Explore. Dream. Discover.

How traveling the world totally changed my life.

By Steve DeNeef

‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.’
~Mark Twain

Explore. Dream. Discover.

To those of us looking for a chance to pursue our passion, explore the world, and live a rewarding life, look no further than Mark Twain’s call to action for your inspiration.

I know the feeling. On January 31, 2004, I left the safety and comfort of a rewarding career with an environmental non-profit in the Washington, DC area to catch a one-way flight to Manila to take an assignment at a marine biology lab with the U.S. Peace Corps in the Philippines. I had no idea what the future might hold - maybe I would get sick, go broke, or not be able to handle the challenge of living abroad in a developing country. At the time I had no clue that this decision would lead me to my dream job - to be a travel and adventure photographer,

 having the chance to meet, learn from, and collaborate with some of the most incredible people and stories in the world. I'm not trying to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing when I made the decision to ‘cast off the bowlines’, but I know I always enjoyed reading about how others took a chance to follow their dream when I was working up the courage to do it myself. My path has been difficult, sometimes dangerous, often uncertain, but as Robert Frost famously observed about the decision to take the road less traveled, ‘that has made all the difference.’ Thanks so much for taking the time to read this far, check out the full story below if you want to learn more about my journey to becoming a full-time photographer and writer, exploring some of the most beautiful places on earth and sharing stories from some of the world’s most interesting people.

Early years

An education in Exploration

'We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm, and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.' ~Jawaharial Nehru

I grew up in a small town in Virginia, about 70 miles west of Washington D.C., but a world away from the concrete, traffic, and stress of the capital. We were surrounded by apple and peach trees, forests of oak and maple trees, the distant horizon tinted by the blue of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The opening day of deer hunting season was a school holiday, and as the leaves turned in the fall, I was out in the woods with my bow, in the spring I took to the rivers and lakes with my fly rod. The connection to the seasonal rhythms of the wildlife, the trees, the weather has been with me since those early days, and it was during those countless hours spent outdoors and exploring the wilds that I was first inspired to pick up a camera to try to capture some of the beauty I was seeing around me. I was very lucky to get a basic SLR camera (film!) for my 16th birthday, and immediately began spending as much spare time (and money) as I had shooting precious rolls of Fujichrome Velvia slide film and getting it developed. I was making about $3.50 an hour as a lifeguard, and I remember I once calculated that every photo I took cost a bit over $0.30 - big money back then! I learned to make the most of every shot, all the while studying the work of photographers that I admired like Galen Rowell, Steve McCurry, David Doubilet, and so many others.

Music and creativity have always been a big part of my life | Photo Q. Gladden

Music and creativity have always been a big part of my life | Photo Q. Gladden

Learning to fly fish the Ausable River in the Adirondack Mountains of New York

Learning to fly fish the Ausable River in the Adirondack Mountains of New York

College Years

An education in Environmentalism

Spending so much time outdoors when I was growing up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley made me very aware of how fragile our natural environments really are. When I graduated high school and moved to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia, I decided to study environmental science. At the time, it was the #1 environmental program in the country and the courses were tough - everything from statistics, to physics, to advanced chemistry, to calculus, to numbers-oriented earth sciences like hydrology, atmosphere and weather, and ecology.

Beyond the classroom

An education in Environmentalism

In my free time after classes, I was able to explore the Shenandoah National Park with my trusty fly rod, stalking wild brook trout with tiny flies that I had learned to tie myself. At the time, these ecosystems were being decimated by acid rain caused by coal-fired power plants in the industrial midwestern cities upwind of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The steady degradation of these habitats that I cared so much about made a permanent impression on me, though I had no idea that these concerns would lead me where I am today.

First trip to Montana | Photo by Preston Schultz

First trip to Montana | Photo by Preston Schultz

Conservation 101


The wild brook trout of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park first made me aware of environmental damage in our rivers and oceans

The colors of a wild Shenandoah brook trout in spring - one of the most beautiful species of trout in the world. Concern about the threatened future of our rivers and oceans led me to a job at Trout Unlimited.

The Search for a Dream Job: Attempt #1

Fly fishing the Dot-Com Boom

When I finished my EnviSci degree at UVA in the late 90's, I entered the best job market in history.

I couldn't find a job.

Magazines were publishing headlines like 'People Thought Previously Un-hireable are Now Entering the Work Force', I began to realize I didn't have any of the skills that these Dot-com companies were looking for. They wanted HTML coders, graphic designers, SQL database managers. My background just didn't match up at all with what they needed. And although it was pretty humbling to get turned down so many times, deep down I realized I wasn't really interested to work in an office with a foosball table that sold pet food on the internet. I knew it was time to give up the dream of paper profits from a Dot-com IPO and go back to my original inspiration - being outdoors and exploring the world.

The Search for a Dream Job... Continued

Fly fishing the Dot-Com Boom

With the help of my great friend Bill Bullock, I landed a job as a fly fishing instructor and guide at the Orvis Fly Fishing School in Manchester, Vermont. I was now spending most of my waking hours in and around the Green Mountain trout streams like the Battenkill and the Mettawee, meeting a lot of interesting people while teaching them to have fun in (and appreciate) the great outdoors. I really couldn't have asked for a better first job out of college, and for that beautiful spring, summer, and fall, I was living my childhood dream. But what was I supposed to do when it got cold? Winter in the Northeast is brutally cold and nobody was up for learning how to fly fish when the rivers were icing over and the landscape was blanketed with snow. I realized that I needed to find an opportunity that would keep me busy year-round and also challenge me to develop skills beyond trout fishing. You don't have to spend much time in a trout stream before you begin to realize that pollution, deforestation, and dam building had the potential to wipe out these environments really quick if they aren't protected. I had heard about an environmental non-profit called Trout Unlimited (TU) while working at Orvis. For the past 50+ years, the organization has had great success in restoring and conserving threatened trout streams across the United States. I wanted to be a part of it.

Fly fishing for wild rainbow trout in Montana | Photo by John Muhler

Fly fishing for wild rainbow trout in Montana | Photo by John Muhler

Trout Unlimited Marketing Director - Dream Job

Trout Unlimited Marketing Director - Dream Job

The Search for a Dream Job: Attempt #2

Learning how to save the planet

'Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.' ~Steve Jobs

At the end of 1999 I was ready to trade in my trout bum days in Vermont, Seattle, and Jackson Hole, WY for the chance to help make a difference in protecting the future of trout and salmon habitat in North America. The more I learned about the work that Trout Unlimited (TU) was doing, the more I was excited about the chance to join their team. With the help of Marketing Director John Bleh (who I met while working at Orvis in Vermont), I joined the Marketing Department at Trout Unlimited and began four years of hands-on learning about everything from fundraising, web development, magazine publication, professional photography, and a lot more. Within three years, I was the Director of the Marketing Department and responsible for a budget of $6 million (approximately half of the total budget for the entire organization). Working with Kenny Mendez, John Griffin, John Bleh, and Bill Sullivan, I learned to love the flexibility variety of projects available at a small non-profit like Trout Unlimited. Since there's always more than enough work to go around, a recent graduate like me had almost complete freedom to work on an amazingly broad range of projects within the organization well beyond my immediate responsibilities within the Marketing Department. In fact, when someone graduating with a liberal arts asks me about where to look for a good first job, I usually recommend checking out the job openings at a non-profit organization that they believe in.

An Unexpected Education in Photography

Learning about the photographer's life from two of my favorite artists

While I was at TU, my favorite extracurricular project was (by far) editing Trout's annual calendar. I never imagined that the pleasant diversion of looking through hundreds of photos every year would teach me so much about the life of a professional photographer. I was very lucky to work with many talented photographers while I was at TU, but Tom Montgomery and Val Atkinson were the most fun to collaborate with. They also taught me more about what it was like to be a professional photographer than I could have learned from any book or website I owe both of them a huge thank you for all their encouragement and advice when I was first trying to figure out just how you go about getting paid to travel the world and take photos. And I have to be honest. Looking at their amazing photos from far-off destinations while sitting under the fluorescent sun of an office building in the DC suburbs can be a pretty powerful motivator to get outside.

Working at TU changed my life

Working at TU changed my life

Seeing myself in this office ID photo made me realize it was time to get out and explore the world before it was too late

Seeing myself in this office ID photo made me realize it was time to get out and explore the world before it was too late

Under an Air-Conditioned Sun

The Realization that I wasn't designed to work indoors

'If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.' ~Anthony Bourdain

Four years into my time at TU, my love of photography and exploring the world was becoming too difficult to ignore. I knew it was only a matter of time before I needed to get out and experience it for myself. Another inspiration for my travel bug were the adventures of my friend Steve in Nepal. He had joined the Peace Corps and started a blog to share his experiences. Since he didn't have regular internet access, I helped him post his stories to his website. Every Monday morning he'd send another hilarious vignette from his life abroad. The downside: after reading one of his updates from the other side of the world, commuting on the DC Metro felt a whole lot less exciting. I'd never considered joining the Peace Corps myself, but after a few weeks of Steve's stories I found myself at www.peacecorps.gov to find out what it was all about. As it turned out, the Virginia recruiting office of the Peace Corps was directly across the street from my office at Trout Unlimited. Maybe it was fate (or random curiosity), but during a lunch break one day I stopped in to ask the recruiters a few questions. I didn't know it at the time, but that decision totally changed my life.

