An Alpinist With a Camera

Talking Adventure Photojournalism with Alex Buisse

June 5, 2015 Editorial & Opinion : Interviews By Photo by Meg Charluet

Alex Buisse is an adventure photographer, in the sense that the photographs he takes most often feature adventurers. Climbers, base jumpers, mountain bikers — the subjects of his photographs do adventurous things. But how Buisse shoots them is best described as photojournalism. He is concerned with capturing the human emotion of triumph in adventure, not the simple relaying of an accomplishment. How did that summit feel? What is the emotive connection between the triumph of achieving something extremely dangerous and the heart of the adventurer? And how to capture that on his camera’s sensor?

For starters, Buisse would tell you to have the camera out. Never store it in your backpack. And then, it’s a matter of finding the right perspective on the right moment — a task that’s a bit foreboding at 9,000 meters. Cameraman becomes climber, and although Buisse downplays his own acumen as an adventurer, he’s no slouch. He lives in Chamonix, France, the mountaineering capital of the world, and when we caught up with him a few weeks ago, he was preparing for an expedition to the arctic, by ski. He’s humble about his craft and his capabilities (he’s shot for Outside, Climbing, Sports Illustrated, Patagonia and Arc’teryx), but his well of knowledge is deep. His Reddit Photo Class is an extensive source of photo geekery, and in our time together he shared both experiences and a few tricks of his trade.

Q. So you’re heading out to the North Pole next week, is that right?
A. Yes, that’s right, on Thursday.

Q. Wow, that’s awesome. How long you going to be out there?
A. Six or seven days skiing on the ice, and then the whole trip is a bit over two weeks.

Q. Wow, that’s going to be great. And your knee is back? I was reading that you severed an ACL.
A. Yeah, that was over a year ago now, so I’ve had a complicated rehab and now it’s all good. I’ve been skiing pretty hard over the last couple of months with no problem, so, just a bad memory.

Q. Good. Well, tell me a bit about your history. You were finishing up your PhD and then as soon as you turned in your final thesis you decided to be a professional photographer. What led to that decision?
A. Well, so I did science, I did mathematics for almost 10 years at university. And the last four or five years of the PhD I was very lucky to work with wonderful people, but I did not like the feeling. I did not enjoy doing science. I stopped caring about science. And it became really clear that this was not something I wanted to do for my whole life. So I had to find something else to pay the bills, pretty much. And throughout the PhD I had gotten more and more into photography and climbing and into mountains. So it was a bit natural to try and do that for a living and see whether it would work out. I thought that I would try it for 6 months or a year and realize there was no way to make it work and try to do something else, though I had no idea what that something else would be. But I wanted to give it a good go. And much to my surprise it actually worked out really well.

Throughout the PhD I had gotten more and more into photography and climbing and into mountains. So it was a bit natural to try and do that for a living.

Q. You started climbing during the PhD. So, by the time you made this jump you were only what, three or four years —
A. No, a bit more than that. I was, I’d say, at the beginning of my climbing career in 2006. That would be the starting point, but then once you get the bug, once you get the virus — that’s pretty much the only thing you can think of and where I directed my whole attention. Well, that and photography.

Q. So your interest in photography started at the time, too?
A. It started more or less at the same time and I had decided that I would like photography even though I hadn’t actually ever done it. I convinced my parents for my 20th birthday — which was 10 years ago now — in 2005 to give me a DSLR as a gift. And from then on it was just nonstop photography. Same as the climbing, really. And it’s funny because the two I started more or less at the same time and they kind of fed each other. The photography pushed the climbing, because I really wanted to shoot the climbing and vice versa. And going to new places with the climbing really pushed me to get my photography to the next level.

Q. Interesting. By the way — it seems like you have a really positive presence on Reddit.
A. Yeah, I’ve been there for ages. Sometimes a bit too much, I guess.

Mathis Dumas climbs steep ice deep inside Mer de Glace, Chamonix, France.
A paraglider in the sky of Val di Fassa, Trentino.
El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina.
Sunset on the Sierra foothills, near Bakersfield, California.

Q. It’s a giant rabbit hole — you just keep sinking deeper into it. Anyway, you mention on Reddit your inspirations — you have Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, who are known for their landscape photography, but you also have Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eddie Adams, who are more documentarians and street photographers. I’m curious how those play into your inspiration for photography?
A. Well actually, street photography is not really my thing, but photojournalism is huge to me. And it’s really interesting because I started purely from the landscape, and then I moved into the action and the adventure. And the more I did that, the more I realized that the interesting images are not so much the key action with beautiful landscapes. Even though it looks that great, it really is the human emotions that you can share with a viewer, the faces through the actions of all the climbers and all the people I’m following. And this very editorial approach definitely comes from photojournalism and it’s something that I really try to cultivate as much as possible. A skier doing a backflip is usually a great image, but it doesn’t really create any lasting emotion the way the best photojournalistic images can. So that’s definitely something I’m trying to bring into adventure photography in my small way.

Q. Much of the reason why people like Ansel Adams were taking the photos they were taking was for the sake of conservation efforts. They saw the vastness of America and they wanted to create a really compelling argument for keeping it around. Do you see a similar purpose with your own work?
A. I think indirectly, sure, and conservation is obviously a huge issue in France, as it in the US. And just going to the North Pole with global warming, and every year that the ice gets thinner and it gets more and more difficult to go to the North Pole on skis. So I definitely see the impact, and even though I would, I guess, I would like to help in a significant way, it’s not something I have tried actively to do — probably not enough. I guess I just haven’t found the right way, yet, to contribute to that, but definitely by trying to capture images that showcase how majestic and how beautiful the wild environments are, I hope that I’m helping a bit to push the dialogue in the right direction. In a very, very small way obviously, but every single person that is moved by a beautiful mountain image will probably want to protect mountains more from open-top mining or whatever the issue in that particular region is.

Q. The trip that you’re taking to the North Pole is something that, quite literally, may not be able to be repeated in 15 or 20 years. So this documentation might be some of the last images we’re able to capture like this. Which is kind of frightening.
A. Absolutely, yeah, and if I bring you back some of the images of the ice melting in places, and at times when it used to not be melting — if that can make people realize that climate change is really happening and that the arctic is really melting — quite literally melting — then it will have helped.

Yeah, and there’s been a few more, and then every time I go alpine climbing I’m scared. Anybody who’s not is, I don’t know, stupid or a liar.

Q. Have you ever been scared out on a shoot?
A. Oh yeah. I’m trying to think of a shoot where I haven’t been scared. Yeah, because, of the types of sports I’m shooting, they all have their own amount of risk, usually. Even sometimes it’s small risk, and you will maybe break a leg, and pretty often it’s, if you mess it up really, you’re going to die. But I’ve had a few close calls on shoots; I did my ACL, that was on a photo shoot — I was caught in an avalanche that the rider I was shooting triggered, so it was a small one, but still, avalanches are not fun. Yeah, and there’s been a few more, and then every time I go alpine climbing I’m scared. Anybody who’s not is, I don’t know, stupid or a liar.

Q. So, a successful trip for an alpine climber is to get to the top of the mountain, right? But a successful trip for an alpine photographer is, well — I’m assuming you have different goals?
A. For me a successful trip is one where I will have documented what it was really like to be there, whether the summit happens or not. And if I manage to get images that show the struggle — it’s pretty much always that you start struggling, and then at the end of the day you’re overcoming. And that’s the kind of story I’m always trying to tell. So if I manage to show the struggle and the challenges, and then the way that the people in the expedition or the trip manage to overcome it, that’s definitely something I aspire to. That will make that trip successful even if no summit was achieved. Even though, personally, as a climber myself, I have this double role, and sometimes I have to balance one over the other. As a climber, I love getting to the summit as well.

Q. What are some tricks you have?
A. Carrying the camera in the mountains is usually one of the biggest challenges. And the biggest piece of advice I can give people is to not put their camera in their backpack. Because that means they won’t have it available when they need to and when the interesting things happen. So they have to find ways to carry the camera outside where it’s really easy to access — and the way I do that, I have two different systems. One of them is the Think Tank Belt System — it’s called a Skin. That’s the light one, but anyway it’s like individual pouches that you put on a belt. And this balances really well even with a backpack and climbing harness. And it protects the camera a bit from rain and snow, but it does not protect it from falls. And the other system I use is a Peak Design Capture Camera Clip. And it’s basically a clamp system that you put on your harness, on your backpack strap, and it’s very lightweight and it allows you to just carry the camera really easily. It’s a quick-release system. You just take it out very quickly. It offers no protection whatsoever; it’s just an efficient way of carrying. And that would be my one trick, is keep the camera out, really accessible.

Q. That’s a good rule of thumb to stick by.
A. Absolutely.

A large-scale photograph by Alex Buisse will be on sale at Captured 52 from June 6 to June 12.