It’s deep winter in Pakistan, high in the Himalayas where the air is silky thin. An avalanche has just crashed down the sheer mountainside of Gasherbrum II, sweeping up adventurer Cory Richards and his two climbing partners, Simone Moro and Denis Urubko. They trio are descending the grueling 8,000m peak after being the first people ever to stand on its summit.
At the mercy of nature’s destructive power, all three miraculously survive. Dazed and shocked, with tears running down his cold face, his beard matted with ice, Cory turns his camera on himself and releases the shutter. This is his way of dealing with a stressful situation. Little did he know, in this moment of huge reprieve, how this photo would go on to shape the rest of his life – his path became the telling of the larger story, of what it means to hurt, triumph and be human.
The poignant portrait was to later appear on the front cover of National Geographic magazine, as Cory was named the 2012 Adventurer of the Year.
As a young boy, Cory was, by his own admission, “a total fuck up”, and on dropping out of school aged 14 he was, for the most part, homeless. He attributes his education to the richness that comes through struggle, rather than the pages of textbooks and words of teachers. He has never been one to enjoy the idea of a comfort zone – he possesses a compulsion to explore all that is unknown to him. While looking for a way to translate what he saw around him, he turned his hand to photography, which fast became his voice in this confusing world.
“It doesn’t matter if I can’t feel my fingers. It doesn’t matter how my face stings or feels like it’s being sandblasted. What matters is that someone else can feel that as well by looking at a picture.”
Through his aim to communicate a raw, visceral experience, Cory has ventured to all seven continents, witnessed sunrise over the highest mountains in the world, photographed polar bears standing on the last piece of ice on the most northern point of the Eurasian continent, and captured faces that are “years and years of history wrapped into one expression”.
We caught up with the adventurer and photographer, to discuss his work and entrenched passion for the mountains.
When and how did your love for travel and photography blossom?
Like anything that truly blossoms, it happens incrementally. At times it seems like an unnoticeable transformation. I was always visually driven. Likewise, I was an experiential learner. Combining those two aspects of personality sort of culminated in a desire to translate the visceral into the visual. That was a slow burn process that started when I was really little and manifested more concretely at about 18 when I went on my first ‘expedition’ to Alaska. Even then though, my camera was only 3 years younger than me. So the solidification of being a ‘photographer’ was still being influenced.
What cameras do you shoot with?
I shoot with everything. Cameras are like hammers… you don’t use a finishing hammer to break up concrete and you sure as hell don’t use a jackhammer to put the nails in your trim.
I use a Phase One IQ180 as my medium format system, for portraits etc. I often use my Leica M240 for more delicate and intimate situations. It’s a camera that requires presence and solidarity with moment. I like that it demands that of me. The workhorse is the Canon 5D Mk III. For Video, again, it’s everything, from Sony to RED. Saying that, the best camera in the world is the one in your hand. Cliché, but very true.
Do you have a favourite place on Earth?
As an athlete and photographer with Eddie Bauer, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a tremendous amount, whether for climbing or story telling. It’s very hard to actually pick a favorite.
If I were forced into a corner though, I’d have to say the Greater Himalaya. There is something deeply moving in the collision of continents; a power that is pervasive and observable in landscape and culture. It’s as if the people are hewn from the same materials that make up there geographic home – they are tough, adaptable, sometimes hostile, but always beautifully in motion. For me, there is no greater measure of strength than adaptation. It’s a landscape steeped in mystery and it never ever loses its magic, no matter how many times I’ve returned.
What is the biggest danger you’ve faced when travelling?
Probably myself. By that I mean that it’s usually ignorance, carelessness, or thoughtlessness that lands us in dangerous situations. Being educated about your environment, compassionate towards the cultures you’re visiting, and aware enough to understand the subtleties of interface are vital to being ‘safe’.
Naturally, there are the more objective hazards in climbing and adventure: avalanches, cold, altitude, etc.; but again, education about environment helps to mitigate risk. It distills it. So yeah, the biggest danger is definitely ignorance.
What’s your advice for aspiring photographers?
There is no path. Ask questions, but expect the answers to be divergent and conflicting. To make it, you have to be it, and that requires your own unique recipe.
The most common question I get is: ‘How do I shoot for National Geographic?’ And the answer is, I don’t know. If I told you to drop out of school and be a total fuck up in order to find your voice (my chosen path), would you do it? No. You shouldn’t. Good art demands that you stand out as an individual and own your path to creation. No one can give you answers, but they can give you support.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned from your travels?
If everyone believes they are right, it probably means no one is. We are all just the same. We bleed the same. We love the same. We breathe the same. Right and wrong, black and white… they are generally hyperbole based in misunderstanding. Sure, there are things that are just flat wrong. And yes, those things are generally pretty black and white. But the majority of the time, we are all just trying to get by. Approaching everyone with an even sensibility and compassion and a genuine curiosity and empathy will help mitigate the greater misunderstandings we have of each other, from a community level to a global one.
I acknowledge that even making that statement, indeed my whole job in general, comes from a place of great privilege. We have to own that. I think when we are born into a more ‘fortuitous’ social arena, it’s our responsibility to acknowledge that leg up and engage with it to perpetuate a greater global awareness, and hopefully kindness towards each other and our planet.
If you had one day left on Earth, what would you do?
Hang out with my friends and parents. Laugh as much as possible, watch the sunset. Sit by a fire outside. Smell pine needles, make love, and go to bed.
If you were to recommend 5 places everyone should visit before they die, what would they be?
Karakoram Himal, Pakistan.
The desert South West of the United States.
Your parents’ house… more often.