The toughest Job...


In the field with the Silliman Marine Lab scientists in the Peace Corps | Photo by Dr. Hilconida Calumpong

In the field with the Silliman Marine Lab scientists in the Peace Corps | Photo by Dr. Hilconida Calumpong

...You'll Ever Love

Into the Unknown of the Philippines

'My favorite things in life don’t cost any money. It’s really clear that the most precious resource we all have is time. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow know what you truly want to become.' ~Steve Jobs

What exactly do Peace Corps volunteers do? This was the biggest question on my mind as the smiling recruiter walked towards me with his outstretched hand. I was sitting in the reception area of the Peace Corps recruiting office. When I first imagined the Peace Corps, Kennedy's 'ask not what your country can do for you', quote came to mind, along with a few grainy 1960's-era photos of recent college grads digging latrines or planting rows of crops under the blazing African sun. But in the 50+ years since Kennedy created the Peace Corps, but what should a Peace Corps volunteer expect to do in the 21st century? Today, a volunteer is much more likely to be teaching business skills to young entrepreneurs in a bustling Asian city than hoeing fields or building toilets. Of course there's still a few projects where the volunteer is doing the latter, but as the needs of developing countries have changed in the intervening decades, the range of Peace Corps assignments have grown much more diverse (and interesting). Whatever ambiguities might have existed about what I might actually be doing in the Peace Corps, the recruiter knew how to close the deal on the application process. Within a few minutes of arriving at the Arlington recruiting office they had me in a preliminary interview. I walked out an hour later with a folder stuffed full of application materials and a LOT of questions going through my head--most importantly:

  • Am I giving up my 'dream' job?
  • Is this a really dumb idea?
  • What will people think?
  • Where will I go?
  • What will I do for two years?

Falling for the Puppy Dog Trick

'You can always bring it back'

Like any good salesman, the recruiter knew how to handle these objections: he used the old 'puppy dog' trick. You know, when the pet store guy hands you a puppy and says "just take it home for a week and see if you like it--don't worry, you can always bring it back." The Peace Corps version of puppy goes like this: "just apply and see what kind of assignment you get." Certainly makes the 6-12 month application and 27 months of service sound a lot more manageable. So I started the application process that day. Six months later the invitation for my assignment arrived in the mail and I didn't know what to think: The Philippines. At the time I had been to Asia only once (Thailand), and knew only the basics about the country:

  • 300+ years of Spanish colonization
  • MacArthur, WWII, & "I shall return"
  • Beautiful islands
  • Plenty of natural disasters


Now I had to decide if I was going to take the 'puppy' back to the pet store...

Making new friends in El Nido, Palawan

Making new friends in El Nido, Palawan

Philippines scuba diving trip with rare and endangered sea turtles

Experiencing the beauty of a healthy coral reef firsthand as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer changed my life.

Connecting the Dots

Peace Corps Volunteers get to scuba dive?

'The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.' ~Jacques Cousteau

Aside from being selected for the Philippines program, my assignment had another unexpected twist. If I accepted, I would join the Coastal Resource Management program with a focus on Sustainable Island Development. The enclosed brochure mentioned coral reefs, scuba diving, and hands-on marine biology in some of the world's most amazing tropical environments. At that point I saw myself more as a business guy with an environmental background, but it seems my Environmental Science degree and working on salmonid conservation for four years made me a marine biologist in the eyes of the U.S. Government (lucky me). It all sounded great, but I still had a lot of responsibilities at Trout Unlimited. I had also just received a very generous raise and promotion. To make such a huge switch seemed crazy, and plenty of people told me exactly that. In the end, it was some great advice from John Griffin that helped me make the final decision to join the Peace Corps. He pointed out that as good as I thought I was at my job, I was not the only person who could handle it. In the end, TU would be just fine without me. He pointed out that taking a risk and getting outside your comfort zone can be one of the best things someone can do both personally and professionally. In fact, I really saw the Peace Corps as more of a personal development opportunity and a way to get out and help make the world a better place. So one afternoon in November 2003, I called up my recruiter and told him 'I'm in.' Still, it was very difficult to leave Trout. Even nearly ten years later I can still say that I owe a lot of the success I've had today to what I learned from everyone from TU. But looking back on everything that's happened since then I can say that joining the Peace Corps was one of the best decisions I've ever made. It didn't take too long for the magnitude of the decision to fully set in. Only a few days later I found out that I would be leaving at the end of January. I had just a few weeks to pack up my life and catch a plane from San Francisco with 41 others who would come to be known as Peace Corps Philippines Batch 263. Next stop: Manila.

