As part of the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015, we will be interviewing various members of our international jury to learn more about their backgrounds and their perspectives on the broad theme of “Earth.”
Today’s interview subject is Ian Shive, the CEO and founder of Tandem Stills + Motion, the cutting edge photo agency and image provider. In his free time, Shive is also an award-winning conservation photographer, author, educator, film producer and environmental advocate. Managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to Shive to find out more about his trajectory into the world of photography and his passion for the great outdoors.
AS: How did you become involved with photography? What’s so special about it to you?
IS: My origins with photography began with my father, who is a professional photographer. He began his career as a rock and roll photographer—he shot hundreds of musicians in the 70s and 80s. So, I probably got my first camera when I was just 2 or 3 years old, a little toy point-and-shoot.
But in general, when I was younger, I was inclined to steer away from photography. It was the classic, “I will not do what my parents do.”—cut to 25 years later and you’re doing almost exactly what your parents did, just to the 2nd power. In my case, I decided to move to LA and get a job in the movie industry. This career lasted for almost 10 years, during which time I was only enjoying photography on the side, as a weekend hobby.
On the other hand, I have always loved the outdoors. What really got me hooked on photography was how it allowed me to share my experiences of exploring the incredible landscapes. From there, I ended up being one of the early sharers of pictures on the internet and really benefited from it—I received lots of support at a critical time from strangers.
So, after nearly 10 years of working my desk job, I began to consider pursuing photography full-time. Especially during the last few years before I made the leap, I had found myself photographing literally every weekend—it was no longer just a hobby, but an obsession. Fortunately, I got some early indicators that I might be able to make a go of it, financially, and so I plunged ahead. I absolutely made the right choice.
AS: Now that photography is your job—do you still manage to feel that same level of passion, obsession, excitement?
IS: I don’t think being a photographer ever gets old. I recognize the common refrain, “Oh, when you turn your hobby into your job, you kind of ruin it.” And I think that’s true for a lot of people who don’t have a realistic view of what they’re going into. The people who hold glamorized views of what being a professional is like. They picture a national park photographer and think it’s someone who always lives life out of a tent, on the edge of a gorgeous cliff. The reality is, it’s a business. If you go into it with realistic expectations of having to run a business and trying to strike that balance between passion and commerce, you won’t be disappointed. I still get to go into the field and do those things that people picture in their head—but realistically, 80% of my time has to be in an office to make that happen.
AS: Was your love of the outdoors always related to your passion for photography, from the very beginning?
IS: I’ve never photographed another genre. Since the time I was a kid, I loved being outdoors (an odd thing to say, since I grew up in New Jersey). But the outdoors doesn’t have to be Yellowstone National Park—the outdoors could be your local park, with some ducks in the pond. It just happened that my ponds got bigger and bigger and my skies got larger and larger.
As I said, photography was an extension of my love for the outdoors and a means for sharing my experiences. For me, the act of photography isn’t, in itself, gratifying. Photography is an extension to other activities. I think the same was true of my father: he loved music and loved the bands that he photographed—photography was an extension of that love.
AS: And so that love of the outdoors was further extended into the creation of Tandem, which has such a strong focus on the outdoors?
IS: Actually, the business of photography is what led me to Tandem. Tandem grew out of the fact that photographers have more options than ever before and fewer options that consider the photographer first than ever before. I had gotten to the point where I didn’t have a partner or agency that I could truly trust with my work. And because work is so personal—that became a major issue.
Starting from there, I knew wanted to start something relatively small, a collective of sorts. One thing led to another and today, that idea of a handful of photographers has grown considerably: Tandem now represents almost 1,200 photographers world-wide. But the company remains rooted in the same principles. Since our launch, we’ve never changed our contract or our policies. We’ve always kept the photographer first; after all, I created it as a photographer and photographers are creating the product that we sell.
AS: How do you select the photographers that are part of Tandem? What’s your judgment process?
IS: We try really hard to have a broad spectrum of photographers—people who have never been published, people who are aspiring to be professionals, and people who I would consider living legends. We don’t care where you’ve been published—we care about the quality of your work. Content is King.
We also look for potential in the individual. It’s a hard thing to judge but from my background as a photographer, I feel like I can sense what people are going for and when they show the potential to make truly great work. That’s something that can’t be taught—it represents innate talent and that’s the kind of person we want to work with. While a lot of other agencies and stock companies out there are looking for volume, we’re looking for great images. We believe that everyone has one truly great image in them and we’re there to support that.
Between flowing waterfalls at an ice climbing crag near Canmore, Alberta. © Ben Herndon
One of the most gratifying parts about Tandem is how we’ve had people who went from never-published to established pros. One photographer, in particular, comes to mind: Ben Herndon was stocking shelves in a supermarket in Idaho and taking amazing photos in his free time. He couldn’t get into any other agencies yet his work was phenomenal. Since he joined us, he went from being unpublished to being one of the most published adventure sports photographers around. He just quit his job last week—after working with us for 4 ½ years—to pursue photography full-time.
For me, that feels like coming full circle. Nine years ago, I was able to make that leap to pursuing my passion and now, through Tandem, I can help others do the same.
AS: Are there times when photography has made a difference? Can you describe the impact that great photography has?
IS: When video and photo merged together, everyone thought that photo was going to go extinct. But that’s silly. In a world that is always moving, a photograph, instantly, has the power to tell you thousands of ideas, convey emotions, feelings, stop you in your tracks, convince you to understand something that you had not fully thought through before. Photography captures a moment and it is lingering. That’s what makes it such a beautiful way to communicate.
A major component of our work at Tandem is the work we do in conservation. We’ve always had a commitment to environmental consciousness. Recently, I’ve been working on a project for the Department of the Interior and their national wildlife refuge system. My project tells the story of urban refuges and how in cities across the country, it is essential to have giant, open areas in the middle of them. Thanks to these places, children and young adults have the opportunity to experience nature in a way that is breath-taking but also accessible. You don’t have to drive 6 hours to get there, you can get on your bike and be there in 10 minutes to watch the sunset. I’ve watched how these people are impacted by these places and my pictures aim to convey that these places exist and are available for urban dwellers.
As time has gone on, telling the human story of the outdoors—that’s become central. It used to just be about waterfalls and pretty, unspoiled landscapes [think of Ansel Adams]. But everything has shifted to how people are interacting with nature. To capturing those moments when a person is standing on the cliff they just climbed or hiking with their loved one or, sometimes, the much more negative interactions. That’s the whole story of the environment—the pretty side, the ugly side and how humans choose to live in the world.
Besides my own pictures, I get to see thousands of images a day for my job at Tandem. There’s no one photo, in particular, that’s changed my whole world-view but I know that I’m impacted every single day. I feel like I say the word “wow” way too often—often, my biggest problem is, “Wait, how do I pick just one?”
—Ian Shive, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: Ian Shive will be judging entries to the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015—enter now for your chance to get your work in front of Shive and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on our dedicated page.
To find out more about Shive and his agency, Tandem Stills + Motion, feel free to visit their website.