What’s it like to… be an adventure sport photographer

Kristin Boese jumps locals in Madagascar by Jody MacDonald

Turns out even an adventure sport photographer, whose office commute is to the most remote places on earth, has a work life balance to get right. Jody MacDonald talks to Sports Liberated about her nomadic life, an ironic daily challenge and not finding Nemo.

“Did you hear what you just said?” I say, interrupting adventure sport photographer Jody MacDonald mid-flow while she’s responding to my first question. A pause in Skype space suggests she’s not sure where I’m going with this.

“I just asked you what your next job is and you said, ‘I’m going to Fiji to work as an assistant to a National Geographic photographer’. Imagine yourself as a school kid planning your career and this is what you end up doing. How cool is that?”

Jody MacDonald adventure sport photographer

Jody’s response is surprisingly hesitant. “A friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time said the other day, ‘Wow, your photography career is really skyrocketing’, and I said, ‘Is it?’ because you just progress and your life is what it is and you just progress with it.

But when I was invited to the National Geographic week-long seminar this year, that was a huge milestone for me because my whole life I wanted to be a National Geographic photographer, like so many other photographers, and that was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, I guess I am making gains because I’m here, I’m sitting next to Steve McCurry and David Doubilet and these crazy photographers so I think that was one of the first times I thought, ‘Yeah, I am doing okay’.”

I suggest that by saying she’s doing ‘okay’ she sounds like us famously self-deprecating Brits. The Canadian-born Jody laughs. “I’m very critical of my work and I think when you’re a perfectionist, like a lot of artists, your work is never quite as you want it to be.

“You’re always striving to make it better and to improve, which is great because I think it helps you produce good and better work but it’s also kind of tortuous. I think it’s quite sad that you can never be content with your efforts, so there’s two sides to it.”

Balancing act
A search for balance is clearly uppermost in Jody’s current frame of mind following a decade at sea running a charter business with her then-boyfriend Gavin McClurg. For the first five years they ran a yacht charter for surfers, freedivers and kiteboarders but ended up “hating that type of business”, so they sold that boat and came up with the idea of the Odyssey, a boat which takes on world kiteboarding expeditions.

The business venture turned out to be the germination of Jody’s photography career as she spent much of her time in some of the most exotic locations in the world along with the world’s best watersports athletes.

Ten years on the boat meant Jody could hone her craft and, as an accomplished participant of her speciality sports – paragliding, kiteboarding, surfing and stand-up paddling – she can not only anticipate moves but she’ll often be airbound while taking photos, snapping away while paragliding, or in more extreme weathers, tandem flying to enable her to concentrate on the photography.

Clarissa Hempel Kiteboarding in French Polynesia by Jody MacDonald

Magical times
As you’d expect the highlights of a decade at sea are spectacular. “Any time you get to swim with whales is a completely magical experience,” Jody says.

“Just being able to kiteboard in some of these remote locations, areas where there’s no other people and kiteboarding and surfing and having the whole place to yourself with really good friends or people you like to spend time with is always really incredible because you feel like you have these playgrounds to yourself and they’re just really incredible experiences to share and participate in. Being in places that hardly anyone gets to see or get to are always incredible.”

So that’s the good stuff but, as with all things, there are challenges too. Jody’s blogs tells of a potentially life-threatening incident in which a dinghy got blown offshore while the paragliders were in the air. There was no way for the yacht-based crew to reach them so the group spent the night in near hypothermic temperatures sleeping under the thin canvas of the glider.

But the drama wasn’t limited to one off incidents for Jody – in the end it was a surprising ongoing issue which did for her constantly-onboard life.

“I’ve been sailing for 10 years and for those 10 years I’ve been seasick pretty much,” she reveals. A plethora of tropical illnesses picked up from some of the world’s most remote locations also puts a dent into what, for many, would seem a dream job.

“The illnesses were hard – I’ve gotten more illnesses than anybody could imagine, including typhoid fever, I’ve had all of it.”

So how do you work if you’re so sick?

“You just try to get better as fast as you can and keep doing it!”

Environmental meltdown
Any small business has admin duties to take on, not usually a creative type’s natural affinity as Jody explains in a further blog for Sports Liberated. But worst of all is seeing first hand the damage being done to the environment.

“Seeing the plastic in the ocean and the degradation of the reefs has been horrific. You know how people envision these pristine reefs full of life and fish like something out of Finding Nemo? They don’t really exist any more. I mean they do but in very, very few places.

“To come upon a place that is really intact and pristine I could count maybe a handful of times in 10 years. And then to see the plastics on the beaches and in the oceans is unbelievable, so seeing that is tough.

“When you get into bad weather situations, that’s always really hard. You end up with a fair bit of damage to the boat and there’s a lot of repair work to be done.

“I always tell people, try being in your living room and sharing it with five to seven people for 300 days of the year and the room moves and you can’t leave – it’s seriously really tough, you have to share your home all year long with people in a small space… I’m not sure many people would stick with it.”

So why did you? “I just have this incredible desire to explore and see new places and have adventures in really interesting places and I always thought that if I quit and came home I would totally regret it, so that’s what kept me going. That desire was more powerful than the alternative – for me, having a 9 to 5 job is way scarier than pretty much anything that I do.”

And what about other female adventure sports photographers – are you the exception rather than the rule? “I think the only other one that I know of is Krystle Wright. I know Krystle personally and we’re really the only ones I know of that are doing the more expeditionary stuff where we can immerse ourselves in these adventures – I think some of the other ones just go to events.”

And this insatiable desire to travel – where does that come from? “I grew up in Saudi Arabia and they give you a lot of benefits for living in the Middle East and one of them was they paid our family to go on vacation so my parents took a lot of advantage of that – they had never been anywhere up until that point.

“So as a child I ended up travelling the world – I lived in Saudi for 13 years, I moved there when I was 2, I was born in Canada – and I think the more you travel the more there is to see and I think that was really bred into me when I was younger.

“I still very much have that feeling in me but as I get older I get more tired of always living out of my bags, so this past year having a crew run the sailing business is really nice because I’ve been able to spend more time at home between trips so, yeah, I think as I’m getting older I’m feeling more of that need to have a home base. It’s like everything in life, it’s about balance, right? Too much of one thing and you’re just trying
to seek that balance in everything, when you’re satisfying both sides.”

Jody’s former partner is still on board, but for the 38-year-old, shorter trips between two and six weeks on the Odyssey is the new plan, alongside freelance jobs such as the National Geographic gig. The last trip she tells me, was called ‘500 Miles to Nowhere’ a “paragliding expedition we attempted, flying from Utah to Jackson Hole”.

I hover over asking her about the word ‘attempted’ but I’ve heard enough about the hard parts of
the job; I’m back to daydreaming about the romantic nomadic notion of the life of an adventure sport photographer living a life with sand between my toes and hoping that there still exists a place in the world where Nemo can be found.

This interview was originally published in Sports Liberated magazine Issue 3 in June 2014.

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Author: Jo Gunston

Roving blogging superfan shares behind the scenes stories of her sports life and the best of those from like-minded souls.

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