Adventure photographer Krystle Wright shares her insights on the rewards of risk-taking and the joys of capturing a moment.
Like the BASE jumpers, rock climbers, and kayakers she captures with her camera for National Geographic, Outside, and Sidetracked magazines, photographer Krystle Wright is known for pushing boundaries. “I grew up being very outdoorsy,” she says, recalling her youth spent playing sports and surfing along Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in Australia.
Hanging from cliff edges, paragliding, and trudging through remote whiteout conditions have left the 29-year-old with her share of injuries, but Wright, one of the world’s premier adventure photographers, doesn’t view what she does as thrill-seeking. “When people refer to me as an adrenaline junkie, it feels like they assume I make irrational decisions in what I do,” she says. “But I’ve learned to trust my instincts.”
There are risks, she admits, but also profound rewards. “There’s danger involved in anything we do,” she explains. “But the situations in which I’ve been absolutely scared or angry, or felt any raw feeling, are when I’ve felt most alive.”
Testing her toughness drives Wright to document fleeting moments when others are challenging their own limits. But it’s telling the story behind an impassioned endeavor that really motivates her to climb the tallest mountain peaks or plunge to the deepest ocean depths. “Stories are how we learn,” she says.
Telling an amazing story is also what makes Wright’s work stand out in a world saturated with images — which just might be her greatest feat of all.
EL | When did you develop a passion for photography?
KW | It probably started in high school, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I took a Kodak disposable camera along every time I went to camp or on supervised trips. Those cameras were fun — you’d have to plan how many shots you could take each day. Things have really changed!
Over time, I came to love the whole process of taking pictures. When it came time to choose what to pursue after school, it was my mom who suggested photography. I didn’t think I could make a career out of it, but I had no idea what else I wanted to do. I picked up a camera, went to a store, and bought a bunch of magazines. When I saw the work of Adam Pretty, who had this big folio special in one of them, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
EL | What do you love about adventure photography?
KW | First, I tend to thrive in daunting situations. Second, I like that I’m shooting outside and don’t have the opportunity to control the situation like I would if I were a studio photographer. I remember being in school and spending hours lighting the set to take a photo of a wine glass and still being unhappy with the picture!
Photography is a tool that lets me engage with the world. I’m terrible at being a tourist and traveling just for fun. I need a purpose and photography gives me that. It allows me to strike up conversations with people who I probably wouldn’t have thought to talk to before and gives me a reason to go to Siberia in winter to take potentially amazing photos.
EL | Do you take your camera everywhere with you?
KW | On expedition, I’ll sleep with my cam-era, but I also love putting it down. I have a few photojournalist friends, and I always feel a bit odd when we go out and they have their cameras with them. I’m like, “Really, you brought your camera to a bar?”
There have been times when I’ve kicked myself for not having it along, but it’s OK, because not everything has to be documented. There’s something beautiful and special about keeping an image and moment for yourself.
EL | Your job’s risky. How do you know when to keep going and when to pull back?
KW | I prepare for each shoot as much as possible by having the proper gear and staying fit by being active and getting outdoors a lot.
I’m also learning to recognize and listen to my instincts in the moment. It’s normal to be scared when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, and the worst thing is if you aren’t. Complacency is probably the biggest reason that accidents and fatalities happen.
I’m learning to balance that natural fear with a different feeling. It’s hard to explain, but it tends to feel like a weight is on my shoulders. That’s when I’ve learned I need to walk away, no matter how much money or time has gone into getting into the situation or might be lost if I get out of it.
The moments when I’ve had that feeling and told myself I was just being -silly and pushed on are when bad things have happened — like my accident in Pakistan, when I collided with a boulder upon takeoff while paragliding. I ended up with multiple fractures, torn ligaments, and internal bruising. I’m lucky to be alive after that, but I’ve come to see that the best thing I can do is learn from my mistakes.
EL | What are the rewards of taking risks and facing our fears?
KW | Sometimes it seems like the more convenient our lives become, the more we get wrapped up in wanting a sense of security. We want guarantees we’ll be safe. But the truth is, there’s risk involved in daily -activities like driving a car or going for a run. In life, you’re going to get hurt — physically and emotionally. I also don’t think every day or moment has to be happy.
Pushing my limits lets me learn so much about myself. It probably sounds strange, but it’s good to be scared. It happens so rarely, which might be why it’s so interesting. I typically like being put in a situation where I’m scared beyond belief and simultaneously feel like everything’s going to be OK. I feel extraordinarily alive in that moment because there’s no guarantee that it will work out. I don’t want a comfortable, complacent lifestyle, because I think that becomes boring.
EL | What’s your advice for those looking to take more risks?
KW | Don’t fall into the trap of comparison. With social media it’s easy to think, Oh, look at this person. They’re so successful and happy, and compare yourself with them. Doing that can be paralyzing.
I know some people look at my lifestyle and think, I’d never put myself on the side of a cliff on a rope or ride into six-foot surf. But that doesn’t matter; focus on what you want to do. If you’re 70 years old and went out on your first hike today, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s amazing!
EL | Where do you want to shoot that you haven’t yet?
KW | There’s a never-ending list! As much as I enjoy seeing the world and going to places that take a bit more effort to get to, I’m very passionate about Australia.
Whenever I get back, I try to discover a place I haven’t seen. Bit by bit, I’m enjoying exploring where I’m from because it’s so unique — particularly Tasmania or Kimberley up in northwestern Australia. Nothing compares to those places anywhere in the world.
EL | What’s your favorite shot?
KW | A few have stuck with me because I don’t have the ability to take an amazing shot every day. It’s an incredibly tough thing to achieve. One that comes to mind is from my first expedition. We were stuck in camp because of a huge blizzard. Suddenly, this local Inuit is driving his dogsled by to the fjord. I grabbed my camera and took some images of him that are almost completely white with the faintest outlines of the mountains.