Adventure photography is serious business these days, and more and more people are trying their hand at it. One man who has no problem standing out is professional photographer, writer and speaker Liam Lonsdale, who has already made a great name for himself in the relatively short time he’s been professional. We caught up with Liam in a brief gap in between his travels to find out how it all came about.
So let’s start with you. What do you do just now and how did you end up here?
I work as a photographer and also a writer and commentator, generally operating within the climbing world but also within adventure travel. My background is actually in sales and marketing- I worked with very big brands and corporations for quite a while, and went through the ranks of that. I got a bit disillusioned with the whole corporate structure, having your creativity quashed and not being able to –it sounds cliché but – ‘live your dreams.’ So I decided to just quit and do my own thing and the rest is history. I’ve been totally self -employed and freelance now for just over a year, and have been to something like thirty countries since then- loads of journeys and travelling. I decided to see the world through a different set of eyes really.
So how did you go from the corporate world into what you do today- where did climbing come into it?
Well I’ve been shooting photos for quite a long time anyway, not even semi-pro, but just as a hobby, and some pictures had been sold in the climbing word. Photography was something that I always had a big passion for, and I was in Italy and was shooting these guys, just for the craic, while we they were climbing. I took a couple of the images and ended up selling them, and thought ‘that was so easy, I could totally make a go at this!’ And after that I was commissioned to go and shoot in Turkey, and I thought… this could really be a good path. And I suppose the corporate world – although I obviously left it – has given me such a strong networking background and the ability to sell something and talk to people and make stuff happen. So that’s how it came about.
So are you into climbing too, or is that something that came first?
Well I’ve been taking pictures since I was a kid, but I’ve only been climbing for about eight years. It all started when I moved to Kendall to run a shop when I was 18- I was doing it in a gap year before I went to Uni. The plan was to run the shop, earn money, easy time. But I moved to Kendall, didn’t know a single person here, and within six weeks of moving I got really, really lonely, as you would expect. I’m quite a driven person, and I didn’t want to give up, so I thought I’d get a job in a bar. Long story short I met a guy who worked in the bar who was a climber, and he said, come out climbing with us. Two days later I was totally bitten by the bug, and then pretty much climbed at least weekly for about a year after that. And then after a year I thought I’d take it to the next level , and just trained and trained, climbed and climbed, and so for the last nine years I’ve just obsessed over climbing and improving my performance. It gives you such a unique opportunity to see the world through a different set of eyes. I think about going on holiday as a kid – we were so close to these amazing climbing areas and we just had no clue. So it’s really cool, and I’ve visited some crazy, crazy places in the pursuit of climbing.
So where have you been with the job?
Everywhere! So this year I’ve been to South Korea, USA, Catalonia, Italy, Austria, Germany, Switzerland…
Do you get to climb for yourself as well as documenting the competitions etc.?
Very much so. So yesterday I got up early, answered my emails and then just spent the afternoon climbing. And that was one of the things that attracted me to going freelance- actually life is too short to just work. So I was working stupid days beforehand, from 7am until 7pm, working myself into the ground, getting home and just having no energy to climb. And now I can do it how I want to do it.
Do you do any other sports too?
I do a lot of running which is crucial for working with climbers. It’s imperative that you don’t slow the guys down. The last thing you want as a high level climber is to have to worry about the photographer. I put part of my success so far down to that, anyone that I’m working with can leave me to it and know I’m going to get the shot. So I run a lot to make sure I can get ahead of people.
By ahead, do you mean up the rock or..?
Everything! So for example if we’re shooting a whole day, the clients want the approach and the route- atmospheric shots not just the climb. You could stage those but you have to rely on getting the climber either after you’ve done the route or on a different day. From my experience climbers are pretty selfish; they don’t get to be the best in the world from doing everything for everyone else! So you just have to fit in around them.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
It’s probably the same as my least favourite part, the travelling! I love seeing new places, getting involved with other cultures, the adventure of it. I hate sitting in airports- I spend so much time in airports! But it’s better than sitting in an office.
So where does your work come from, do you pick it up from contacts?
It depends on the type of work- the commentary work I tend to just get an email from people saying, ‘I saw X, can you do Y.’ The photography work is through a network of people, and I can sometimes be recommended by athletes I’ve worked with before. For an athlete manager or marketer, having an athlete coming to you and recommending someone is also a huge weight off your shoulders. Sometimes I’ve booked a photographer and sent him off with my athletes and would get a call the next day saying ‘I had to rig his ropes for him, he didn’t even know how to rope up!’
Who knew you had to be a good climber to be a photographer!
Well, if you just stand at the bottom you get a lot of arse shots! To get good angles you definitely need to be good with ropes, a competent mountaineer and confident high up a rock face.
Are there many others doing the same thing as you?
I’m not one of a kind by any stretch; but in the UK operating professionally full time there are probably ten. I do various different work- I think the key to ‘success’ is diversity and not just having one niche. I do a lot of social media stuff and Instagram takeovers, social media consultancy work as people often don’t understand how to use it.
So what’s lined up for the rest of the year?
I’m going out to Chamonix, northern Spain, Oman, probably the States… the problem is that making concrete plans is quite restricting! So you make concrete plans then someone will go ‘I’ve got this opportunity’ then you go ‘ahhh no’- so the key is to keep it quite flexible and only block out time if I need to.
And finally, having travelled to all these countries if you had to move to one place only which would it be?
If I had to move anywhere, straight away I’d say Catalonia. The pace of life there is brilliant. It’s so relaxed, the climbing there is some of the best in the world, I speak Spanish and I’ve loads of friends there. If you asked me where I would live other than there, I couldn’t think, there’s too many!
Catch up with Liam’s latest movements here: