I first met Jody MacDonald a couple of decades ago while we were both working at MEC in Vancouver. After a couple of years there, she flew away from the city and wandered off into the great wide world, following her passion for adventure and travel.
She emerged from that rambling experience as one of the best photographers on the planet, producing mind-blowing work featuring wildlife, action sports, culture and conservation subjects. Working for organizations like National Geographic, Red Bull, and Sea Legacy, her unique eye and style continues to influence and progress what is possible in the realm of outdoor photography.
I re-connected with Jody a couple of years ago at a TEDx event we were both speaking at, and had the privilege of chatting with her recently about her life and work.
When did you first know you wanted to live a life of adventure? Was there a specific "Aha" moment?
I think I’ve always had a love for adventure. I moved to Saudi Arabia when I was two years old and left when I was 16. One of the perks of my dad’s job was that the company he worked for paid for our family vacations! My parents had never travelled in their lives, so when they had this opportunity they took advantage of it. So, every school vacation or holiday we went somewhere. As a result, I saw a big part of the world by the time I moved back to Canada. I think it was the combination of growing up in Saudi and the exposure to foreign lands at such a young age that really gave me the travel/adventure bug. It inspired me to want to become Indiana Jones and that feeling has never left me.
How did you get into adventure photography, and how did you turn it into a career?
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in art and sports. In university I ended up majoring in Outdoor Recreation, took a photography class as an elective and fell in love with it as a creative medium. I started taking a camera with me on my adventures and it became a perfect marriage of my passions of art, adventure and travel. After university, I had various jobs of guiding in the mountains in Canada and Alaska. I took a photo editor job for M.E.C until I couldn’t take office life anymore. I did odd jobs after that until I began sailing around the world. Unexpectedly, I ended up living at sea for a decade. For me, it was the perfect opportunity to get behind the camera and really try to improve my photography skills and see where it would lead. Not only were we travelling to amazing, remote locations but we also had a lot of professional athletes onboard. I took advantage of it and started photographing them and the adventure sports we were doing (kiteboarding, surfing, paragliding) as well as the remote travel destinations and ocean landscape. Over those years I slowly started to get more and more of my work published and I would say that has continued to progress to where I am today.
What does a typical week in your life look like?
I definitely do not have a typical week! As a freelance photographer my life has pretty much no routine to it. Sometimes I’m traveling for a few months at a time and then I could be home a day, week or month and be gone again. I travel anywhere from six to nine months out of the year. I would say when I’m at home I work a lot in my office editing photos and trying to manage the business side of my business and when I’m on assignment I’m usually taking photographs all day.
You sailed around the world for 10 years surfing, kiteboarding, paragliding and photographing remote locations. It sounds like an amazing lifestyle most people only dream of. How did this experience shape you as a person?
Wow, that’s a hard question to answer. I think looking back, it shaped me in many ways. First of all, I was seasick for almost a decade so I would say first and foremost it taught me that I was capable of so much more than I ever knew. Enduring sickness for years (out of choice) made me realize that I might be crazy but that I’m also tougher than I thought.
I definitely learned the value of living simply. Having your days dictated by the sun rising and setting and various weather conditions while having few possessions and little access to internet or contact to the outside world is such a special gift these days and I valued it immensely. It forced me to slow down, be more present and really engage with the world around me. It was incredibly fulfilling on many levels.
The other really important thing it taught me was that pretty much anything is possible if you are persistent and are forced to figure things out. We specialized in remote locations around the world, so we would often be in the middle of nowhere and have some major catastrophe like the engines or generator breaking down, de-masting or running aground on a reef... you name it, it happened. It constantly happened and we could never just go to the store or order parts, we were always forced to be creative, resourceful and persistent. Somehow we just always figured it out, no matter how impossible it felt at the time. That lesson has really stuck with me since then and I try to apply that mentality to my everyday life when I’m faced with hardships.
Your adventures and photography take you to locales all over the planet. Of all these spots, do you have a favourite? If so, why?
