In a rare quiet corner on the outer edges of a crowded convention center bursting with outdoor brands, athletes, activists, and influencers, we asked Ted Hesser what he'd be doing with his life if he weren't doing what he is now. This is a time-tested tactic for teasing out of a person any secret dreams or passions they might have stashed away.
"Well," he started, "if you would've asked me this question years ago, I'd have answered with exactly what I'm doing now. So, I think that means I'm doing what I should be, what I want to be."
Years ago, and for the better part of a decade, Ted worked in the clean tech industry. Now, he travels full time as a professional photographer, fusing a love for climbing and the outdoors with a unique approach to creating images in the adventure photography space. Many would easily describe Ted's current gig as "living the dream." But the talented visual artist is quick to point out that it is just one dream, and that it didn't come without its fair share of hard work and sacrifice.
We sat down with Ted at Outdoor Retailer this summer to talk about his approach to photography, how he switched paths in life, and where he's heading next.
How and why did you get into photography?
Originally, I was inspired by a number of individuals. In college, I was lucky enough to go on expeditions with The North Face and National Geographic. I was a rock climber and we were exploring caves, doing archeology work, and Nat Geo did a story on it. I was with some serious photographers like Cory Richards and Renan Ozturk, and I was inspired by their lifestyle and their ability to do creative things for a living. Now, I've worked for a while building my own skills as a photographer.
Photo by Ted Hesser
You create a lot of incredible outdoor adventure and landscape photography. Are there other kinds of photography you enjoy as well?
I love what I call my culture portfolio. My biggest inspiration in that area is Steve McCurry's work. I've always been inspired by people like him who are Nat Geo photographers from a different time. When I was working as an entrepreneur in East Africa doing off-grid solar energy access work, I had a lot of time in the field. I worked in India and Bangladesh and Nepal, in these culturally-rich developing world contexts, and I would bring a camera with me. Every now and then I'd get a shot that I felt conveyed the cultural reality of a place, conveyed something broader than just what that person was doing in the image at that time. I really like that work. It's definitely different than the outdoor adventure category. But I keep building on that body of work when I can.
How does your passion for climbing influence your work?
I was a climber for 10 years before I started to get more seriously into photography. Bringing a camera with me to these beautiful places eventually became a natural extension of what I did. There were a lot of landscape fine art photographers whose work I really appreciated, who use certain photography techniques that are rather sophisticated from a software and editing perspective, with layering and focus backing. They build photos more than just take them. It's like a whole artistic process. I didn't see a lot of that technique used in adventure photography. There were, and are, amazing adventure images created by some of the best athletes and creatives in the world. But they're single images, not turned into landscape fine art. I saw a way to combine the two and try to create landscape fine art that has an adventurous side to it. That's something I've been developing and building into my work more and more.
Photo by Ted Hesser
Can you talk more about what that process is like?
I try to build a landscape image first, try to find the composition. For example, maybe I'm on the beach and there are cool sea stacks and the tide is coming in and out. I think about how to get the waves blurred in just the right way as they're receding so that they're leaving lines to a beautiful sea stack. That might become the foreground, and I might have used different filters and settings to capture that part of the image. Then it might be that the sea stack in the distance looks best at sunset with a certain kind of light. So six hours later that part of the image is created. Then maybe somebody is climbing on it and that person is silhouetted, or perhaps that person is lit in some way with off camera lighting.
So it's really building an image over time, where time can be malleable, and you can create really compelling shots that people are drawn to. These kinds of images sort of make the brain question what's going on a little bit. But it's not done well if it looks fake. It's done well if it's done artfully, and feels real and genuine.
You weren’t always working as a photographer and living on the road. What was your life like before this?
I had a different career, working in clean energy. I got a Master's degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering and went to the Natural Resource Defense Counsel and did NGO work in New York City. Then, I went to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which is sort of the leading global think tank for clean energy markets, and was an analyst there for a few years. I then went to a private equity fund that was investing in clean energy companies and sustainability oriented companies, and sort of found this sector there when I was doing investment research, due diligence on energy access companies.
I traveled to faraway parts of the world and met with companies that were making products similar to what Goal Zero makes, but putting a different business model on it to finance it for some of the poorest people. Big power kits were used to charge phones, lights, basic energy efficient TVs, barber shop razor blades, and other things for entrepreneurs and small business owners. They allowed people to pay a small amount over time rather than buying the product up front. People pre-pay for some amount of energy or some amount of time usage, and finance the products that way. It was modeled after cell phones. We took that model and applied it to solar energy, and it has really flourished in East Africa, a little bit in West Africa, and a little bit in Southeast Asia, but mostly East Africa where there are probably a million or so homes now that didn't have any energy access that now have these kinds of kits. And it's growing and growing.
Photo by Ted Hesser
What has been the greatest challenge so far in your photography career?
I think the truth is that there are sacrifices. My girlfriend and I, we both had careers and stability, and a more conventional path in a way. Personally, I lived with a lot of tension knowing for at least 10 years that I wanted to do something like this, to be an independent creative type, or work more generally in the outdoor industry. It took a while to take the leap and actually commit, because that required closing other doors. It was hard, but you have to make real sacrifices. It shouldn't come over night. At least for me, I had to really wrestle internally with choices, to the point of having real existential angst before it made sense to make a decision one way or the other.
What motivates and inspires you, and keeps you moving forward down this path?
I like developing my skill set and I’m pretty excited to keep growing as an artist. I just prepared my portfolio recently and could really feel and see the progress that I’ve made over the past few years. That's very satisfying and motivating. And then also seeing others whose work I love, and being inspired by what they're doing, techniques they're using, or places they're going. It's a really big world and there's so much to explore. It's kind of cliché to say that, but it's true.
Can you share a recent travel experience that stood out to you?
Patagonia. It was unreal. The landscape is primal. You can feel it. The weather is really intense, the land is geologically very active. When you're climbing the mountains there you hear rock falling and churning from the mountains from the glaciation process. It's like it's happening in front of your eyes. Unlike most North American alpine environments I've been in where everything is pretty stable because it all happened hundred of millions of years ago.
The landscape of Patagonia is also very visually dramatic and raw. The climbing is incredible and very hard. It's a bit of an addiction because you put a lot of time and energy into being there, and there are all these things you want to climb, but the weather really restricts your ability to do it. So when you can get out, you feel very accomplished. There's so much more than anybody could really ever do, so there are always reasons to try and try again.
What places and experiences are at the top of your bucket list right now?
Pakistan. The Karakoram is pretty high. I'm not planning a trip there at the moment, but they’re the most dramatic mountains I've seen images of. They're just stunning. As a mountain to climb, Ama Dablam is one of the most beautiful single mountains I've seen that I would love to climb one day. There are also a bunch of climbing zones on our list from the Bugaboos to the Enchantments to the Wind River Range as well as spots in the Southeast or desert Southwest.
There's so much in North America, it's mind boggling. I feel like in America - and I say North America because Canada is really rad - there are more natural resources, not in terms of extractive industry stuff but in terms of beautiful places, than anywhere I've traveled to by far. It's cool to travel, it's cool to go to some far flung place and have an exotic experience, but the wide open land here in the American West is unparalleled, it's unmatched.