Simon Carter is a professional outdoors photographer with an admirable reputation as being one of the world’s best photographers. Having been named as the World’s Best Adventure Photographers by Men’s Journal Magazine (USA) and called “arguably the greatest climbing photographer of all time” by the Rock and Ice Magazine (USA), his reputation is well deserved.
We sat down with Simon to discuss his life as an outdoor photographer, as well as find out more about his upcoming trip with Monique in Sicily as they take to the rocks and under some of the best climbing spots in the region!
- Can you tell us about how you started being a professional rock climbing photographer? How does one get into such a specific niche?
As a kid my dream was to be a photographer but it turned out to be a long road getting there, there was a false start when I worked a dead-end “photography” job for several years – stuck in a darkroom -- and became disillusioned. Years later, in 1994, I was climbing full-time, living in a tent at Mount Arapiles in Victoria. My friends at the time were brilliant rock climbers and they were doing really interesting things, and so on my rest days I started to photograph them and their achievements. That’s when it clicked and I decided to commit to full-time rock climbing photography; I didn’t know if it would be possible in Australia. So I did a small business course then travelled around Australia photographing climbing and published a calendar of my work which sold really well and that got me started. But now I don’t know how you’d really get into climbing photography, unlike 21 years ago now the media is saturated with climbing images, so you’d have to find a way to stand out. I’d probably head to the USA where there is a far bigger market for climbing imagery.
- What are you looking for when capturing your shots, and what do you hope to portray or inspire with your photos?
I try to convey the struggle, the emotion and the athleticism of the climber, but above all I want to show the setting in which the action is taking place. Capturing the landscape, a sense of place, and the amazing rock architecture is really important to me. Rock climbers are lucky to have such unique and wondrous playgrounds!
I would love it if people were inspired by my work to connect with nature in a positive and meaningful way. Climbing is not for everyone but I want to show what goes on out there and the positive side of climbing.
- With these shots, how much preparation do you do when you’re about to take a photo? Do you normally have a preconceived idea of what you want to capture or do you usually wait for that perfect moment to present itself?
Well it varies, sometimes you are just trying to document the action and just have to make the most of the light and the situation. Other times I will be out on a cliff and see a really good angle – then return to shoot it at the best time of day and/or year. But I think my best and most satisfying work has often come from a pre-conceived idea. For example, sometimes I try to imagine what the best possible image of a particular route or cliff could look like, then I work backwards from there. So that leads to questions such as: what’s required to get in position at the right time to capture a valley full of cloud behind the climbers? Or how to position the camera out from the cliff to get a unique angle?
- What are some of the lengths you've gone to, to get the perfect shot?
One of my favorite shots is from the Tsaranoro Massif in Madagascar, we spent days travelling to get there, then we left camp at 4am and hiked an hour to the cliff and climbed 200 meters of fixed rope up the climb in time for sunrise – and it was stunning!
Most shots require some amount of travel, hiking uphill with a pack full of climbing and camera gear, scrambling around, abseiling and getting scared. I’ve often had to return to a climb numerous times until all the elements have come together; that’s because sometimes you learn something about the shot that you are trying to create, other times its just because you need to just get lucky with the light. The light is important; and it’s something you can’t always predict and sometimes you need to flirt with bad weather.
- A lot of your photos are at the perfect angle... surely this isn’t by chance. Is it quite difficult setting yourself up to capture these shots with rigging and suspension?
Most rigging is straight forward, even if I need to abseil down in several places until I find the best angle. But yes, sometimes the rigging can get complicated. One of the challenges with climbing photography is that you often really want to get the camera out away from the cliff to get a perspective looking back in. Sometimes you can achieve this by rigging a second rope to pull yourself away from the main cliff. Other times there is nothing there to attach the second rope to, so for those situations I’ve developed a “photo pole” apparatus, which is basically an 8-metre long pole that enables me to suspend the camera out from the cliff.
- Any work hazards? What was the most dangerous situation you’ve found yourself in? Tell us about it.
Scrambling around cliff tops is possibly the biggest hazard. One time I followed a world-class climber out onto a ledge near the top of the Squamish Chief cliff in Canada. He had walked across it numerous times before and I didn’t think too much about it until I got about halfway across the ledge, the ledge had narrowed to about 30 cm wide and my pack was so big and heavy that it was pushing me off. There was 200-meters drop below. I froze. I was just able to crouch and hang on while he got a rope to me. It was a good reminder; I’m not a world-class climber and normally I prefer a slow and safe approach so I’ll stick with that!
- You've won awards such as the “Rick White Memorial Medal”, for outstanding achievement and contribution to Australian climbing, "The King Albert Medal of Merit", for achievements in the field of climbing/action photography and "Best Feature Photography" from the Society of Publishers in Asia – are these awards your proudest moments, or can you tell us what is?
To answer that honestly, the international awards, namely the “King Albert Medal” (in Switzerland), the “Camera Extreme Laureate” (Poland), and the “Best Book Mountain Image” (Banff, Canada) have been my most gratifying or yes, proudest, moments; it really is extremely nice to have my work recognized in that way and the award ceremonies themselves were all mind-blowing, incredibly memorable events which I am very lucky to have experienced. But I would also have to say that the single thing that I am most proud of is my coffee table book Rock Climbing Down Under: Australia Exposed that we published last year. It was many years of work and I know I would be hard pressed to better my photography in there. Also 80 climbers contributed stories to the book, so it is a significant documentation of Australian climbing and well supported by the community. External recognition is not my objective; I think it’s important to have a strong inner compass, and that book is the single thing I am most proud of.
- Climbing and photography have taken you all over the world. Do you prefer climbing in Australia or overseas, and where’s your favourite crag?
Ha ha, that's not so easy to answer! Some of the best experiences I've had climbing have been in Australia -- such as Serpentine on Taipan Wall in the Grampians, or the Totem Pole in Tasmania. And I love the Blue Mountains, which is where I live, because here I have a life plus enjoy a ton of great climbing. But for the sheer quality of the climbing, the Red River Gorge in Kentucky USA is my favourite area. And for a destination, the Nosy Hara Archipelago off the northern coast of Madagascar has been my favourite place to visit, but unfortunately it's four days travel to get there so that won't be happening again soon!
- You’ve gotten up close to some of the world’s most talented climbers (not to mention yourself!); is there a quality or trait that the elite climbers have in common?
Well obviously there’s the drive; the drive, dedication and passion are common traits. Many climbers fully immerse themselves in the activity and they can be obsessive (sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not so much…). But actually climbers are a diverse bunch with a diverse range of personalities and characters. The stories that I could tell you!
- What would you rather be doing, photographing or climbing?
Can't answer that! From day to day it varies but I need both. They both give me balance -- and I hope I will always be doing them both.
- What are you most excited about for 2016 and why?
Without doubt the trip to Sicily in October! Both the destination and the climbing is just fantastic. There are over 1000 routes in a small area. It looks by far the best climbing area that I am yet to visit. We’re planning to spend a month there and I'm really excited about that!
Want to learn more?
Join Monique Forestier and Simon Carter on World Expeditions' inaugural rock climbing trip to the climbing mecca of Sicily's San Vito Lo Capo in October 2016! Learn More »