The Philippines Changes Everything

How living outside my comfort zone completely changed my life

'Travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.' ~Aldous Huxley

Remember the famous Peace Corps tagline? 'The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love'. No doubt this is still true, but my experience was a bit different. If I were to write a tagline, mine would be more along the lines of: 'The Peace Corps Changes Everything'. It's hard to exaggerate the effect that living overseas in a place that's completely unfamiliar to you can have on your outlook. When I finally touched down in Manila in late January 2004 aboard a Northwest airlines plane full of bleary-eyed fellow Peace Corps Philippines batch 263 members after a 17-hour flight, I still didn't really know what to expect for the next 27 months. Within the first week I learned that I'd be working at the Silliman University Marine Lab in Dumaguete on an interpretive environmental education center, as well as other projects with the marine biologists from Silliman. I would be working with Dr. Hilconida Calumpong, one of the most respected marine biologists in the Philippines, and a prominent expert on coastal mangrove forests and seagrass beds. In the world of Peace Corps assignments, I had officially hit the lottery.

Peace Corps Batch 263 scuba class with Holger Horn on Panglao Island in the Philippines

Peace Corps Batch 263 scuba class with Holger Horn on Panglao Island in the Philippines

Paddling an outrigger 'bangka' sea kayak on Pamilacan Island | Photo by Mang Fe

Paddling an outrigger 'bangka' sea kayak on Pamilacan Island | Photo by Mang Fe

Highlights of the Peace Corps

Thirty Months to Change Your Life

'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.' ~Mark Twain

It would be hard to do justice to everything that happened during my nearly three years of Peace Corps service in this summary, so I won't even try (please check out my blog if you're interested in reading more about those stories). Suffice it to say that the those two and a half years passed more quickly than I could have ever imagined. Here's the highlights:

  • Working in the field with the marine biologists from the Silliman University Marine Lab. We participated in coral reef surveys around the Visayas and even as far away as Eastern Samar. This was an eye-opening introduction to the challenges of Marine Conservation and the issues facing our oceans today.

Highlights, Continued...

Thirty Months to Change Your Life

  • Becoming a part of the Dumaguete community and playing music with Frying Nemo. Dumaguete is like a second home to me today thanks to friends like Sande Fuentes and his family, as well as the amazing community of musicians and artists that hang out at Hayahay. I'm also not nearly as scared of getting up in front of a big group of people as I used to be thanks to spending so much time on stage.
  • Learning a new language, living in a foreign country, and learning how to travel like a local. Without this experience, I don't think there's any way that I would have had the skills to move to a new place like Bali and be able to enjoy it as much as I do. Living in a foreign country is not the same as going on vacation there. Everything from finding a house to going to the grocery store can be an adventure (for good or bad). If you don't have some idea of how to adapt you're going to have a really hard time. The Peace Corps gave me this foundation and at this point I sometimes forget that just a few years ago, the idea of long-term travel (much less living abroad) was an impossibility as far as I was concerned.
The big gig - Our band played the main stage at the Dumaguete Buglasan Festival | Photo by Katia Bezerra-Clark

The big gig - Our band played the main stage at the Dumaguete Buglasan Festival | Photo by Katia Bezerra-Clark

Visiting Tubbataha during my Peace Corps service was a huge highlight of my time in the Philippines

Visiting Tubbataha during my Peace Corps service was a huge highlight of my time in the Philippines

Highlights, Continued...

Thirty Months to Change Your Life

  • Learning to scuba dive, and becoming a published underwater photographer. This was the beginning of my freelance switch, and I'm still very grateful for the opportunities I had in the Philippines to develop my writing and photography portfolio.
  • Publishing magazine articles and having my work used in the Patagonia catalog. I have to thank the wonderfully friendly and talented editors Jane Sievert, Karen Bednorz, and Sus Corez for giving me the opportunity to contribute to their photo projects--getting published by Patagonia has been a dream of mine ever since I got my first camera and they made it a reality.
  • Working with the Apo Island community and learning about their amazing marine sanctuary. I still make it back to Apo regularly to visit, dive, and take photos and I'm always amazed at how the health of the reef seems to continually improve. If you're looking for the best Apo Island experience possible, definitely stay at Liberty's Apo Island Resort--it's been my favorite ever since the first visit there in 2004.
    Meeting and becoming friends with so many great people from the Philippines and the Peace Corps.

I completed my Peace Corps service in July 2006 after extending my service by three months to give me time to work on some additional projects. I also wasn't totally ready for the experience to be over. This brought my total time in the Peace Corps to thirty months (24 months of service, three months of training, and a three month extension). Now it was time to figure out how to take everything I'd learned while I was in the Philippines and TU and turn it into my dream job. I didn't know exactly how to do it but I did know one thing: I wasn't ready to go back to a 'regular' job again.

