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|| News Item: Posted 2000-03-23

Down and Dirty: Documenting Adventure
By Corey Rich

Photo by Corey Rich

Photo by Corey Rich
It's 4 a.m. -- the start of an 18-hour day. It is bitter cold outside and the thin walls of my tent do little to keep the wind off of my face. I hate the sound the alarm is making, and I know all too well what it means. Yet, I play a psychological game with myself every time. I try to convince myself that maybe the light is not going to be good, or the weather looks questionable, or everyone else is tired. I don't need to drag myself out of my plush sleeping bag.

But I have come to terms with the fact that if I don't get out of my sleeping bag and kick start the process, surely no one else in the tent will. I know deep inside that this early start is one of the magical ingredients for a powerful photo. Nothing spectacular is going to happen if I stay in my sleeping bag, so I have trained myself to suck it up, dig deep and unzip my bag.

Once I pull on my fleece and start boiling water for the coffee, I feel like the luckiest guy on earth. I'm here, outside, with friends, enjoying beautiful scenery and I pinch myself. I get paid for this. This is my job.

A few hours later, we are high up on the side of a 2,000-foot limestone cliff. The sky clears just in time for first light and all the struggle begins to pay off.

I am an adventure sports photographer. I shoot a little of everything: rock climbing, surfing, trail running, kayaking, skiing, hiking, mountaineering and travel.

Photo by Corey Rich

Photo by Corey Rich
My interest in photography was sparked in middle school when I started going on weekend rock climbing trips. Mondays, when I got back to school, eager to share my outrageous tales, no one would believe me. The solution was to bring a camera on my trips so I could actually show my friends pictures of my adventures. But I soon realized that capturing storytelling moments wasn't an easy task. Now, it is my mission. I want my pictures to allow the lay person to get a glimpse of another world.

Although I sell a lot of single images for both advertising and editorial use, I am most passionate about shooting photo stories and photo essays. Whether I am documenting a climb up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, hopping freight trains across the American West or surfing in Central America, I like to think of myself as an historian. I capture the human spirit of adventure.

Ideally, when I'm photographing, I become part of the adventure. Here, no helicopters or press vans can contaminate the experience, no TV cameras and microphones or lights. We are not staying at the Hilton or eating at expensive restaurants. Typically, we camp in the dirt and cook on white gas stoves, filter our water out of streams, and go without showers for days at a time. People often equate this lifestyle with misery, but that's the way I like it -- authentic and raw, with nothing between me and the actual experience e. This style of living produces the gritty travel images that I aim to capture.

Photo by Corey Rich

Photo by Corey Rich
The more dangerous and unpredictable the situations we get into, the better the photo potential. Take, for example, a Mexico surf trip gone awry when my travel companion had an extreme allergic reaction to a tropical jellyfish sting. The only person in the small fishing village who knew how to administer an injection was the cook at the cantina. Patagonia, a Ventura-based outdoor clothing company, ended up using a full-page image of Tom Bulow getting a shot in the ass for an ad. The ad read as follows:

"Yesterday, I was eating lunch on this same table. Now, the lady who cooked my meal is moonlighting as my nurse. There are things you can prepare for in Mexico, but often you're confronted with the unexpected: passing a kidney stone, tropical jellyfish and this stomach infection from hell. Three thousand miles on the road and three trips to the hospital in two weeks- all for four days of good surf. Still, my answer to was it worth it: I'll be back." Tom Bulow

Most of the assignments I do are multi-day or even multi-week affairs. This extended time frame allows me to develop close personal relationships with the people I am shooting. If I don't know the folks I was photographing when I started the assignment, I certainly know them well by the end, having shared many long drives, boat rides, and flights. These lulls in the pace of a trip are the best times to talk and discuss philosophies on life. Often, the people I am photographing become my best friends.

This puts an interesting spin on my work. I know everyone in every single frame that goes through my camera. They are people I have lived with, shared tents with, climbed and traveled and surfed and suffered with. I find this to be a unique privilege, not just recording a passing moment in a stranger's life, but to document the triumphs and despairs of my closest companions.

When it comes to camera equipment, I subscribe to the keep it simple philosophy. Often, I find myself crawling under fallen trees, climbing up ropes and running up steep slopes. I can't have two camera bodies, a light meter, a 300 2.8 and a big Domke bag swinging around. Usually, I take only one camera body and two lenses with me so that I can be light and fast. I'll even take the motor off my Canon EOS 1N to lighten the load even a little more. I find the LowePro Orion fanny pack is the most durable and functional bag on the market.

When traveling by plane, I carry onto the flight a backpack filled with all my film and enough camera equipment to complete my assignment. In most of the places I visit, it would be impossible to replace gear or buy Fuji Velvia. Then, I'll pack all of my non-essential equipment into a 1600 Pelican Case, which I check in. I always put two big master locks on the case and a sticker that reads "Beware of Owner" in several languages. Knock on wood, but my luggage has always been intact on arrival.

The great thing about Pelican Cases is that they are waterproof and tough. Recently while hiking in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, I had one of my Pelican Cases strapped onto a burro. Loaded down with far more than what it could carry, the poor animal lost its footing, bounced and tumbled thirty feet down a steep slope. In the end, my Pelican Case was certainly in better shape than the burro.

Keep in mind, there are limits to the strength of a Pelican Case. In Morocco another photographer and I decided it would be a good idea to see if we could park a Toyota Land Cruiser on a Pelican Case. Bad idea!

The physical demands of this kind of work require a high level of physical fitness. The bottom line is, when I am out shooting, I need to be able to keep up with the athletes. No matter how much editing and office work I have planned for the day, I force myself out to train.

I try to start the day with a five or six mile run followed by some calisthenics. Three days a week, I'll go rock climbing or skiing as a means to cross train. My photo lab is a mile and a half from my house so if I am not under deadline pressure I'll run past the lab in the morning and drop off my film and then in the afternoon I'll walk back with my dog, Pote, to pick up my film.

Photo by
This is the kind of job you can do well only when your lifestyle and work are completely integrated; when one blends seamlessly into the other. But it would be difficult to have a family with this job. On many assignments, I'll be out of town for weeks at a time, with no access to phones, email or other modern communication. I effectively disappear.

My mentor summed it up best: " When you come home to a clean apartment, to a dog that has been fed, watered and walked; that is a big deal. Those who stay behind make it possible for those of us who go away. You don't want to forget that."

Time management is the determining factor in making relationships work. When I am out of town, I am100% at work. But the instant I walk back through our front door, it's time to make a real investment into my relationship with Hanh.

When we do have time together, it is very fresh and exciting-- like meeting each other again. In some ways, my absence or her absence makes our relationship stronger, we never take each other for granted. By losing one another every couple of weeks, we can always appreciate what we have.

Most trips are fairly typical: plagued by discomfort, uncertainty and danger, a mad enterprise in an imperfect world. But somehow, these adventures yield amazing photos and lifelong friendships.

There is nothing else I'd rather be doing.

(Corey Rich is a freelance photographer living in Sacramento, CA. His website is:

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