Interview with Alex Buisse

Alex Buisse is a natural adventurer and succeeded in turning both of his passions for photography and adventure into work. His expedition photography has led him around the world, from sailing around Cape Horn, climbing K2, skiing the North Pole and much more. His adventurous heart has landed him as an ambassador for Nikon France, Peak Design, Moken Vision and Datacolor. He recently added humanitarian photographer to his title as he covers topics on development projects, Rio Olympics and other issues close to his heart.

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Mathis Dumas climbs steep ice deep inside Mer de Glace, Chamonix, France. Copyright Alex Buisse

Hi Alex! It’s been tough nailing down a date with you! What has been keeping you so busy?

Right now the biggest thing is moving across France and being a new dad! In terms of work, I took a few months off when my daughter was born and by February things really started to kick in. I spent one week snow towing for Patagonia which is the sort of project I’m used to. I’ve now diversified what I do and after that trip for Patagonia, I went all across the Middle East. I was in Turkey, Jordan, and Morocco for 10 days shooting development projects for the Islamic Development Bank. It’s a new direction for my career and something I’m really interested in.

Can you tell me a bit about your history and how you got here? You had a Ph.D. in Science and now you’re a photographer. Huge difference!

That’s right! I studied Theoretical Computer Science, which is basically abstract math and I did my Masters in Sweden and France. For my Ph.D. I went to Denmark and after four years I realized I didn’t like it. When I sent in my dissertation, I flew to France the next day and started my photo business.

It’s something I had been pondering for a long time and I thought I would give photography a go because I had discovered photography, I discovered climbing and the outdoors and I loved the combination of the two. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make a living from it, but I thought I really wanted to give it a good try for six months or a year and it has actually worked out so I’m still doing it.

Establish yourself as someone with a skill that other people don’t have.

Copyright Alex Buisse

How did you decide on adventure photography and how does one go about getting into it?

I was very passionate about adventure photography and adventure in general. I was a climber before I was a photographer. Alpine climbing really is my first love and I would be doing it regardless of whether I am an adventure photographer or not. I moved to Chamonix which is the capital of mountain and extreme sports. That was my primary interest for a couple of years.

I also think it’s important to establish yourself as someone with a skill that other people don’t have. For me, that was the ability to go alpine climbing, paragliding and skiing, which is pretty hardcore stuff while still taking pictures. So I started out very specialized. After I established myself, I had projects outside of my usual projects coming my way and I found that extremely interesting. Through that, I started documentary and portrait photography and now, through my wife, humanitarian photography. I was able to branch out.

If you want to be an adventure photographer you have to be an adventurer

Cross-country flying, doing the classic Tour du Lac in Annecy, France, with Tristan Shu. Copyright Alex Buisse

You’ve skied the North Pole, sailed around Cape Horn, kayaked in the Galapagos Islands, trekked through the wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, you climbed big mountains and you’ve flown from their summits. Does it help to be an adventurer yourself to land these big jobs?

Absolutely. You have to be able to keep up with the people you’re photographing, which is one of the big challenges.

You have to be able to access the places you’re shooting while not endangering yourself. And all that while not slowing people down or interfering with whatever is happening. If you want to be an adventure photographer you have to be an adventurer. You need to enjoy being in the mountains, regardless of whether you’re being paid for it or not. You don’t have to be a world class athlete to shoot world-class athletes, but you need to hold your own and have a good idea of what you’re doing.

Does that mean producers, art buyers, and companies trust you more because you’re able to keep up?

It depends on the buyers and then the producers. Some of them would trust me a bit more than others, for sure. But I think it’s down to personal relationships and trust having been established and maintained over time. It’s not specifically about me being an adventurer. I have had some advertising projects that would be really specifically tied to adventure and in some cases, because it’s so outside of the realm of what an art buyer in an office in Paris and New York knows and understands. It’s up to me to tell them what shooting in a mountain involves. Sometimes they can take helicopters and are able to be on set.

Dave MacLeod on his redpoint of the crux 8a pitch on “Paciencia”, a long and steep pitch in extremely exposed surroundings on the Rote Fluh. Eiger Nordwand, Grindelwald, Switzerland. Copyright Alex Buisse

The outdoor industry is growing massively from year to year and a movie about climbing just won an Oscar. Have you found one of the rare spots in professional photography that is not dying? What has that done to your business?

Climbing is becoming more popular and it’s going to be a sport in the 2020 Olympics. It’s becoming more democratized but that doesn’t mean it can support more people living from climbing photography. The industry is growing, at the same time, marketing budgets are shrinking. Companies are asking more and more to shoot on a shoestring budget. I think it may be a consequence of more people being on the market.

The outdoor industry in terms of how it uses images tends to be quite repetitive.

