Czech-born climber and photographer, Kamil Sustiak, first happened upon a camera when he found himself with no rope, no shoes, and no climbing gear on a trip to New Zealand.
Before long, that initial curiousity and intriguing challenge for capturing adventurers and wild places grew into a profound passion that paired perfectly with his first love: climbing. Combining his life’s two greatest “addictions,” he has since double dosed on the two activities that fuel his happiness. And lucky for us, the results are awe-inspiring.
In this Featured Photographer interview, Kamil shares his journey with climbing and his lens, his perspective on BASE jumping as an observer and capturer, and what makes one of his photos a definite favorite:
- Age: 36
- Hometown: Leura, Blue Mountains, Australia
- Years as a climber: 15
- Years as a photographer: 5
- Favorite climbing destination: Blue Mountains, Tasmania, Indian Creek
- Preferred style of climbing: sport & trad
Tell us about your journey to becoming a photographer—what places, people, or events inspired you to become the photographer you are today?
It started about fifteen years ago back in the Czech Republic where I was born, when one day, my friends made me put on some weird ballet shoes, pointed at a cliff and said climb up! I got addicted to climbing right away and let it change my life.
The movements, the fear, the camaraderie, add the lifestyle and beautiful nature on top of that, and you end up with an awesome adventure cocktail of possibilities to kill your time. In fact, since then there have not been many weekends where I haven’t had rock climbing gear in my backpack—except for one notable break.
In 2005, I spent a few months in New Zealand with no rope, no climbing gear, and no climbing mates. Being without climbing would have been a disaster but for one small thing—a camera. For the first time, I was the proud, though very confused, owner of a camera with manual controls. All of a sudden, taking photos was not a pointandshoot activity but a challenge as to how to capture the moments I could see or feel and translate them into a photograph.
I loved the fact that photography allows you to freeze these little moments, ideally in some kind of creative way and store them forever. The tricky part was that I had no idea how to achieve that. I was facing a new puzzle, in a way not that different to solving climbing crux sequences. Again I got completely hooked on something, this time replacing rock climbing magazines with all the photography literature I could find in the New Zealand public libraries.
So when coming back home to the Czech Republic, I found myself with two addictions to manage and ended up doing what a proper addict would do. I combined my drugs and took them in double doses. And to some extent, it has stayed this way since.
Do you consider yourself a climber or photographer first?
I have never been a 100% pure dirtbag climber but climbing has shaped my life more than anything else. It changed how I live, where I live, what I do and where I can see myself in the future. Through climbing, I also started with adventure photography.
Climbing to me is like an anchor I can always come back to when I need to switch off and relax or get scared, one of those. I still have my climbing wishlist and goals but it’s not the number one priority anymore. Now when I think about it, I have sacrificed too many climbing days for photography shoots to call myself a climber first. But it is pretty comforting to know that there is something so awesome as climbing to come back to and have fun.
You have a lot of variety in your photography: all styles of climbing, highlining, BASE, culture, nature, etc. Is there a specific style/activity you most enjoy shooting?
I love to hang around with people who are passionate about their lives, whatever activity they do. Where there is passion, magic moments usually follow. Be it action, emotions or just the sheer ridiculousness of the situations people end up in while pushing their limits.
After living in Sydney for almost a decade, I recently moved to the Blue Mountains, which is a national park two hours west of Sydney. It is a beautiful place with an amazing scenery of wild sandstone cliffs, ancient rainforests, waterfalls, and canyons. On top of that, the relatively easy access makes it an ideal place for various adventure activities, which of course attracts adrenaline addicts from all over the world. There is also an amazing local community of climbers, BASE jumpers, and nature lovers who keep coming up with crazy ideas for photo shoots. It is actually kind of hard to shoot just climbing here, definitely not something to complain about.
Even though where I live is amazing, I love going on trips, carrying large packs into remote areas to capture passionate people doing their thing. There is so much more going on around adventure sports than the actual action, which is just a little part of the whole experience. It sometimes takes us days of hard work just to get to a location before the action starts to unroll, and this time gives plenty of opportunities to shoot the story, lifestyle, nature, or those precious little moments in between.
What outdoor gear do you not go into the wild without?
A very, very warm sleeping bag and a good book.
What is your most treasured piece of photography equipment?
Really it all comes down to my Creativity Hat; when I have that it only matters that I have some kind of camera in my hands.
Do you always bring a camera along with you? Or do you separate your climbing days from photography days?
When I started with photography I used to take my camera along everywhere, climbing days included. The problem was that I often did not end up climbing as much as I would want to. I often caught myself thinking about the best angles for shooting a route, which would have been fine if I was not in the middle of the crux of my project. It started to feel a bit like taking work home if you know what I mean.
These days I tend to separate photography from climbing. It helps me focus on the story and not miss those precious moments in between the action. And on the days when I leave the camera at home, it has the opposite benefit of allowing me to feel like a climber.
Living in the Blue Mountains with the very easy access to amazing locations and incredible climbing where you can just pop out for an afternoon or wake for a predawn shoot before work makes it easy to separate the two.
Is there something you always ask yourself/think just before you push the button?
In my photography beginnings, I used to have this mental checklist. You know, the usual rules you read in all the photography books.
Is your subject in the middle? Are there any leading lines? What about the foreground?
Some people have a feel for the composition right away, I had to train my eye the hard way and learn from mistakes … lots of mistakes.
After a while, this checklist has become automatic. It is more like an intuition than conscious thinking, which creates more room for focusing on telling the story of the scene I am capturing. That means that the questions are different now.
What is the story? What are the basic elements that make this shoot special? How do I eliminate the rest?
I guess this is the evolution of a photographer and in a way, it is a beautiful thing to know that there will always be new challenges and puzzles to make a photographer’s life interesting.
What photograph are you most proud of and why?
I do not think there is the one photograph I would be super proud of, it also changes with time. I love to inspire people to get out and push their limits (whatever they are) and I guess I get the most satisfaction when I hear that someone climbed a route or went for a hike because they got inspired by some of my work. It is like when you hear a song and it makes you go running or go to the gym instead of watching TV.
If I did have to name just one picture right now, it would be the one below of Lee Jackson BASE jumping off the Frenchmans Cap in Tasmania, Australia. This was a special trip for me with amazing people where everything happened pretty organically. Including the shot of Lee, which for me personally shows the beauty of the Frenchmans Cap and puts into perspective how fragile, but at the same time, how courageous people are.
What’s your view toward the sport of BASE Jumping?
There is no question BASE is a dangerous activity with not much room for a mistake. If you look at the stats it is crazy. At the same time, I have been following my friends closely, seen their progress, their hard work to improve their skills and also how calculated their approach to every jump is. I have seen them casually jumping when everything was OK and backing off when something did not feel right.
I guess there is a certain parallel with, let’s say, trad climbing. You cannot always totally eliminate the danger but with experience, technical skill, and judgement, you can make it safe enough to have an enjoyable experience. The same experience may look super risky to a person who has never climbed.
By watching my friends casually jumping off the cliffs, I for the first time understood the worrying feelings of my parents watching me having fun while climbing. It is all relative, and in the end, it is up to us to decide how far we want to push it. It does not matter if it is climbing, BASE or any other activity where we have to trust our skills and judgement to not get hurt.
How does being a photographer affect your relationship with nature?
Haha, I do not think that it affects my relationship with nature as much as it affects my sleeping patterns while photographing it … those predawn shoots are killing me 😉
Finish this sentence: If I weren’t an adventure photographer, I’d be …
… hopefully on my way to becoming one.
All photos courtesy of Kamil Sustiak