Initially, Jimmy Chin saw photography as a way to continue a lavish lifestyle on the road, bouncing from one climbing spot to the next. But as his talent and notoriety grew, raising him to the rank of National Geographic Explorer, Jimmy’s freelance photography became a full-time profession. Jimmy has travelled with explorers from National Geographic, Outside, and North Face to capture and record their explorations through photography and film. Emaho caught up with Jimmy to talk about climbing, photography and filmmaking.
Emaho : Your love of climbing came from a trip to Joshua Tree, California at eighteen. What about that trip inspired a passion that has lasted for over twenty years?
There were a lot of things about that trip I still feel inspired by – the freedom of living on the road, the renegade lifestyle, the beautiful balance of physical strength and mental fortitude required in climbing, interacting with amazing landscapes, literally, not just staring at them.
Mt. Everest, 2007 © Jimmy Chin
Emaho :Between college and becoming a photographer, you spent seven years travelling around, going on climbing expeditions while living out of your car. Why?
Again, I loved the freedom of the road and the renegade lifestyle. Being self reliant and seeing the world on my terms was a dream.
Emaho : What made you take that picture of your climbing partner on El Capitan in 1999?
He handed me the camera and showed me how to shoot it. I just pointed it at him and snapped the shot.
Emaho : How did you feel when your first photograph at El Capitan sold for $500?
I figured I only had to shoot one photo a month and I could live the lavish life of a climbing bum forever!
Video Credit : National Geographic Channel, YouTube
Emaho : In 2003, you and your climbing partner were swept up in the middle of an avalanche on the North Face of Everest. How did you find yourself in this predicament? How did you feel?
We were approaching the 9000ft North Face of Everest in the dark. We heard a sharp crack far above us. I didn’t think much of it until it kept getting louder, like a freight train heading for you. A huge serac had broken off about a mile above us on a nearby peak. We knew we were in trouble when we couldn’t hear ourselves yelling at each other to run. We were roped together for crevasses and there was nowhere to go. I just looked up and thought it was my time. We were lucky that we were only hit by the wind blast. After travelling over a mile of vertical terrain, the huge ice chunks literally ended right at our feet. If we’d even been 100 feet further, I wouldn’t be typing this.
Arita Sherpa carries a load to Camp 2 through the Western Cwm on Mount Everest © Jimmy Chin
Emaho : Are there any other death-defying experiences that you’d like to share?
Not really. They’re not that fun to talk about.
Emaho : For one of your projects, you trekked 300 miles unsupported across the mostly unexplored Chang Tang Plateau in Tibet for National Geographic. Could you tell us more about the project and this experience?
This was one of the most amazing trips of my life. I was asked to join three of my heroes – Galen Rowell, Conrad Anker and Rick Ridgeway. These guys were / are some of the most experienced and badass explorers and climbers of their time. It was an extremely hard trip and I learned a lot. It was also my first National Geographic trip and the start to my career working with them. I published my first photo in the magazine from this trip, so it was a dream come true on multiple levels.
© Jimmy Chin
Emaho : You’ve said before that the Tetons count among your favourite places in the world. Why? What has been your favorite expedition, there or elsewhere?
I love it because it is my home and I have an amazing community of friends here. It helps that the skiing is insane and the mountains are stunningly beautiful both winter and summer. In the winter, I love skiing on the Pass after work, catching tram laps with my friends or going for a fun adventure in the Tetons. Running around the Tetons in the summer is great too. There’s amazing mountain biking on the Pass right by my house. I always tell people my favorite place to travel is back home to Jackson.
© Jimmy Chin
Emaho : You own your own production company, Camp 4 Collective, in which you are also a director and cinematographer. What was the inspiration behind this business venture?
I had been shooting stills for a few years before I picked up a video camera on the Chang Tang Expedition. Rick Ridgeway schooled me on making films, on how to shoot a sequence, tell a story. It’s all about the story and I learned about what a powerful storytelling tool films can be. Of course, as demand for video increased over the years with everyone needing branded content, documentaries and the evolution of technology, I saw a business opportunity that was directly tied to my passion for telling stories and making beautiful imagery.
Cedar Wright and Kevin Thaw on Kaga Tondo, Mali, Africa © Jimmy Chin
Emaho : Travelling between the two mediums, both as a cinematographer and as a photographer, what are the different impacts you are trying to construct in each? What has made you choose one over the other on different occasions?
Film and Photography clearly have a lot of similarities, but are also completely different animals in many respects. I love the simplicity of photography and how it focuses everything into a moment. Some of those moments are priceless. In film/video, you have the opportunity to tell a richer narrative and hit people with so much more texture, sounds, graphics etc. A master at the craft can create hugely moving pieces that tell incredible stories, showcase beautiful imagery, make you cry, laugh etc. It’s an amazing medium, but it can also be maddening with so many moving parts and things to think about. It can drive a person out of his mind.
Emaho : You obviously have a long history with climbing and skiing, but are there other adventure sports that have caught your interest?
I definitely have a bad surfing addiction.
© Jimmy Chin
Emaho : What do you think the next step will be as a travel photographer and cinematographer? Where do you want to go next?
I am working on my first feature length documentary and also have plans to work on another bigger film in the upcoming year. We’ll see where it goes. I’ll always love shooting for National Geographic. They are incredible to shoot for so next in that realm is just looking forward to the next assignment from them.
Art & Culture Interviewed by Brittany Spear
Feature Image : Everest Summit, 2006 © Jimmy Chin