It’s hard to get too far into a conversation about climbing and visual storytelling without Renan Ozturk coming up. With an impressive list of first ascents to his name and multiple award-winning films under his belt, Renan and his work have been hugely influential within the outdoor adventure space—and beyond. The climber, filmmaker, and artist continues to inspire athletes and storytellers alike with his mastery of medium and propensity for documenting compelling human stories set against jaw-dropping natural landscapes.
Taylor Rees is another such influential human. Born out of a background in the environmental sciences and a fiercely adventurous spirit, Taylor’s work in documentary film and photojournalism excavates truth in areas where environmental and humanitarian issues intersect. Much like Renan, she has traveled to communities in all corners of the world in pursuit of impactful stories; Alaska, Greenland, Haiti, Nepal, Congo, Russia, Mexico, Iceland, and the deserts of the Southwest, to name a few.
Taylor and Renan also happen to be partners, in life and creativity. The two are based out of Utah with their wonderfully wild pup Baloo, happily within a stone’s throw of plenty of climbing, skiing, and mountain biking. We chatted with the talented duo about projects they’re percolating on, what keeps them motivated, and where they escape to whenever they get a moment to breathe.
You both have worn an incredible number of hats throughout your personal and professional lives, and have brought a great deal of creativity and passion to each one of them. Which do you identify most strongly with at this moment in time?
Taylor: It’s a balance of trying to keep all the things you love in life a part of your life, and that varies week by week. You can get really sucked into filmmaking and how much goes into it and find yourself working 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Then the very next week you're like, "Oh my gosh, I’m actually a yogi, and I need to go to the desert!"
It’s hard to put one thing at the top of a priority list, but I'd say environmental filmmaking is at the top of mine right now. It's getting back to my roots. I did my undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental science, and then for a number of years after grad school worked with Renan in more of the adventure space while I honed my skills as a storyteller. But now, to be able to take storytelling back to the environmental communications community is my priority for the year. It's a lot of fun to be in that space again.
Renan: I'm constantly trying to shift them around and balance them out as much as possible; probably more the climbing, filmmaking, and photography, and less of the art right now. But in the last month or so I've been digging up old art and wanting to share and do more of it.
Three words to describe the other person.
Taylor: Renan is lovable, talented, and kind.
Renan: Taylor is glowing, honest, and resilient.
What projects, in the works or on the horizon, are you excited about right now?
Taylor: I'm very excited about a project I'm doing with Patagonia on new economies after coal in Appalachia, primarily in southwest Virginia. We're working with a number of community members down there who are trying to revive towns that have been pretty decimated with the coal company shutting down, which is great for our planet in some ways, but there are entire communities, entire towns even, that have no alternate economies. People say, "More people lost their job when Sears closed," but for a lot of the folks who lost their jobs when Sears closed, there was a JCPenney down the street they could work at. With these communities in southwest Virginia, when the coal mines are shutting down, there are no alternatives. It’s a social justice issue that I care a lot about; one that gets really polarized in our political field these days. I'm excited to be a part of shedding some light on the truth there.
Renan: I have a potential project with Sherpa Cinema doing art in the Canadian Rockies. That would be a good one. Then I've got a few film and photo projects in the Himalaya with National Geographic, and I'm excited to help Taylor on the documentary that she's working on. We're also finishing up Ashes to Ashes, which is a film about an artist who is an older African American who survived a lynching and is using art to process his trauma.
What motivates and inspires you? What keeps you moving forward on days you feel stuck, creatively or otherwise?
Taylor: I’m motivated by younger creatives who are working hard. I get a lot of direct messages on Instagram from young women and men who want to pursue environmental storytelling. The field of media and content creation is so competitive and so challenging, and the ways in which media and storytelling can be impactful or not impactful is really complicated. I'm always trying to navigate those things myself. Once a week or so, I try to take a phone call from one of the people who reach out to me. They're seeking advice and I'm like, "I have no advice to give, but let's have a conversation." I'm so inspired by the movement coming up behind me that's going to shift our whole cultural narrative around our relationship to the environment.
Renan: It’s just the simple things that you take for granted. The landscape inspires me. Even within a city environment you can find beauty in the unexpected if you’re looking for it. It’s in the smallest thing, the most unexpected character. If you can keep your mind open to some of those things, even if you're in a tricky place, you can continue to be inspired.
You both are seasoned travelers and explorers. Anything left on your bucket list? Places you dream of returning to?
Taylor: We both really want to go back to Myanmar, where we did an expedition in 2014. And our favorite place is the Utah desert.
Renan: I'm not a big bucket list type of person. If you're looking at the world in such a way that you see all these nooks and crannies and little things that inspire, that kind of stuff is endless.
We're obligated to tell a lot of the important stories that come our way, but there’s a certain amount of sacrifice to our personal health and peacefulness that comes with it. I don't know if it’ll ever happen, but at this point, slowing down, focusing on being healthier, and living a more sustainable, simple life might be a good trick to pull off. A life of traveling less and consuming less, embedded in a small, self-sufficient community and not traveling around the world burning carbon, running to the next thing. That sounds pretty good.
It’s a Saturday. You don’t have work to do. The world is your oyster. How do you spend your time? What does your ideal day look like?
Renan: I'd probably catch up on sleep. Take the time to hydrate and eat healthy. Get outside with Taylor and Baloo. Whenever we have free time we try to get down to the desert, or at least out to the Salt Flats.
I don't get to edit and do art and create as much anymore. For me, art turned into time lapse and film editing. It all blended into each other at a certain point. Then when you become a director, you're managing projects at a higher level and you don't get your hands dirty as much. When I have the time, I try to process the terabytes of time lapses that I've shot that are just sitting there, or something like that, as a creative outlet.
Taylor: Yes, getting Baloo and taking the van down to the desert. Stretching in the hot sun, doing yoga and rock climbing and eating finger food and trying to learn how to play the guitar. Just unwinding.