Exploring


It's not the years, it's the mileage

Himalayas of Nepal to India's Thar Desert sands

'The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.' ~St. Augustine

In July 2006, Uncle Sam turned me loose on the other side of the world with bank deposit and a one-way ticket to Dulles airport. It was time to go home, but not before I got in a few more adventures on the way back. I decided to round out my Peace Corps experience with a three month adventure that would begin in Kathmandu and in Bangkok. I met up with my friend Steve and some friends from the Peace Corps to explore Nepal and India. Here's a few of the highlights:

  • Trekking the Annapurna Base camp. We ambitiously (maybe foolishly) decided to do the 11-day trek in under a week, still one of the most physically challenging things I've done.
  • Living with Steve's Nepali host family in their village near Bhaktapur. Their hospitality and kindness are what I think of whenever I remember Nepal.
The Annapurna Trek in the Himalayas of Nepal

The Annapurna Trek in the Himalayas of Nepal

Hitchhiking with the Indian Army across the Himalayas in Ladakh, India

Hitchhiking with the Indian Army across the Himalayas in Ladakh, India

Crossing World's Most Dangerous Road

Highlights... Continued

  • Surviving the 4x4 drive from Manali to Leh. I still argue that the driver was falling asleep and my grabbing the wheel probably kept us from going off a 1,000 foot cliff to our fiery deaths.
  • Attending the Dalai Lama's teaching in Dharamsala, India.
  • Camel trekking in the Great Thar desert of Rajasthan near the border of Pakistan.
  • Seeing the Taj Mahal (it's smaller in real life than you probably think).
  • Experiencing the overwhelming humanity in Varanasi. I've never looked at India quite the same since then.
  • Learning to cook Thai food in Chiang Mai and Mai Kai Dee's excellent cooking school in Bangkok.
  • Being invited to try a fiery papaya salad with a Thai Army platoon during the coup of 2006 in Bangkok.
  • Plus plenty more, lots of highlights covered in the photo galleries here and in my blog.

I finished the trip in Bangkok with the coup of September 2006. Although there were tanks in the streets, everything seemed pretty peaceful and I didn't see any actual fighting. I returned to Dumaguete in the Philippines with a hard drive loaded up with more than 10,000 new photos. At this point I was finally starting to feel like a professional photographer.

What did I learn from all this?

Lessons from the Road

'Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.' ~The 14th Dalai Lama

I've been lucky to have some great teachers and amazing mentors over the years. I owe much of what I've accomplished to what I've learned from them, but there's one teacher that has pushed me in ways that I never could have imagined and taught me things I didn't even realize I needed to know. What's that teacher's name? World Travel. Learning how to adapt to new places and understand people from vastly different backgrounds has been a source of inspiration and growth for me both personally and professionally.

At the Norbulingka Tibetan Buddhist temple in Dharamsala, India

At the Norbulingka Tibetan Buddhist temple in Dharamsala, India

Learning the ravanhattha in Rajasthan in India | Photo by Ghassi Ram

Learning the ravanhattha in Rajasthan in India | Photo by Ghassi Ram

What did I learn... continued

Lessons from the Road

It really is a big, wide world out there and the sooner you get out and start experiencing it firsthand, the quicker you'll start realizing the benefits. Ok, I'll end the little soapbox talk here. But if you haven't gotten out and explored the world in a while (or let your passport expire / never gotten around to getting one), it's time to get out for a look around. And if you happen to bring your camera along, all the better. I've found that photography forces me to slow down and observe the details that really tell the story of a place.

What did I learn... continued

Lessons from the Road

Having the chance to meet up with my brother or friends from home to have adventures in faraway places is also something I never dreamed possible when I was growing up. In the photo to the left, my brother Preston and I met up in China to explore the Himalayan mountain areas of Yunnan.

Schultz Brothers at the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China

Schultz Brothers at the Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, China

Exploring the back roads of Siargao Island | Photo by Corey Ridings

Exploring the back roads of Siargao Island | Photo by Corey Ridings

A Student of the World

The benefits of living beyond your comfort zone

'I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.' ~Bill Bryson


Finally returning home to Virginia at the end of 2006, it was great to catch up with family and friends. But it was also time to decide what was next. At this point I was completely hooked on photography and exploring new countries / cultures, so I was looking for ways to continue my career abroad. I also realized that the simple experience of living outside of your home country as an artist can be a pretty powerful muse. Since I already had some success with getting my work published in magazines, newspapers, and catalogs, I decided to launch myself as a full-time freelance photographer and writer. I began to prepare myself for my new career freelancing in Southeast Asia with Dumaguete as my base. I made the real leap in 2007 by moving back to Dumaguete with a bit of savings in the bank and a powerful motivation to continue the great experiences I'd begun having while I was still in the Peace Corps.

