Jason Hummel is a widely published professional outdoor adventure photographer whose clients include Patagonia, Eddie Bauer – First Ascent, Outdoor Research, Sierra Trading Post, and numerous outdoor magazines such as Backcountry, Sierra, and Ski Journal.
From 2001 to 2009 Jason Hummel worked in the financial services industry as a financial advisor, but after being laid off in 2009 as a result of the economic recession, Jason decided to make use of some of his savings and turn his passion for photography and the great outdoors into a sustainable career.
While many dream of leaving the security of their 9-5 job and living the life of an adventurer, few are able to muster the courage that it takes. Jason Hummel sits down with www.LetsBeWild.com and shares his thoughts on photography and how taking the reins of his own future has allowed him to live a more fulfilling life.
Let’sBeWild: Tell us a bit about your youth and what it was like to grow up in the small town of Morton, Washington, surrounded by nature and only a stone’s throw away from Mt. Rainier National Park and Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Are there any experiences during your childhood that really cemented your passion for the outdoors?
Absolutely – every adventure I had in the mountains left an impression on me. While other kids were off being teenagers, I was in the mountains expending that same energy where the only reward was whatever you determined it to be. There were no medals, no first place and no cheering crowd. Questions as to why you push yourself were personal. In those earliest outings the answer was that I merely wanted to keep up with my two brothers and parents. While, later on, the driving forces that would pull me into the mountains would merge and develop continuously as I aged. But among them all, there has always been one constant driving force and that is friendships. You build relationships with the mountains and with those you bring into the mountains. There is no TV, cell phones, internet and other distractors. It’s just you and those you are with. That is rare these days – that undivided attention.
Let’sBeWild: From 2001-2009 you worked as a financial advisor in the banking industry. During those years, how did you manage to juggle a demanding, full-time job with undertaking a dizzying number of mountain adventures on the weekends?
It wasn’t easy. At the time my competitive nature kept me pushing harder and harder even when I wanted to stop and ask myself, “Why?” It really didn’t keep with what I wanted to do with my life. The mountains are amazing, but they aren’t everything. For a long time I was ready to give them up at least when it came to steep ski descents. They were risky. Then something happened, I found my confidence. It took a long time. It took trusting myself.
I remember going to work after a crazy adventure, bubbling with energy. I wanted to tell everyone what an amazing weekend I had just survived. Really, in many cases, I was lucky to have done that – to just survive. Crazy, I know. Youth isn’t wise and I really wasn’t. Nevertheless, at some point, I burned out. Learning to reignite that flame wasn’t easy.
Overall, a large part of my discontent didn’t come from the mountains, but from what I was missing. There wasn’t balance. I had never really gone to a party or even drank alcohol. What social life I had revolved around the mountains and family. I needed more than that.
This is when photography and telling stories came into play. I was revived.
Let’sBeWild: For the past three years you have been working as a professional photographer. Can you set the stage a bit and tell us what originally led to your interest in photography several years ago?
Of course. In late 2003 my best friend Ben Manfredi passed away in a kayaking accident. For many years he would take images of our youthful adventures and put them on his website he had originally built in the late 90’s as a school project. It was called CascadeClassics.org.
After Ben passed away, I wanted to keep telling those stories and I began doing so with his camera, a Nikon FM3a. At the time, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing and it showed. My images were terrible, but I didn’t know the difference. I was thrilled with the challenge. Not only were the mountains there to test me, but so too was this new passion of mine – photography. It was awesome!
Let’sBeWild: After being laid off in 2009 during the economic meltdown, was photography something that immediately stood out as the logical next step for you? Was it easy for you to transition from the structure and order of the financial world to working for yourself, taking your photography from a passion to a profession?
No, this was far from easy. And neither was it a matter of being the next logical step. When I had left my job, I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew that wherever I was going to go, it was going to be as far away from finance as I could get. At that stage in my life I was ready to escape, to just get in my car and go. In a sense, I just did what I wanted to do. That was to climb, ski, bike, hike and anything else outdoors. And wherever i went, so too went my camera.
It was by chance that photography began to pay off. At first it wasn’t me writing magazines and companies, but them writing me. It was organic. Eventually I realized, “Hey, I may be able to do what I want AND make a living at it.” Since then I’ve invested a great deal of my life savings and this year will likely be the first year I break even.
Let’sBeWild: Had you not been laid off when the recession hit, do you think you would have eventually left the financial services industry on your own? Do you wish now that you had skipped the finance degree and career and simply made a career in the mountains from the start, or was your financial career valuable in certain ways?
What I learned in the financial world was key to my success now. Without it I would be lost. It taught me how to be professional, how to be comfortable in high stress social situations, how to organize people, develop proposals and to basically have some business savvy. As most know, it isn’t the best photographer that always succeeds, but the better salesman. While I’m no Wily Loman (from Aurther Miller’s famous play ‘Death of a Salesman’), I certainly wouldn’t have the skills I have now without first being a financial advisor.
