Professional photographer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin, 43, originally began taking photos as a means to support his mountain-climbing habit. As an adventure photographer, he has since accompanied climber Ed Viesturs and filmmaker David Breashears to the top of Mount Everest, trekked unsupported across 300 miles of the Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet, and was a member of the first American team to ski down from the top of Everest.
His work has been published in National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, and his film Meru, documenting his pioneering ascent up Meru Peak in the Himalayas with two other climbers, won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. He counts landscape paintings from the Song dynasty in China and Chinese calligraphy, which he says is “about balance and use of space”, among his artistic influences in capturing vast landscapes, often with a person in them for context.
The following are edited excerpts from a conversation with Chin.
What do photography and adventure have in common?
There are similarities in the sense that you might have an objective to climb or to shoot and you need to do homework, to research, to prepare and to know the tools that are best suited for the job. On a more existential level, it’s about taking risks and trying new things and problem solving and finding new ways to approach something. In photography, it would be trying to get a photo no one’s ever seen before. You have to have vision and be inspired.
What’s your approach to capturing the perfect image?
It’s a mix. You have to have some ideas and a vision for certain images you want to capture, but you can’t get so focused on the outcome that you miss what’s right in front of you. It’s good to have an idea to get
you out of bed and out the door to kind of give you some motivation.
But some of the best work that I do is serendipitous or spontaneous, and with travel photography you need to be really open to trying different things, maybe having an idea and going out to capture it, but really looking around, even behind you.
That’s what makes it fun. It’s about being a traveler and exploring, getting out of your comfort zone and looking at things in new ways, which is why we travel in the first place.
What’s the best way to get a subject to relax when photographing people?
It depends on how much time you have. The great photojournalists embed and commit time to creating that comfort and space. Some can do it in 30 seconds because of the way they move and who they are and their personality and how they put people at ease. It’s ultimately about building trust, because you’re totally moving into somebody’s space. When you disappear to them, that’s probably the most appropriate, nicest model of trust, when they’ve given in and let you do your thing. When you don’t have as much time, you still need to build trust and rapport even if it’s just eye contact and a smile. If you don’t speak the language, be respectful. Oftentimes you can hold the camera up and present it while looking at them as if to say, is it OK to shoot?
What’s the most versatile lens to carry?
If you want a little more latitude while traveling, a 24-70-millimeter lens is great. If you want a kit with only two lenses and you’re traveling a lot you can add a 70-200-millimeter. That gives you wide angle and telephoto. If I was traveling for a year and could only bring two lenses, that’s what I would choose.
Any favorite places that are highly photogenic?
I’ve spent incredible time in the Sahara and, of course, the Himalayas. Jackson, Wyoming, where I live, is amazing and beautiful, and it has a distinctly different look and feel in each season. There’s winter versus summer, wildlife, adventure, climbing, skiing, kayaking. Because there are so many activities, there’s a lot to shoot. It’s kind of a stunning playground. That’s the thing about travel. I’m basically always trying to get home. n
Image credits: Jimmy Chin Collection via The New York Times