Is this reason for introducing humanitarian photography into your work?

That’s one of the reasons, for sure. The main reason is that I’m really interested in it. I think it’s very important to diversify and not relying too much on a specific client or a specific industry.

It’s what helps you do photography long term and not just for a few years. I’ve had examples of people whose whole year was dependent on them getting that one massive job that would pay for their expenses for the entire year. But then the marketing person or the photo editor in charge of that would change jobs or quit and then all of a sudden, they would be out of that job and that would be very hard to recover from.

So, I think diversification is extremely important. The outdoor industry in terms of how it uses images tends to be quite repetitive. I see the same shot taken every year and I’m part of the people shooting them. It’s important to get out of the little community and refresh my eyes and find different ways of approaching subjects. Perhaps by bringing more of a portrait approach to climbing. These are all extremely important things.

A group of local villagers helps Brant Didden and other members of a K2 expedition to cross a flooding river near Skardu, Pakistan. Copyright Alex Buisse

So, how would you say you’re dividing up your work these days between the different types of photography?

It’s kind of fun because it’s constantly shifting. Every year is different. I’d say half is still adventure or adventure related. The rest is humanitarian, portrait, development and documentary work. It has balanced itself out a bit in the past year.

It is important for me to be able to say I’m an award-winning photographer.

You have entered and won a lot of awards. Is that part of your own brand strategy to enter awards, do you do it for prize money or just for fun to compete with other colleagues?

No, it’s definitely not for fun. It’s a lot of work and a bit of money. Depending on which ones I enter. It’s important that I can show that my work is getting judged and reviewed on a regular basis. Purely by a marketing standpoint, it’s important for me to be able to say I’m an award-winning photographer. Sometimes that’s a line that works really well with potential clients.

Francis Kelsey on a very wintery SE ridge of Tour Ronde, Chamonix. Copyright Alex Buisse

How do you keep your equipment running in all these bad, wet, windy, freezing conditions that you’re working in so often?

Most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras will be just fine in any kind of condition. Cheaper consumer models might have a little bit more trouble. But if you have a professional level DSLR there’s really not a lot you can do that will make it not work. No matter if it’s snow or wind. The only thing I’m careful about is salt water and dumping my camera into actual water. When I was at the North Pole and spent a week in minus 40 degrees or when I was in K2 Mountain at almost 7000 meters high, my equipment worked almost normally and that’s their advantage.

The bigger problem is keeping myself in working order and managing to get where I’m shooting and to be comfortable enough that I can focus mentally on shooting and creating images rather than just performing and staying safe.

Let’s say if I’m on a paragliding shoot. Just managing to get the right angle, while flying usually with another pilot, is extremely challenging. In addition to that, I need to always keep safety in mind. And on top of that, I need to actually take images and kind of think about composition and lighting and all those things. So, it’s kind of managing to be comfortable enough in the environment and with the activity that I can actually dedicate a lot of my mental space to shooting.

I see so many people with marketing ploys and trying to take advantage of up and coming photographers

You are offering free one-on-one mentorships including portfolio reviews on your website. And for you, it is important to emphasize that you don’t want any money or anything else for it. What motivates you to do this?

It’s because the people that this is geared towards don’t necessarily have that much money at this stage in their career. I’m not trying to provide a full-on service that will require a lot of hours from me. It’s one or two hours a week I spend doing that. It’s paying forward the help that I’ve received in exchange for a coffee or something from other photographers when I was starting out.

I see so many people with marketing ploys and trying to take advantage of up and coming photographers or trying to sell e-books and that sort of stuff. It all leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth so I’m just trying to be a good guy in the photo community, hoping that the people who receive my help will also be good people in the community and that we can improve the community this way. It’s a very small drop, obviously, in a big bucket.

Émilie Andeol (France) celebrates her unexpected gold medal during the heavyweight women judo competition. Copyright Alex Buisse

Are there any humanitarian topics that you’re eager to cover?

The refugee crisis is something that’s very close to my interests. But I also really want to do stories that focus on the positive aspects of it. The reason I was in that particular refugee camp is that with my wife and I’ve been working on documenting the Refugee Olympic team that was competing in Rio for the first time. The reason I love this subject so much is that it’s a very positive story about refugees and it’s a counter-narrative about poor people and those crossing the Mediterranean, crossing the sea and dying and being destitute.

I love my development work that I’m doing for the Islamic Development Bank because it dynamically improves communities and they’re really good positive stories.

I’m kind of re-evaluating what is an acceptable level of risk, but I definitely want to keep going and shoot adventure.

Is that why you completed the Conflict Photography Workshop? Do you have any interest in photographing in such hostile environments?