Bali


Photovoices International

Conservation through photography

After spending some quality time at home, catching up with family and friends, it was time to think about what was next. I re-connected with John Griffin at National Geographic, and he told me about an innovative project the Society was sponsoring called Photovoices. Originally conceived by Ann Norton, the project shares the stories of people from remote communities through photography. I was asked to join as a photo editor and writer to organize the stories and publish them on the project website and exhibitions. Soon I was on a flight to Bali to help Ann and Saras go through tens of thousands of photos taken by the project volunteers.

The Photovoices International team in Bali

The Photovoices International team in Bali

Bali culture is so vibrant and welcoming | Photo by Sarah Conway

Bali culture is so vibrant and welcoming | Photo by Sarah Conway

Exploring the Island of the Gods

An introduction to the magic of Bali

While I was helping out with Photovoices, Ann and Ed Norton let me stay in their guest house - a beautiful villa decorated in the traditional Bali style. On the weekends I was free to get out and explore the island, and from the very beginning I was captivated by the magic of Bali. The foundation of Hinduism which runs through every aspect of daily life, the friendly and welcoming Balinese people, and of course the island itself. From the peak of Mount Agung to the beaches of Uluwatu, Bali has such a diversity of environments and experiences that it's pretty much impossible to see everything. More than ten years later I'm still learning and discovering more that this beautiful island has to offer.

Surfing


Ocean Beach Intro

Preston shows me the ropes in San Francisco

My brother Preston started surfing when he moved to San Francisco in the early 2000's, and he invited me to join him a few times when I was visiting. We started out at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz and Ocean Beach in SF. He had already made a lot of progress and I struggled to keep up with him. Still, I could see why he loved it so much and those were the first steps on the long road of the surfer's path for me that continue to this day - thanks again P!

My brother Preston teaching me to surf at OB in San Francisco

My brother Preston teaching me to surf at OB in San Francisco

First Philippine surf trip to Siargao | Photo by Sande Fuentes

First Philippine surf trip to Siargao | Photo by Sande Fuentes

Sande's Trips to Siargao

Face to face with my first reef break

With its Pacific coastline stretching more than 1,000 miles, the Philippines has a LOT of surf breaks. While I was in the Peace Corps, Sande Fuentes, my host brother in Dumaguete was the go-to expert on all things to do with surfing in the Philippines. At the end of my service, he invited me to join him and a crew of hard-core Visayan surfers to check out Cloud 9 - the legendary reef break on Siargao. Fast-breaking reef waves were well above my skill level, but I wanted to go along with them. Learning how to read the waves with those guys was the first introduction I'd had to the much wider world of surfing - an education that I still draw on today. Those first Siargao trips with Sande are still some of my favorite memories from all the great times in the Philippines, even the time a surf board fin accidentally cut my ankle to the bone!

Learning to surf in Bali

From Kuta to Uluwatu

On the weekends when I wasn't helping out with Photovoices, I started going to Kuta Beach to try to learn more about surfing. One day I met Eddy Bagus - my first Indonesian friend beyond the Photovoices team. Eddy showed me how to read the waves, understand the unwritten rules of surfing, and actually get a proper ride on the wave. I showed him a bit of what I knew about playing guitar and he pushed me to keep getting better with the surf.

Sunset barrels at Balangan beach in Bali | Photo by Jeffrey Surf Photography

Sunset barrels at Balangan beach in Bali | Photo by Jeffrey Surf Photography

Pushing my limits at Uluwatu | Photo by Bagi

Pushing my limits at Uluwatu | Photo by Bagi

The End of the Road - Uluwatu

Pushing my limits at Bali's iconic reef break

One day Eddy Bagus said - 'we're going to Uluwatu'. The legendary reef break at the southernmost point of the island is known for perfect barrels, and during the dry season, truly huge waves. Paddling out for the first time at Ulu was really itimidating, the level of the other surfers way beyond what I could handle. I managed to get one wave and the feeling was like conquering some mythical beast. I even lucked out and made it back in to the cave on the first try. Over the next few seasons I kept pushing myself, learning about the currents and how to keep calm when the waves got big.

Behind the Lens

From Surfing to Surf Photographer

Surfing is such a visual sport - the ocean, a sunset behind the waves, the intense action. As much as I enjoyed surfing myself, the photographer's eye was inspired by what might be possible if I could get out on the waves with a camera. I connected with Phil and John at LiquidEye Water Housings and began swimming out to shoot the surf with a trusty pair of ForceFins from my friend Kurt. I needed to use everything I'd learned from surfing to keep myself out of trouble when swimming out into Bali's challenging reef breaks.

