“There is no magic button,” Ben Read, 36, tells me when I ask for the advice that, in just half a decade, has taken him from sitting on top of a lawnmower for a living to pointing a camera in some of the most beautiful locations in the world, and at some of the planet’s finest adventure-sports athletes. “I learned that from a photographer called Camilla Rutherford, a Scot living out in New Zealand. She taught me early on that you can’t afford to wait for opportunity to come to you – you’ve got to go out and get it.”
This is a mantra that’s served Ben, who was born and raised in the sleepy copy-and-paste commuter town of Haywards Heath, well. Extremely well. From going after and landing a ski guiding job in Alagna, despite having never clipped into bindings before in his life, to chasing down the head of marketing for The North Face after making him a panini in the Alps, taking him for a beer and bagging an outrageously cool job as assistant product manager in snow sports, finding opportunities where others can’t is an asset that’s not only guided him through a hell of a colourful career, but is put into motion every time he takes his camera into the field now.
“I’m a trail runner, a skier and a climber. When I started getting serious about shooting the world I live in, I was told I needed to find my niche. Soon, I found it. I could often get better shots than the next guy by going further than him or her, physically, be it running a longer distance or climbing a tougher wall.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to get uncomfortable to get an unforgettable photograph”
The proof lies in his portfolio. Punctuated with work for major-league magazines like American behemoth Outside, top-drawer adventure brands like Helly Hansen and Mountain Warehouse and coffee-table tomes from publishing giants Gestalten, Ben’s short but epic five years as a professional photographer shows borderline crazy climbs across New Zealand boulders, scrambles up dangerous faces attempted by daring pros, and gnarly jumps accessed only in the tracks of elite skiers.
“Sometimes you’ve got to get uncomfortable to get an unforgettable photograph,” he summarises.
“You can’t afford to wait for opportunity to come to you – you’ve got to go out and get it”
As Ben takes us through the ten shots that he feels define his career to date, I ask for the advice that he’d now impart to anyone wanting to leap into the world of adventure sports photography.
“Camilla’s advice, obviously, still holds true. But now, it’s more important than ever to take your inspiration from other areas of photography. Everyone’s trying to replicate the style of everyone else. Just look at Instagram. For me, I take a lot from conflict photography, which truly captures a moment in a way that photographing someone just standing in the hills in an orange jacket never can. I’ve been guilty of it, but I learned quickly that I was just becoming like everyone else.”
The Career-Starting One
Treble Cone, Wanaka, New Zealand. August 2014
“In New Zealand, if you work near a ski area, you have a part in your work contract called a ‘powder clause’. That means if there’s powder is in the forecast, you can request a day off. In 2014 I was living and working in Wanaka. That winter was a real slow starter, so when the rumours of a dump began to circulate and people started frothing, I booked a pow day to hit the mountains instead of mowing lawns.
“The plan was to head up solo with just my skis and camera, but when I pulled into the car park I saw this filthy car covered in stickers. It turned out to belong to Fraser McDougall, a local pro and The North Face athlete, who was pulling his boots on. I quickly said hello and introduced myself, for the first time ever, as a photographer – I definitely bought into the ‘fake it until you make it’ mantra early on.
“If you work near a ski area, you have a part in your work contract called a ‘powder clause’”
“I asked Fraser if I could join him so I could get some photos for my portfolio, and he was cool with it. He even asked me where I wanted to shoot! I suggested Hero Rock – a Treble Cone classic that’s always shot from above, as it looks like the rider is bombing into Lake Wanaka below.
“Instead, I told him I wanted to position myself below, and although we didn’t discuss a trick, I knew he’d bust out one of his famous massive blackflips, which are the best in the business. He didn’t disappoint – I framed my shot, and after what felt like eternity, he entered the viewfinder with the biggest backy I’ve ever seen.
“When I got home I thought this shot was a cool one, so I sent it to the editor of NZ Skier Magazine and asked him if he reckoned it was good enough to print. I still remember the rush I felt when he said it would run as a double-page spread in their gallery section. That’s when I first felt I could one day make a career with my camera.”