10 Questions With Photographer and Filmmaker Jimmy Chin

By Avery Stonich May 27, 2015

“Film as a medium is really powerful in telling complex stories. There are so many different layers—visual, sound design, music, narrative, interviews, audio. So it’s a very rich experience.”

When Jimmy Chin shows up for work, he might be dangling from a rope on a 1,500-foot rock wall, photographing the world’s best climbers in action or documenting a gnarly ski descent. Follow him on Instagram, and you get the impression that he spends every day charging after adventure. When he hears this, Chin laughs and says he wishes his life were like that.

There’s no doubt that Chin’s work as an adventure sports photographer, documentary filmmaker and sponsored athlete for The North Face involves a fair bit of thrill. He’s knocked out numerous first ascents and notable expeditions in some of the most dangerous terrain on the planet. Lugging camera gear up sheer rock faces, through blinding storms and to far-reaching pockets of the earth, he captures history-making moments with artistic mastery. His award-winning work has appeared in National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, Alpinist, Surfers Journal and a slew of other titles.

Chin’s career may seem charming and covetable, but building and managing his career, family and travel has its challenges. In addition to his expedition photography, he also does commercial work for corporate clients and has shot and directed numerous documentaries. This year he is releasing his most ambitious project to date—the film, Meru, which chronicles his high stakes ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in India with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk.

So how does he fit it all in and still have time to spend time with his family? We spoke to Chin from his office in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to learn how he juggles it all and still stays motivated to grow his career.

Outdoor Industry Association: Are you an athlete or a photographer first?
Jimmy Chin: It depends on the day. A lot of my career has been built around playing both roles. There have been days when I’m just climbing and skiing. And there are plenty of days when I’m shooting on big commercial shoots that don’t have anything to do with climbing or skiing. I love them both.

When a really high caliber of athleticism is required and a really high level of shooting is required and those two things come together, that’s a really nice place.

OIA: How did you get into photography?
JC: I didn’t dream of being a photographer; it just kind of happened. When I first started, photography was more of a means to an end. After college, I basically moved into my car for seven years, following the seasons, photographing my friends who were climbing. I saw it as a way to make money to allow me to keep climbing and skiing and seeing the world. And that quickly evolved as creative passion, storytelling and journalism; commercial work started to come out of it.

OIA: What was your big break?
JC: I met Conrad [Anker] at a trade show, and I asked if it was hard to shoot for The North Face. He said, “Why don’t you come and shoot with me in October in Yosemite?” On that shoot he asked where I was going the next season, and I said Pakistan. He asked if he could come and said he could get the trip paid for. That was a pivotal moment—he became one of my closest friends and a mentor in climbing and life.

OIA: What do you like about having The North Face as a sponsor?
JC: There’s no doubt that my careers have been intertwined pretty closely with my relationship to The North Face. I’ve been with them for 15 years, and they’ve enabled me to evolve and grow as a photographer, a filmmaker and as an athlete. As a brand, they’ve always stood behind me. In a lot of ways I’ve grown up with that company.

OIA: How do you balance being an athlete and a businessperson?
JC: The most challenging part of my life is trying to balance family, travel, business and multiple careers. Photography on its own is a fairly consuming business and requires a lot of work. You have to maintain relevance, relationships and context; continue to shoot and try to progress as a photographer and build your client base.

But then there’s the athlete side and the endorsement side, where you have very real responsibilities. You owe days to the companies that you work for and you have to travel, make appearances, plan expeditions and maintain relationships and relevance. And you have to train.

Right now filmmaking and directing is a pretty big part of my life as well. Unfortunately it’s not the exact same client base as the photography side, and the production is totally different. Working on a film like Meru, you’re starting a business — you have to raise the money, hire the people, there are budget constraints and schedules.

OIA: What do you like about still versus film?
JC: Film as a medium is really powerful in telling complex stories. There are so many different layers—visual, sound design, music, narrative, interviews, audio. So it’s a very rich experience. It’s also incredibly complicated to produce, expensive, and it’s easy to miss the mark. I have so much respect for great filmmakers.

Photography is my first love, and I still go back to it because I love the simplicity. One image can have an incredible impact and tell a tremendous story in one moment.

OIA: Your daughter was born last year. How has your outlook on life and risk changed?
JC: My daughter melts my heart. I fall in love with her every day. So yes, of course, priorities shift. You’re thinking about the family unit and less about your personal needs. I still think you can have it all though. I’ve seen some incredible families and examples of a family life well lived—enjoying the mountains and going on adventures together.

I think getting older, seeing things go wrong and losing close friends gives you perspective on risk. No doubt people become more careful and a little more focused on safety. I think that is pretty normal. There are some inherent risks in the things I love to do. My life will always have some risk in it.

I think getting older, seeing things go wrong and losing close friends gives you perspective on risk. No doubt people become more careful and a little more focused on safety. I think that is pretty normal. There are some inherent risks in the things I love to do. My life will always have some risk in it.

OIA: How do you balance family and work?
JC: Balancing life, family, work is certainly one of the bigger challenges for me. I travel all the time. The reason it works is because my wife, Chai, is so supportive of my career. She isn’t exactly sitting at home though. She is an award-winning filmmaker. She produced, directed and finished two feature documentaries this year. Working together on Meru was incredible. I learned a lot about filmmaking this year from her. We were good creative collaborators because we put the egos aside so we could actually focus on making the best film we could make.

And we always set aside time to hang with our daughter, Marina, when I am around. She is growing up fast and I don’t want to miss too much.

OIA: How much of your work is commercial versus expedition? Does the former pay the bills?
JC: It varies from month to month, but I’d say about half of my photography work is commercial work and the other half is editorial. And yes, the commercial work pays the bills. I love both, and they each have their own creative challenges.

OIA: What advice can you offer to someone starting out?
JC: You have to follow your heart and your instinct and what you’re passionate about. Most of the photographers that I see who are really successful have focused on something specific and become really good at, or the best at, one particular area. It requires a lot of focus.

OIA: What are you most proud of?
JC: The biggest thing I am most proud of is the film Meru. At this point in your career, you want more legacy pieces instead of bouncing around shooting random stuff. You’re looking at things more like your life work.

I spent almost seven years on this film getting it to say what I wanted it to say. I wanted to make a climbing film that wasn’t about climbing. I wanted to show people outside of the space that experience of partnership, friendship, mentorship and trust that I find really unique in climbing. Those are complex ideas to get people to understand on an emotional level.

It was a lot of endless weeks, nights, months, years going over the film and going back and reshooting and rewriting and reshooting and rewriting and reediting. It was total obsession-style insanity.

I wanted to make a climbing film that wasn’t about climbing. I wanted to show people outside of the space that experience of partnership, friendship, mentorship and trust that I find really unique in climbing. Those are complex ideas to get people to understand on an emotional level.

OIA: Do you still sleep in your car?
JC: I always laugh because I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to get back to living in my car.

 


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