On assignment in Bali | Photo by LiquidBarrel

On assignment in Bali | Photo by LiquidBarrel

On assignment in the Eastern Philippines | Photo by Corey Wills

On assignment in the Eastern Philippines | Photo by Corey Wills

Have Camera, Will Travel

Oh the places you'll go...

As I pushed myself to get better as a water photographer, I found myself enjoying this new art form more than the rush of riding waves myself. With a steadily growing portfolio, I was able to land adventure assignments, often challenging but never boring.

Dream Job 2.0


A Wide Angle Life

Going below the surface to find the deeper story

I loved the challenge of magazine assignments - a trip to a remote place with only a camera and a notepad. Then turn the whole experience into something people might want to read. I never imagined I might get paid to go on adventures and get to meet interesting people - I was beginning to think I'd found my new dream job.

Freediving with whale sharks | Photo by Steve DeNeef

Freediving with whale sharks | Photo by Steve DeNeef

Close call on a big wave at Nusa Lembongan Shipwreck reef

Close call on a big wave at Nusa Lembongan Shipwreck reef

Under Pressure

Deadlines, Unpredictable Conditions

But it wasn't piña coladas on the beach everyday. Waking up before sunrise to get the best light, covering as much ground as possible during the day, sometimes swimming in dangerous conditions, and always hitting deadlines meant the hours were often long and tiring.

The Rewards

Sometimes you get an Upgrade

Luckily it wasn't always roughing it, sometimes you get an unexpected upgrade. This photo is from an assignment to Japan to cover a bike race for Garuda Indonesia. On the flight back from Tokyo they upgraded me to First Class - the first time I'd ever flown with a fully reclining bed!

First Class Upgrade: Tokyo to Jakarta on assignment with Garuda Indonesia

First Class Upgrade: Tokyo to Jakarta on assignment with Garuda Indonesia

Segway lessons on assignment in Melbourne, Australia

Segway lessons on assignment in Melbourne, Australia

New Experiences

When every day is different, you'll never get bored

Mountain climbing, scuba diving, Segway racing, freediving, surfing, hot air ballooning, helicopter rides - you never know what to expect on assignment as an adventure photographer. Getting to zing around Australia's Yarra valley on a Segway (right photo) is something I never expected to get a chance to do, but all part of the job.

Creative Outlets

I'm happiest when I get to hang out with creative people

The common thread that tied all of this together for me came down to one thing - the joy of working with other creative people. Whether it's music, photography, writing, making videos, it's the collaboration that makes this so fun to do.

Frying Nemo reunion concert at Hayahay | Photo by Elijah Dagaerag

Frying Nemo reunion concert at Hayahay | Photo by Elijah Dagaerag

On assignment diving in the Singapore Aquarium on Sentosa Island

On assignment diving in the Singapore Aquarium on Sentosa Island

Unforgettable Experiences

I would pay to do this

Part of being a photographer means getting to do really unusual things to get the shot. One assignment took me to Singapore to shoot inside the aquarium. Looking out of the glass to see the tourists taking Instagram photos of me with the mantas and sharks is one of the more surreal experiences I've had as a photographer.

Never Stop Learning

Learning is job #1

Since every job is different, you usually need to learn a lot about where you're going to go and what you're going to do so you can understand the full story. Aside from the adventures, this constant learning has been one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do. Getting to learn about people and places very different than where I grew up has pushed me to never stop learning new things.

Exploring an ancient animist village in the mountains of Bali | Photo by Jim Hauswirth

Exploring an ancient animist village in the mountains of Bali | Photo by Jim Hauswirth

On assignment to summit of Mt. Kinabalu, highest peak in SE Asia | Photo by Jof Sering

On assignment to summit of Mt. Kinabalu, highest peak in SE Asia | Photo by Jof Sering

The Journey is its Own Reward

Getting there is most of the fun

Looking back on the last 15+ years and all the adventures I've been lucky to experience, it's often been the journey that was the most memorable, not always the end goal. In this photo, we summited Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia - the highest peak in Southeast Asia. What you can't see in the pic is that most of our team did the climb with a bad case of food poisoning from the street food we ate in Kota Kinabalu. Remembering how everyone stuck together and eventually made it to the peak is what I think about when I see this photo, not necessarily the feeling of being on the peak itself.

Water People


Ocean Inspired

The link that ties it all together

Looking back over everything that's happened since I left the safety of my office job in the US, I can see the link that ties everything together: The Ocean.

Diving with the sea turtles of Apo Island

Diving with the sea turtles of Apo Island

On assignment in Bali with Gerry Lopez and Rob Machado | Photo by Tim Russo

On assignment in Bali with Gerry Lopez and Rob Machado | Photo by Tim Russo

Working with Water People

The Saltwater Tribe

If the ocean is the common link, the bond that ties all of this together are the water people I've been lucky enough to meet along the way. Surfers, divers, fisherfolk, conservationists - there's an immediate connection with someone who spends as much time as possible in and around the ocean.