I don’t want to photograph conflicts directly because I think the costs that people pay for doing that kind of work is way too high. It’s way more than I’m willing to pay in terms of trauma and PTSD. The reason I took the workshop is that I’m starting to travel through my humanitarian work to places that are quite unstable, and I want to be able to know how to behave if something happens. For example, if I go to a refugee camp at the border between Kenya and Somalia, for instance, there are kidnappings happening, there is al-Shabaab activity and there are improvised explosive devices. You do have security with you trying to mitigate those risks, but it is still present and I want to be able to know how to react. I want to have all the basic skills before going into the field so I don’t regret not having them if something happens.

Cross-country flying, doing the classic Tour du Lac in Annecy, France, with Tristan Shu and Michaël Régnier of ITV Parapentes. Copyright Alex Buisse

Now that you’re a father are you going to keep being able to cover these risky adventures?

I think so. I’ve been dialing it back a notch or two in terms of risk-taking. That’s a process I’ve been going through the past few years, way before I became a father. I’m kind of re-evaluating what is an acceptable level of risk, but I definitely want to keep going and shoot adventure. Regardless of whether I shoot it professionally or not, I will keep going to the mountains because I love it so much and it’s a big part of who I am. I hope that people will keep paying me for it. But even if they don’t, I’ll keep doing it.

Your projects seem to take a lot more time than let’s say the average photographer who does shooting for a day and then post-processing for a few days. How do you manage this workflow and your family while having to be away for weeks at a time on an assignment?

I’m definitely not doing big expeditions anymore. I used to go on four, six, eight-week-long expeditions to Pakistan or Nepal. Recently sailing across the North Sea to Norway from Scotland, that sort of thing. I’m really trying to stay away from longer projects, and I think one week to ten days is probably the maximum of what I’m willing to spend away from home now. In terms of balancing time, it’s pretty long days and I’m a little bit less responsive than I usually am as you have noticed trying to reach me.

My daughter is still very young, and my wife hasn’t come back from maternity leave yet.
So, I think there’s going to be an adjustment period but it’s also the same for many, many, many parents worldwide if you work. They managed to do it so the fact that I’m a photographer shouldn’t make that much of a difference.

What has been your wildest photo shoot up to now?

I’ve done some pretty crazy stuff like K2 and the North Pole. One shoot that really stands out in my mind is one I did for a German clothing company and all in the same day we did ski towing, alpine climbing, steep skiing and then we drove and did rock climbing in Italy in the sun and then I managed to catch the last cable car once I was back home and I went paragliding in the evening. All of those sports within the same day, while shooting. That one really stands out.

Copyright Alex Buisse

Wow! What’s the series or photo that you are most proud of?

Whatever I shot last, I guess. I’m very proud of Ocean Peak, the expedition sailing from Scotland to Norway and then shooting in Norway. In some ways it’s a straight adventure mode because it is an adventure expedition but in many ways I brought what I’ve learned from the humanitarian and documentary style of things to try and focus more on the emotions, focused on the people and tell a story with really a personal style and the work that’s all in black and white. I’m sure if you asked me a year from now, I’ll tell you about the latest thing that hopefully I will be proud of.

Anyone we should be watching?

Lots of people have inspired me. But right now I’m going through a Sebastião Salgados phase. I’m really, really loving the dedication he has and the way he prints. It’s just absolutely incredible.

There are some young photojournalists working today who I really admire in the way they approach work. One of them in is Danielle Villasana particularly for one of her projects. She spent many years in Peru working with the transgender community which is very much looked down upon. The humanity, compassion, and empathy that she had for her subjects was… I think it’s one of the best photojournalism stories that I’ve seen in recent years and really reminded me of Mary Ellen Mark. I really look up to her for that.

Copyright Alex Buisse

Any advice for up and coming photographers?

I think if you want to be a professional photographer realizing that being able to take good photos is a very small part of the job and being a good businessperson is way more important. It’s one of the main things that I’m trying to get through especially in the mentorship. When I mentor people, I don’t think I have any specific advice or general advice. Just have fun and shoot what you’re passionate about.

I get paid to go skiing, paraglide and climb and that’s absolutely wonderful.

The highs and the lows so far?

The nature of being a freelance creative person means that there are highs and lows all the time. Then there are times where I have back to back great photo shoots, dream photo shoots and then for six months, I don’t have a single job. That can be difficult to deal with. I think one of the lows is that the nature of adventure photography and being in this community. Some of the people that I shoot with end up dying pretty frequently. It happened just a week or two ago in Nanga Parbat with a guy called Tom Ballard who ended up dying on the expedition. It’s happened to me quite a few times that people I have just shot with or was about to shoot with die. That’s always very difficult to deal with.

The high is I get to have the best office in the world. I get paid to go skiing, paraglide and climb and that’s absolutely wonderful.

Thanks for making the time to speak with us!

My pleasure.