photography experience that has stood out to you?
We recently got done hosting our very first Offroad Photo Camp Workshop. I will be putting these workshops together multiple times a year for all levels of photographers and adventurers. The goal is to get out of the house or office, hit some trails, camp, and take rad photos that tell an amazing story. It’s hard to explain in short how awesome our first camp workshop was and how inspiring it felt to be surrounded by like-minded people. The entire weekend was filled with photography, adventure, learning, making new friends, creating memories and just having a good ‘ol rad time! I’m already looking forward to hosting another one soon.
What places and experiences are at the top of your bucket list right now?
Currently, I am putting together a trip through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Canada, Washington, Oregon and back into California. I’m hoping to pack up the fam and hit the road for a few weeks, or maybe more.
What motivates and excites you?
This may sound cliché, but my son Oliver. Being a father over the past two years has changed the way I look at life and made me want to be a better person to those around me. I’ve slowed down a lot and find myself taking a step back to look at the big picture more often. I’m huge on balancing family and work life, and feel super fortunate to be able to be around my wife and son as much as possible. Waking up to him saying “Good morning Papa” motivates the heck out of me beyond words. Maybe we can revisit this in 14 years, ha!
Favorite Goal Zero product for charging up your camera gear off grid?
This would have to be my Yeti 1400 Lithium Power Station. I take this every time I am out on the road.