“It’s amazing to find a passion that touches you so deeply you are able to continue to share because it moves other people. There are people who up until their last breath are producing the strongest work they’ve ever done.”
Andréa and I met at an annual Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference in Marin County. It was the first time we talked about the perseverance it takes to start your own photography business. Since then, we’ve had many more conversations and in this one she shares some of her triumphs and setbacks as she’s built her successful business in the wine and travel world. She’s created a stunning body of work that includes documentary films, travel workshops and sweeping aerial shots of harvest time at arresting vineyards. Andréa imparts some of the wisdom she’s gained from the challenges of forging her own path with her business and her art.
JB: How did you get your first paid assignment to travel and photograph?
Andréa: I got into photography through travel. I went to Northwestern and majored in photojournalism. In the beginning I focused on writing and then realized I didn’t want to cover the hard news because I dearly missed the outdoors. I worked for different sports magazines as an art director, wrote some articles, sold some ads and worked at Nike as a photo buyer. When the contract work at Nike dried up and everyone was laid off, I took the opportunity to backpack around Europe and shoot photos for myself, just wandering around on a shoestring budget. Once I came back, I started pitching some of my travel photos to Rick Steves who published the travel guides I had been using.
That was how it all started. During one of our conversations I found out he was about to grow his business by creating individual custom tours. He was planning the “Through the Back Door” tour packages and I suggested he bring me on one of the tours to photograph the entire experience.
His assistant lead it and I was there to capture the experience of the guests interacting with the locals and the beauty of the place for his guides and marketing collateral. It was an amazing opportunity for me to have the tear sheets and the Rick Steves’ cover for Best of Italy and Best of Europe 1995 in my portfolio. Plus, I had a chance to travel on my own before and after the trips so I could build up my archives. It was a great opportunity to have a project of that size without much experience.
JB: Clearly, you’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. What was the funniest job you took to save money to travel?
Andréa: That would be selling Gillette razors by giving demos in grocery stores. When I was in college I’d sell enough of them to fund my next trip. As people would walk by I’d chat with them and tell them about how I was saving for my next trip to Europe as a photographer. I’d tell them where I’d be shooting and what I was planning, so they felt like they were helping support the dreams of a fresh faced young college student who wanted get out there to experience the world and travel.
JB: Was it clear after the Rick Steves’ experience that you wouldn’t have to sell Gillette razors to be a professional photographer? Did it feel like a natural step taking the plunge into freelancing?
Andréa: No, not at all. When I came back I had student loans to pay off and it took a few years to get my nerve up to go freelance. I thought I should choose something with a steady income. So, first I worked for small magazines and assigned other photographers stories. It was difficult to watch people go off and do the assignments I wanted to do. The hardest part though, was that some of the smaller publications I loved working for went bankrupt and I was owed money in the end. It was like adding insult to injury.
After this happened with the third small company I realized what I thought was the safe route wasn’t actually safe at all. So I got a sales job at AT&T because it was the easiest way during the dot com boom to save enough money to travel. For two and a half years I had my nose to the grindstone and was in the top 10% of salespeople. I would tell everybody I was saving to travel around the world and be a photojournalist. Up until the time I quit, nobody really believed me. They couldn’t understand why I would want to do something so unconventional and risky. It was really satisfying when I resigned just after the millennial and said, “Ok, that’s it. Now I’m going around the world.”
At the time I was married, and my husband Dale and I spent eighteen months traveling together. We started in the U.S., taking off on a motorcycle driving down Hwy 1 and camping all the way.
JB: What was it like traveling as a couple and experimenting with this new way of living?
Andréa: In the beginning Dale and I travelled really well together. I was the big picture thinker and he was great with the logistics and details. He was also a really mellow person so he made the day to day things go smoothly.
We had some amazing experiences together. At one point in Thailand we were starting to run low on money and it was just after September 11th so traveling around was much harder. We decided to stay in Thailand and I worked as a rock climbing instructor and then a website designer.
There were also some real challenges for us too. I was getting much clearer about pursuing photojournalism and how much hard work it was going to be. He was genuinely supportive of me but couldn’t find what he wanted to do. Travel didn’t provide him the same clarity and perspective on life that I got.
A turning point was when we were in Nepal about to trek part of Mt. Everest and I was suffering from a whole host of physical stuff. It was a challenge, but I was determined to do it. I was not going to let anything stop me. At home Dale’s Mom had found out she had cancer and was trying not to tell us while we were on our trip. Of course, we got the bad news at the worst possible time via satellite phone as we got to the Everest Base camp about to make the trek. We did the trek, but it was incredibly stressful for both of us and we started drifting apart.
We came home shortly after that to be with family. It was very a difficult transition at that point and he was a little lost not knowing what he wanted to do while I was completely determined to be a photographer. I’ve always gotten through every challenge in life with my determination, hard work and focus. I knew I had a good five years to establish my business and we both understood that I would have to completely immerse myself in my career. We both did the best we could to make things work but eventually we split up.
