I stood on the edge of Canyon Junction Bridge in Zion National Park, surrounded by a small crowd of photographers. Passing vehicles gave us a wide berth and were largely ignored as we faced the setting sun in the southwest. It’s a well-known photo location in Zion. As dusk falls, the sun illuminates the craggy Watchman above the Virgin River. Click.
Photographers changed lenses or filters, leaned against the railing of the bridge. Two guys next to me struck up a conversation. “Been here a couple days,” one said. “Shot the Court of the Patriarchs at sunrise, was up in The Narrows with this baby.” He patted his heavy tripod. “Damn that was cold. Hiked far enough to get the shot and then I was out of there!” He waited while the other photographer laughed, then talked about heading over to Bryce for the next round of photos.
That was when I realized I didn’t belong. I don’t mean to speak negatively about him or any of the other photographers who were on that bridge—if landscape photographic composition was what he loved and what got him outdoors, by all means I respect him for that. It just wasn’t me.
I had come out to the west looking for adventure, not photos. Taking the same shot as thousands of others wasn’t just boring, or limiting. It was inhibiting me from doing what I really wanted: adventure.
Getting a stick in my foot while walking in the canyon stream bed. (Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area)
It took me a while to come to that realization. As a photographer, I’ve been in utterly predictable locations taking utterly predictable (albeit picturesque) shots—and been absolutely thrilled. It’s easy to mistake an adventurous-looking photo for an adventure. But adventure, as Thorton Wilder wrote, is when you wish you were safe at home.
See, I don’t look back on those photographic moments with the same fondness I do other, less picturesque scraps. At the end of the day, the scraps are what I treasure. Those are what I eagerly share with people. It doesn’t really matter to me if I have a good photo on the wall if I can’t tell a good story.
Waiting for water to boil at the end of the day. (Needles District, Canyonlands National Park)
Speaking from a photographer’s perspective, it’s hard to capture those unexpected, all-too-often difficult times. Even when I’m not solo. When the storm hit earlier than we expected. When the coyote ate our food. When we snapped a bolt on the underside of the car on an ATV trail. Those are all things I experienced in the last few months, all of which I keep as great stories but none of which I have footage. It’s sometimes hard to justify that as a photographer.
Which is why I say gather stories, not photos.
Let’s be frank, social media makes that challenging. Consumer marketing makes that challenging. We are inadvertently products of the culture that is all around us, and a lot of the time that culture says we need things, products, and proof of the things we’ve done. Click.
I’m not trying to convince you to throw away your DSLR or smartphone or close your Instagram. That culture is part of us and if saying that makes me a hypocrite, so be it. I’m trying to say treasure stories. Simple as that.
One final thing I’ll add if you’re still not convinced is that often, the path of a story leads to a hell of a good photo. Some of my best captures have been at the end of treacherous and untravelled trails, or at the end of long and exhausting days, like this trek in Yosemite. I can’t remember the last time I took a photo I really loved while standing beside a paved surface.
So next time you’re heading out, get off the beaten path (while leaving no trace). Even if it is to a tried-and-true popular landscape or destination. Adventure is a state of mind—a state that has brought me more joy and fulfillment than any bridge in Zion National Park ever could.
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.