Our trip to G-Land when Gerry Lopez returned in 2015, we had an all-star crew of surfers who joined Gerry in Java - Rob Machado, Dave Rastovich, Rizal Tandjung, Marlon Gerber, Leah Dawson & Mega Semadhi

All-star surf trip to G-Land with an epic crew | Photo by Jason Childs

All-star surf trip to G-Land with an epic crew | Photo by Jason Childs

Mahi mahi fishing assignment in Dumaguete | Photo and guiding by Mike Alano

Mahi mahi fishing assignment in Dumaguete | Photo and guiding by Mike Alano

Sometimes I get to return to my fly fishing roots, on this assignment to go fishing around Dumaguete, I joined Mike Alano to try to find some mahi-mahi around the FADS (fish aggregating devices) out in the blue water of the Tañon Strait. Thanks again to Sande Fuentes for making the best mahi sashimi I've ever had at Lab-As restaurant.

In 2016 I was invited to join the sea turtle tagging trip to Tubbataha with a team of marine biologists led by Dr. Nick Pilcher. In less than a week, we tagged more than 200 sea turtles, including two ancient males with satellite tags.

Tagging sea turtles in Tubbataha | Photo by Dr. Nick Pilcher

Tagging sea turtles in Tubbataha | Photo by Dr. Nick Pilcher

In the field for the Tubbataha sea turtle survey

In the field for the Tubbataha sea turtle survey

Aboard the research vessel M/Y Navorca in Tubbataha. I've been lucky to join four research expeditions on this ship, always an amazing experience to see the pristine coral reefs at the heart of the Coral Triangle's biodiversity.

Even though we were a couple hours from the ocean, this assignment to shoot a cover photo with Gentemstick founder and Patagonia snowboarder / surfer Taro Tamai was still connected to the saltwater spirit. We snowshoed up a mountain outside Niseko in Hokkaido, Japan to shoot a sequence of Taro dropping in to an alpine bowl. The next day we were out looking for surf on the Hokkaido coast - one of the only places in the world you can find world-class powder snow conditions within less than a day's drive of the surf.

Niseko backcountry for a covershoot with Taro Tamai | Photo by Katsuhide Fujio

Niseko backcountry for a covershoot with Taro Tamai | Photo by Katsuhide Fujio

At the Komba volcano in Flores, Indonesia | Photo by Corey Ridings

At the Komba volcano in Flores, Indonesia | Photo by Corey Ridings

Located east of the Komodo National Park, the open sea volcano of Komba is one of the most dramatice places I've ever dove. My friend Corey and I snorkeled the blue water where the volcano rose out of a thousand foot trench, a very surreal experience. Thanks again to Force Fins for providing me with the best fins for adventure photography and diving that I've ever had!

Blue skies and favorable winds for our crossing into Alor and beyond aboard the Seven Seas. Having the chance to explore the remote corners of Indonesia with the crew and guests aboard the Seven Seas have been among the most action-packed and memorable trips I've had in more than 15 years of exploring the Coral Triangle.

A pirates life on the Seven Seas | Photo by Corey Ridings

A pirates life on the Seven Seas | Photo by Corey Ridings

On assignment in Papua with whale sharks | Photo by Pinneng

On assignment in Papua with whale sharks | Photo by Pinneng

I'll never get bored of freediving with a whale shark. Catching a glimpse of these 'gentle giants' swimming effortlessly into the blue is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I've had in and around the ocean.

It was really inspiring to hear the stories from Ron and Valerie Taylor's decades of experience as ground-breaking underwater cinematographers, conservationists, and freedivers. On this trip to Komodo with Valerie and friends, we made a short film about 'Valerie's Rock' - a beautiful coral reef that is also one of the most challenging places to dive in the park because of the strong currents. Check out the video here.

Diving Komodo with Valerie Taylor on the Seven Seas

Diving Komodo with Valerie Taylor on the Seven Seas

Exploring Indonesia's coral reefs in Raja Ampat on the Seven Seas

Exploring Indonesia's coral reefs in Raja Ampat on the Seven Seas

Just Getting Started

What comes next?

A bit more than fifteen years into this new life and I feel like I'm just getting started. Learning new things every day, connecting with ocean lovers around the world, and trying to share the imminent danger our planet is facing due to climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and overfishing. This is the inspiration that gets me out of bed every morning and looking forward to the future. Thanks so much for reading this far and checking out my story - please feel free to connect on social media, or if there's anything I can do to help you with an upcoming project, please get in touch.
Best,
Tommy

On television

Check out my TV debut as a judge on the Canon / History Channel show - 'Photo Face Off'.


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