My first assignment was shooting the Tennessee Titans football team, shirtless and wearing feathered angel wings.
I worked on shoots with Jars of Clay, Wynona Judd, even a few Cosmo mag shoots with more shirtless male models. I was at the studio almost everyday for a year and a half and learned more about photography from that experience than I could have bought in a four year college degree.
During high school I had climbed a few times but wouldn’t consider myself a climber until mid-way through college. I was studying Sociology and had put down the camera for a few years to focus on new interests. Climbing quickly became a major part of my life, taking the place of tennis as a sport that felt like a much better fit.
As I delved deeper into Sociology, focusing on Social Theory and Sex and Gender, I realized the power of photography to convey social meaning. It was still a few years before the obvious path of merging photography, sociology, and climbing became a clear direction.
The mission of my work would most easily be summed up in the idea that if you don’t like what you see (in the media), then create (media) that you want to see. I never related to images I saw of girls portrayed as unintelligent, incapable, weak, passive, sexualized, etc.
I’d like to contribute to creating images of girls and women that I relate to and I’m sure millions of other people relate to as well.
People tend to trust people they know. So it takes time to become familiar to those you want to work with. As a woman there are probably challenges, or advantages, that I don’t know the full extent of. I try not to analyze or assume too much as this gets in the way of what I’m trying to achieve. If someone doesn’t want to work with me because I’m a woman (for whatever reason) then I really don’t want to work with them.
There are certainly not as many female climbing photographers as male, so I am driven to be one small part of balancing that out. Hopefully more women will get involved in this field, and I do think that is happening. For me, it’s not about whether I’d rather work with men or women, it’s about working with people who don’t look at it that way. Unfortunately, some people do—and when I run into that I do wish there were more women to work with so I wouldn’t feel like an outsider in the bro club.
The experiences that exemplify why I love photography are the times I’ve had to push myself physically, mentally, and creatively. When I’ve had to get up at 4am, hike through manzanita bushes for an hour, wait in the freezing cold for the sun to come up, or jug up a tall, exposed wall to get the shot.
But when you get the shot after all that, there’s nothing like that feeling!
I’d like my work to focus on athletes breaking the mold, whether they are women or men. What that means exactly depends on the person and the project. It doesn’t have to be the hardest, tallest, longest climb but something that shows strength of character, determination, or beating the odds. I’m always open to great ideas and hope to be in touch with more athletes doing inspiring things.
Watch Vanessa’s video, Granite Gems: Sierra Bouldering:
Vanessa Avery is a freelance photographer and filmmaker based in San Francisco, California. Visit her website to see more of her stunning work.