WideWorld sent US writer Nicolette Mallow to Washington D.C., to interview 37- year-old National Geographic photographer and explorer Jimmy Chin at The Madison Hotel. Chin is also a sponsored athlete for The North Face. Throughout his career, he has shot climbers thousands of feet up in the air, glued to ice-capped mountains, with storm clouds billowing in the distance, and, as WideWorld discovers. Jimmy Chin’s ability to capture shadows and light, sunrises and sunsets and nature at its most breathtaking is nothing short of incredible. The interview took place prior to a banquet held in his honor at Nat Geo headquarters to showcase Chin’s career, life stories and photography.
Nicolette Mallow: What was it about your first trips to the mountains that inspired your career?
Jimmy Chin: Well I always loved being outside. We had a ravine behind our house and I was always tromping around in the woods. When I showed up in Glacier National Park it was just like my ravine on steroids! I just knew then that I wanted to live a life in the mountains. Although the trails were very beautiful I didn’t ever want to stay on the trail. I wanted to explore.
NM: How exactly did you turn all this from a hobby into a lifestyle and a career?
JC: You know, there is a lot of pressure when you’re in college from peers and the professors and your parents to get an internship or to have this goal of becoming a lawyer, a businessman, or a doctor; I think it’s hard for anybody to aspire to them when the title sounds great but you don’t really understand what the day-to-day life of an attorney is. And I had no real connection to any of it. It just seemed like all these abstract ideas and it just seemed really boring to me. For some reason I was struck by the idea that you only live once and that you shouldn’t waste your time being something for other people or being something that other people wanted you to be. It didn’t seem fair. I struggled with that a little bit for sure. Education was hugely important for my parents. They were both librarians at a university and they had come from China and they had made a life for themselves here.
NM: What got you into photography?
JC: I always loved looking at photography, but I think that everyone does. I am a very visually stimulated person. But while I was visually oriented, I never thought of it as a career. I never took photo classes in school.
NM: So you’re self-taught?
JC: Oh yeah. Still teaching myself. Still learning. But, overall, photography felt really natural and probably one of the easiest things for me to learn or pick up. So in that sense I feel like, perhaps it was meant to happen.
NM: In one article you describe dangling above endangered antelope in Tibet, but what did it feel like when you guys found them?
JC: In some ways it was like we were chasing mythical creatures. It’s so funny because it was like being a kid, again, and trying to follow these animals across the Chang Tang plateau and hoping to find this supposed birthing ground. George Shallow, one of the greatest live mammal biologists and conservationists, couldn’t find these animals or their birthing grounds after two to three expeditions. My crew and I knew this was going to be extremely difficult. We’d been traveling for weeks and weeks and there was nothing. We lost them, once, and then we found them, again. When we finally found them and I saw the first baby chiru: it was a mind-bending experience.
NM: Is there any expedition in particular which you are most proud of in terms of your finished images?
JC: I think shooting Everest and skiing Everest. I was always trying to get this photo that no one has ever seen before and there were a couple photos in there that don’t necessarily have the best light or the best compositions ever but they’re just… Well, there is an image of Kit and Robert DesLauriers skiing down a slope over 28,000 feet. Two people on their skis, on the southeast ridge of Everest. And I just love that photo as there is also a storm cloud coming up in the distance.
NM: Throughout all the places you’ve seen, where is some of the most beautiful light to capture?
JC: Sunset when you’re up really, really high above base camp in the Himalayas holds perfect, mesmerizing light. Any mountain range up high where you can see the horizon line is amazing. After the sun has set and it gets that kind of blue mixed with pink –I love those colours; like pastels in the sky.
NM: In 2004 you had a close shave with death when you were on Everest and the avalanche came down and threw you guys back over 30 feet. Have you had any experiences as intense as that one since?
JC: Not as intense. I think as you get older you start to understand and become much more aware of all the different ways to die. I’m a lot more conservative these days, but there’s always the fluke accident. As a climber you have to take a certain stance in how you look at the world. When you do what I do, you must accept, “When you’re time comes, it comes.” I have to think like that otherwise I wouldn’t get out of bed!
To see a selection of Jimmy Chin’s images, see our gallery below. For more, visit: www.jimmychin.com.
Note: This interview was originally published in Wide World Magazine in 2010. Wide World is an adventure travel magazine based in London, United Kingdom.