JB: So many times people sacrifice their visions and goals in those situations. It sounds like you focused and persevered with your business and your dream despite that.
Andréa: It was a really painful time personally. Professionally, I think my parents were role models for me because they always ran their own business. I grew up with the mindset that whenever there was something I wanted to do in life I had to work hard for it and once I decided I wanted it I was willing to do whatever it took. Being a professional photographer is tough and there are a lot of up and downs. I understood that from the beginning and it took some soul searching to make that decision.
JB: How did you first come to the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers conference?
Andréa: My first time was in 2003 after Dale and I came back from our eighteen months of traveling. On our trip I read the Travelers Tales to get inspiration about where to go next. I had met Jen Leo who edited all those books at the time. I heard from her and a few other friends how much talent and energy there was at this conference so I knew I wanted to come. There’s a focus on storytelling that’s unlike most workshops or conferences I’ve been to. I think the talent of the students and the faculty combined with the atmosphere of the Book Passage is really special.
Back then, there were more publications in business and more editors. We all called this the “summer camp for travelers” because so much travel writing talent congregated here. When we first got home I was having a hard time focusing and really believing in myself. Ironically, my photos from our Mt. Everest, Nepal trip won 1st prize in the photography competition so that helped motivate me.
The editor of VIA magazine was at the conference and Tim Cahill was writing a piece about kayaking the mighty Columbia. They needed shots for his piece and I lived in the area so I ended up getting the assignment from making connections here.
I came back to the conference in 2004 and went through the writing track, which was a great experience. In 2005 I started helping with the afternoon sessions and now I’ve been part of the photography faculty for 10 years. This is a part of my creative recharge. I’m inspired every year because it’s my tribe. When the faculty get together we’re very real with each other. We talk about our struggles, what we’re working on and what pulls our heart strings. We can be authentic without worrying about what we look like.
JB: You and Bob Holmes met here and came up with the idea for your book A Passion for Pinot: A Journey Through America’s Pinot Noir Country. Tell me more about that.
Andréa: When Bob was teaching in 2005 he suggested that we have a market focus. I realized I knew the Pinot noir vineyards in Oregon really well so I pitched the idea to him as a collaborative project. This was before the movie Sideways had come out so the story of Pinot noir had not really been told well in the market yet. Also, those winemakers are crafts people with a vision and dedication I resonate with. I’m attracted to telling the stories of people who take on difficult challenges with that kind of dedication to their craft. Agriculturally, Oregon and California are two places in the United States where really strong Pinot noir grapes are grown. It was a good project for us to collaborate on since I had relationships in Oregon and Bob had relationships in California.The project ended up being perfect for us because it’s a book about wine, the wine makers and the land so it has a strong sense of place. Pinot Noir is known for expressing terroir which, as a concept, roughly translates to, the soil, climate and everything about the agriculture of a place lends to creating the personality of the grape. I understood how to weave together all these parts to make it a compelling story about the people, the process and the place.
Together, we reached out to wineries to figure out how to fund the project. A handful of wineries committed to buying a certain number of copies up front, to give to their wine club members and sell in the gift shops so we had a baseline of how many books we’d sell before we started the project. This allowed us to create a really quality book and make a small profit in the end. Once we proved enough interest in the book, a traditional publisher, Ten Speed Press, got interested and reprinted a trade version in March 2009.
JB: What is one of the most difficult challenges you’ve faced artistically?
Andréa: One of the most difficult artistic challenges I faced was directing and working as part of the team for a short documentary film called “The Noble Spirit”. I documented the life of Fred Noble and his struggles and acceptance of living with ALS from 2011-2014. We finished the film just before Fred passed away on May 1, 2014. Creating a documentary about this was more difficult and rewarding than I ever imagined. It was truly an honor to be invited into Fred’s daily life and have that kind of access to his experiences. The film has played at international film festival circuit, and won several awards including best documentary at Chagrin Film Festival, Most Inspirational Film at Mt. Hood film festival, Judge Award of Distinction at Accolade Global Film Festival, Best of Oregon Award: Oregon International Film Awards, and Best Documentary Film at the Dam Short Film Festival .
You can see the short trailer for the film, and my blog about creating this documentary at The Noble Spirit Documentary. To watch additional film and video projects, check out our video productions company Lumaria Productions.
JB: What workshops do you and Bob have coming up?
Andréa: Each year, Bob & I lead two international photography tours to destinations that personally resonate with us. Inevitably they always provide a wealth of photographic opportunities. The groups are deliberately kept small, to no more than 8 people. This gives maximum flexibility in the field and keeps the cost as low as possible for one of the highest participant/ instructor ratios in the business. Our goal is for you to come home with the best photographs you have ever taken. A photo tour is the perfect way for someone to fully experience a life “on assignment” without the responsibility of feeling you have to produce a certain kind of photo. That sense of freedom often generates some of the best photographs.
For information about photo tours with Andréa and Bob Holmes, you can view details about past and future adventures on their Lumaria Workshops website.
For more information about Andréa’s work go to Andréa Johnson Photography
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