We recently sat down with outdoor writer and adventure photographer, Luke Kelly who hails from Hudson Valley, NY as part of our Ways to Wander Q&A series. In this interview we dive into Luke's journey in photography and outdoor travel. From starting with a phone camera to do doing speaking engagements about his photography and selling his pieces, Luke is an inspiration for those looking to turn their love for the outdoors into more than just a hobby. Fun fact: Luke was one of Kuju's first official Ambassadors! All photos in this article are by Luke Kelly.
Can you tell us a little about what you've been up to lately and where your journey with photography began?
Hey Justin, I just wanted to start by saying thank you for the interview, and congrats on all the successes that Kuju has had over the years. I'm a big fan of your coffee, and I take it on all my backpacking trips.
So currently, I'm on a 2 1/2 month road trip across North America. I'm roadtripping out of my old Hyundai Sonata, visiting the National Parks, hiking and camping every day, and trying to improve as a nature and travel photographer. It's been awesome so far, and I'm enjoying living in each moment.
My journey with photography was really born out of my love for travel. I started traveling right after high school, on a trip to Alaska with my best friend. It was my first time backpacking or camping, and I knew pretty quickly that I was hooked. I dedicated the years following that first trip to traveling as much as possible, and to having a lot of different experiences in my 20's. I always had an old camera with me, as well as my phone just to take pictures and document these trips that I was going on. It was always about traveling first, and taking pictures second. But over the years, I slowly started to realize that I had a knack for photography--and more importantly that I really enjoyed it and loved taking pictures of these beautiful places I was visiting--so in 2016 I decided to invest in a good camera and start taking photography a little more seriously. I'm self-taught, learning as I go, and hopefully I get a little better with every trip. But at the end of the day, I still think of myself as a traveler first.
What keeps you motivated with your photography work?
It's all about passion. When you genuinely love doing something, and you feel called to it, it's not work. You could do it forever and not get bored of it. That's how I feel about travel and nature photography, because I truly enjoy experiencing new places in the outdoors, taking photos, and then sharing that with other people. When I'm traveling like this, I've never once had to motivate myself to go out and shoot. I'm just always psyched to go out and do it, because it's what I love. And my mindset has always been that if you're lucky enough to find what you're passionate about in life, you owe it to yourself to go all in.
I also recently started a business around my traveling and photography, selling prints and calendars, and speaking publicly about the things I've learned from travel. That's been incredibly rewarding, just to be able to share my passion and start to build a little business around that. I hope that people get something from it, whether it's a nice photo to hang on the wall, or some motivation to just get out there and really go after whatever it is that you're dreaming about. So again, it's passion and loving what I do that keeps me motivated.
What is your best adventure planning tip?
I would say that my best adventure planning tip is to always be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and to expect that things will eventually go wrong when you're traveling. I tend to err on the side of caution and overpack a little bit for backpacking or mountaineering trips, because at the end of the day, you never know what's going to happen. You want to be ready to deal with whatever comes up. What I learned from my time working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, and from some other trips to remote places, is that there's always going to be some amount of risk involved in adventure-type activities. You can't get rid of that risk, but you can do everything in your power to minimize it, and to safely enjoy the outdoors. So I take safety really seriously.
What do you find is the most enjoyable way to explore your favorite National Park?
For me, my favorite way to enjoy the National Parks is to drive in, and then spend my time there doing single-day and multi-day hikes. I like to tag a few summits and try to see the wildlife. I always have my tent with me, which allows for a lot more flexibility for where I'm going to stay. Some of my favorite parks are Glacier, the Grand Tetons, and Yosemite. There's never going to be enough time to see it all in park, so I just pick out a few trails that I think I'll enjoy and do my best to explore and enjoy them.
What is the last thing you read or heard that had a profound impact on you?
I recently read The Devil's Thumb by Jon Krakauer. It raises some interesting questions about what climbing mountains and going on adventures can and can't do for your life. I think a lot of people--and I was like this in my early-20's--go into the outdoors because they're seeking something. They want to learn about themselves, and to transform their life in some sort of positive way. Going into nature to find yourself is a theme that's pretty well embedded into the American psyche--from Thoreau to Keruoac. The conclusion that Krakauer reached in The Devil's Thumb is pretty much the same conclusion that I've reached after ten years of traveling--is that to positively change your life, or to find peace, or fulfillment--it doesn't come from anything outside of yourself. Change has to come from within. So reading that has stayed with me.
What is one eco-friendly thing you do every day, and what inspires you to protect the planet?
I think that lot of the damage to the environment is done unconsciously, because often you don't see the direct effects of your day-to-day decisions. When I was in Nepal, and parts of South America--I couldn't believe the amount of plastic. Just plastic bottles everywhere, they were literally burning it in the streets. It was eye-opening. So I've really tried to cut down and eliminate my use of plastic products and bring my reusables everywhere, whether it's my coffee mug, Nalgene, or bags at the grocery store. I also try to make my outdoor gear and clothing go as long as possible. It's really important to me that when I travel, I practice Leave No Trace, so I've been really conscious about my impact on trails and campsites lately, and have done my best to make sure I leave nothing behind but footsteps. Honestly, I'm inspired to protect the planet because I feel connected to the land and the environment. People are a part of nature, and if we're destroying it--we're ultimately destroying ourselves. So it's really important to me that we protect it for future generations and for the animals that we share the planet with.
What's the next adventure you have planned?
Well, I just got back to the Lower-48 from Alaska yesterday. I'm traveling solo--I have my car, tent, and no set itinerary on the road for the next two weeks. I'm writing this from a coffee shop in Washington, about to head up to the North Cascades for the first time. From there, I'll start working my way down the West Coast--visiting the Oregon Coast, Crater Lake, and a lot of the National Parks in California. I'm really looking forward to Yosemite. It's a great feeling to be having new experiences and taking photos every day. And then when I get back home to New York, then next adventure will be growing my business. I'm really psyched for everything that's ahead.
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