I would say my favorite so far is West Papua which is the western half of Papua New Guinea and is actually part of Indonesia. I love Indonesian culture, language and diverse geography, but to me, West Papua is extra special. Not many people can access it without a boat and it is ground zero for biodiversity in the oceans. The islands in West Papua are incredibly beautiful and relatively untouched and there is just so many interesting places to explore with an incredibly interesting culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still tribes in the jungles there that have never seen white people. Every time I’m there, I’m blown away by how amazing it is.
A big part of your job is connecting with local people living off the beaten path. Are there any people, or is there a person, from these remote communities who left a lasting impression on you? Who were they and why were they so special?
Yes, I definitely meet a lot of local people and they are usually really amazing. They teach me so much. I did a project a couple of years ago with the Bajau Sea Gypsies in Borneo and lived with them for a few weeks. They are some of the last remaining sea nomads who have lived at sea for centuries navigating the expanse of ocean between the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. They’re born at sea and live at sea. They are a stateless, nomadic people who live on boats or in stilted homes above the water. They move around based on food and resources and have extraordinary biological adaptations of being able to see underwater and have developed larger spleens, similar to those found in marine mammals, that help them dive at greater depths. Their gear is all handmade, even the goggles and swim fins, and they can hold their breath free-driving for up to five minutes at a time. The relationship they have with the ocean is so profound that they not only rely on it for survival but have become part of it. They are incredibly fascinating on many levels. I love to see people living so simply and who also seem so content and happy.
When I come back to North America, the mentality is that there is never enough. Whether it’s money, clothes, houses or cars. Whatever it is, not many people seem content. The Bajau don’t have material wealth and yet we found ourselves laughing and helping one another as much as possible. There really didn’t seem to be much stress or concern other than what we were going to eat. That obvious can be incredibly stressful but we would just go out fishing everyday and would have more than enough. Being around people like that is a great reminder that you really don’t need much for survival or happiness. It was a very powerful and humbling experience for me. Unfortunately, with rising sea levels, dwindling fish stocks and increasing displacement, they are on the front lines of the impacts of climate change and it is sad to see their traditional ways and identities under threat.
You're involved with an organization called Sea Legacy. What does Sea Legacy do?
Sea Legacy is a non profit with the mission to create healthy and abundant oceans. They aim to do that by producing powerful media and art that gives people hope. I am part of what they call The Collective, which is a group of some of the most experienced and renowned photographers, filmmakers and storytellers working on behalf of the oceans. Together, The Collective bring decades of experience and a diverse set of skills for documenting marine ecosystems and life at the water’s edge. We are committed to lending our influence and sharing our work to amplify Sea Legacy’s mission and engage one billion people in ocean conservation.
What's do you like most about being a professional photographer? What do you like least?
I love the creativity, adventure and unpredictability of my job. I love unknowns and being able to problem solve in a moments notice. I love exploring remote locations and learning about unique cultures in pursuit of documenting stories that blend adventure, culture and the preservation of wild places. It’s very challenging and rewarding for me. The part of the job I dislike is the office work and the self promotion side of it.
Do you have a nugget of advice for someone wanting to make a career of adventure photography?
I would say if you want to make a career of being an adventure photographer, you have to be so passionate about it that you cannot not do it. It’s a really hard industry to break into and make money from, so you need to want it so badly that all the setbacks won’t stop you from pursuing it.
The key to making a name for yourself is producing good, unique work and being persistent. Find adventure sports that you are passionate about and work hard to improve your craft while photographing those specific sports. You need to be proactive. You need to shoot as much as possible to not only improve your skill but so that you eventually create a style within your work. There are so many photographers now, so you need to stand out. Having your own style will help considerably. Photographing unique stories or events or photograph something seen before in a way that hasn’t been seen before will also make your work stand out. Don’t copy everyone else. Photograph things that are important to you, that you connect with or you find fascinating or interesting. Work in areas you feel passionate about and try to bring awareness to them in your own way and your own voice. Then don’t stop. Persistence is key.
Jody's social media links:
TED talk: youtube.com/watch?v=Loce0SVmdIw
Sea Legacy: sealegacy.org