That being said, I am not a natural salesman. I disdain it. But I am better off than I would’ve been. While I never wanted to work in finance, I really didn’t see another path. Honestly, I was conservative. I wasn’t willing to take the risk.
When I lost my job as a financial advisor, it made the choice for me. There was no more risk. I was just going to do what I wanted to do and to hell with it if I wasn’t good enough yet. I would get better…and better. It was just another mountain to climb. Simply put one foot in front of the other.
Let’sBeWild: You describe what you do as “self-propelled photography”. Can you tell us what this means to you and how it affects your work?
For me it means that most of my imagery is taken as a participant, not as an outsider looking in. An example would be a photographer hanging out of a helicopter taking images of a skier. In my case, I am skiing the lines with the skier. I am biking the rides with the biker. No matter the sport, I am there in the mix with my camera in hand. It requires a lot of effort, since I am usually carrying an extra 15-20 pounds of gear on top of everything else. Sometimes my pack weighs in excess of 80 pounds.
Let’sBeWild: There is a certain element of danger involved in ski-mountaineering and adventure photography. Does the danger appeal to you, or is it simply a necessary part of following your passion? Have you had many close-calls in the mountains?
For many years I’ve had battles with the risks involved. Moreover, I’ve had to come to terms with the close calls I’ve had. As I get older, I get wiser. Having spent so many years in the mountains, I learn to listen to my gut and to put my pride away. If you don’t then you will get in trouble. The mountains aren’t forgiving. They have no compassion. They will eat you up if you don’t respect them. But, like anything else, there are different levels. Imagine the difference between a race car driver and a everyday average commuter. You don’t have to have the needle pegged to have fun in the mountains. I push myself a handful of times a year and I am one hundred percent aware, so much so that I often joke that the death of me will come crossing the street. It would happen because I wasn’t paying attention.
Let’sBeWild: While you have ventured to places like Canada and Peru in recent years, many of your adventures have taken place in Washington. Do you feel the other mountain ranges around the world calling to you, or will the Northwest always be your favorite place to explore?
My limit in recent years has been finances. Every hidden corner in the world beckons me, but without the funds to go there, I can only dream of traveling the greater ranges, deserts, jungles, rivers and oceans of the world. Everyday I dream of getting away, but like anyone, I am limited by what I can do. Each year that goes by, I get closer to being able to get farther and farther away from my home. While sacrifices could be made, I find that the Northwest is a spectacular place. It has everything. As much as I hate making statements that say I live in the best place in the world. There really is something to it. The Northwest is spectacularly diverse. There really are just a few places in the world that have the kind of diversity that we take for granted. So, yes, I think that this will always be my favorite place to explore. It will always be home.
Let’sBeWild: In February of 2010, you and Forest McBrian made an epic ski-traverse of the Picket Range in the North Cascades National Park, which had only been accomplished once before in 1985 by Jens Kieler and the Skoog brothers. What motivated you to head out on such an ambitious trip? Where is your next big adventure going to take you?
There are many projects that are always on my list. Some remain there for years. Some I get lucky and complete right away. Over the years I’ve pioneered dozens of descents and traverses. In the case of the Picket Traverse, it was just another ‘check’ on that must-do list. The weather window opened and Forest was looking for a partner. There is only a short list of people that are familiar with the Pickets. With him being a mountain guide and my being a long-time ski mountaineer, we were perfectly matched for this adventure. In the end we would make the first winter traverse of the Picket Range. It was an amazing experience.
As to where my next adventure will take me. I’m not sure. I’m always open to suggestions and most of my biggest adventures happen at the drop of a hat. This is do to the whimsical nature of weather in the Northwest. I’m hoping to get outside of Washington and go on a road trip through the continental US this summer. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to pull that off.
Let’sBeWild: Now that adventure photography is a career for you, do you find that you still have as much time for adventure as you would like, or does the business side of things consume a lot of your time and prevent you from disappearing in the mountains for long periods?
I would say that there is a 50/50 split between adventuring and business. If I am out for a week, I need to be home for a week. If I do too much photography, I risk not being able to sell any of it. When I’m home, I keep tabs on companies, magazines and other clients. I educate myself. I edit images and write stories. All of these factors are important. If I didn’t edit images, I wouldn’t understand what I need to improve. If I didn’t know what I needed to improve, I wouldn’t know what I needed to learn. If I didn’t sell, then I would be working for someone else who does.
Let’sBeWild: Do you have a favorite photo that you’ve taken?
For some, I’m sure that is an easy question. For me, I’ll have to be honest. I am rarely happy with my imagery. I am always constantly wondering how I can do better. If I am pleased it is only for a short time. My vision continuously changes. My ideas of what is good changes. How I edit and develop my images changes. Nothing remains the same. What I can say is this – what I love most in an image is a person in a mountain environment. The scene means more to me because that person is there. It draws me in and I ask, “Why are they there? “How did they get there?” “Where are they going?”