The Photographer Interviews: FreetheDust

Posted by Michele Hamparian

Jan 15th 2021

What drew you to photography?

I was raised in a small town in northern Utah. I spent my childhood exploring the mountains. When I was 19 I left home and was in the military for a long time. I didn’t realize it at first, but I missed being away from the slower pace of life and the tranquility nature affords, especially when juxtaposed to my service as a combat soldier. When I was finished with the military, I searched for that solace.

I always had an artistic part of me, and I realized that in these remote places I was finding a part of myself once lost. I want to share that because I think a lot of people go through the same process. It’s easier to take the step into new or unfamiliar territory when you see that other people do it as well. Photography is really the excuse for me to just do what I want, to be outside in natural beauty and share my feelings about life with others.

Where do you look for inspiration?

For me, it's a specific equation actually. I find myself to be most inspired if I’m far away from society, completely exhausted, and have some good music (not always). For me, it’s as if my mind can expand endlessly in open spaces. In a city, for example, everything feels crowded, compressed. Part of being outdoors isn’t just getting there, it’s watching the pace at which things happen. Have you ever just sat and watched a desert sunset? It takes hours and patience to watch the shadows creep up the rocks, to listen to the changing winds, and to align yourself to a different timeline - well that’s inspirational.

As far as being completely exhausted, its probably just the endorphins that are associated with physical exercise but I’d like to think that once I’m exhausted I’ve sort of “stretched” myself thin, my mind can’t come up with any BS that prevents me from just being in the moment. In these situations, I feel like an exposed nerve, and I like it. It’s like being directly tapped into my surroundings. Achieving this is difficult though.

What type of cameras and lenses do you use?

Although I haven’t shot with much else, I’m a pretty hardcore Sony fan. I’ve shot with Sony A6300, Sony A7rII, and currently with Sony A7C. I hike and travel quite a bit, and the lightweight mirrorless cameras really are comfortable. I’d also argue that the majority of people are consuming media digitally anyways, so the digital representation a mirrorless camera gives you (as opposed to optical from a regular DSLR) is actually more useful these days.

My current lenses are: Sony 70-200mm f/4 for telephoto; Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 for mid-range and product photography; and Rokinon 14mm f/2.8. I use the Rokinon the most because it works great in landscape and astrophotography applications. I definitely have a list of lenses I want to upgrade to, but I gotta save.

Are there any projects you are especially proud of?

Yes! I recently won the America State Parks Photography Contest for 2020. I am especially proud of this because one of the ideas I’d like to promote is how accessible amazing places are. Everyone scrolls through Instagram and thinks: “Oh I’ll never be able to go there and see those things.” But the truth is, there’s something amazing right around the corner, right in your own backyard. So people just need to realize that they can access the outdoors, it’s one of our most precious resources.

There are over 10,000 State Parks in the US. So I don’t want to hear any excuses. Anyway, I am super proud to have been chosen and hopefully get more people out into nature. 

What’s your favorite image you’ve captured?

My favorite image is by no means my best, in fact, it has lots of technical issues with it and I shot it without much understanding of photography. But it is filled with meaning for me. I shot it in Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Canada. There’s a short hike called “Bear’s Hump,” which I hiked around 3 AM. There was a solar event and NASA had forecast an Aurora for parts of North America.

I was skeptical but curious enough to crawl out of my tent and hike up to the viewpoint. When I got there I set up my equipment and took some test shots but didn’t see much. Then around 4:30 things started to change and this gorgeous view of the town below and the sky above, like a large green cloud with stars peeking through unveiled itself. It was truly a magical moment that I'll forever hold close to my heart.

What subject draws you to take a photo of it?

I work a lot on juxtaposing figures against nature. I work on the proportion difference. So a lot of my shots have a figure (usually me) in a large natural space. This is because I believe it gives the viewer a truer sense of our relationship with nature. We ARE small, and that’s not something to be scared of or try and overcome. It’s actually very complimentary.

We have all this space to be whoever we want, so I hope my photographs make people ask: Why do I choose to live uncomfortably? Why do I choose to use the trash instead of recycling? Why do I consume instead of create (or can I shift that balance to more creation)? I like working with any subject as long as it connects the viewer. As with most artwork, it's interpretive. I just hope that my images can bring meaning to those who see them.

Can you share some tips on how you shoot your photos?

I’ve gotten this question before, and I have a simple answer: go to amazing places with a camera. I don’t credit myself with taking amazing photos, I credit nature for creating the scene. My part is the hard work to get there and the patience to wait for the right moment. Beyond that it’s really minor; you can take amazing photos with an awful camera, or awful photos with an amazing camera.

What’s the secret! Are there specific types of equipment for taking these kinds of photos? 

I don’t think there are, a camera is simply a tool. There’s no single tool that can fix everything, you need different tools for different projects, and different people are more comfortable with different tools. The goal of any photographer is to tell a story, and you should research and gain enough experience to be able to choose the right tool for the story you want to tell. As with anything creative, it's a mastery of the tools that allows you to be the most creative.

What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing a career in photography?

I think we all know it's a very saturated market. From building a following on Instagram to getting gigs, and actually getting decently paid work - it’s very difficult. I think my biggest challenge was and is being patient enough for success to come along.

The game is longer than I thought and that’s a good thing because time itself weeds out everyone who isn’t really committed. I do it because I love it, and I’ll love it whether or not I succeed in it. Ironically, by caring less about making it specifically a career, it’s more probably that I’ll succeed at it. 

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in photography?

I’d say start small and modest (photography is an expensive career choice), I’d say concentrate on practical successes. Sure, it might feel great to get lots of likes on Instagram, but is that really furthering your career? Everyone wants to be a NatGeo photographer but they forget about the 1000 other publications that pay great and have large audiences as well. I’d say don’t try and be famous, just try and get work. And this takes a lot of work.

Before you even try getting jobs, choose the type of photography you want to excel in as well. If you’re the jack of all trades, you’ll be a master of none. I chose landscape photography, you might choose wedding, portrait, urban, etc. Once you have your niche -become an expert in it. Then you can start getting paid work either in magazines, stock photos, photo competitions, etc. I guess to summarize I’d say:

1. Find your niche. 

2. Become an expert in it. 

3. Don’t aim for the top 1%, aim for the top 20%. 

4. Concentrate on practical success.

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