Storytelling Beyond the Landscape: An Interview with Vancouver’s Joel Krahn

Storytelling Beyond the Landscape: An Interview with Vancouver’s Joel Krahn

Recently, we’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship and the power of educational and inspirational support. 

When we connected with Vancouver-based editorial photographer and photojournalist Joel Krahn a few weeks ago, one thing was clear: educators and seasoned photographers have helped him take his work to the next level.

We spoke with Joel, who is taking over our Instagram this week, to learn about his experiences with photographing some of the most rigorous outdoor events, how COVID-19 has affected him this year and his love of visual storytelling. 

This interview was lightly edited for clarity and length. Cover image by Joel Krahn.

Your work covering The Mount Marathon is really something else. It looks like an incredibly rigorous race. Can you tell us about photographing an event as intense and face-paced as that one? 

There are a lot of crazy events up North that make you shake your head when you hear what people sign up to do. Mount Marathon is no exception. 

The idea is basically just run straight up this mountain, and straight back down as fast as possible. For racers, it can be a fight between how fast you want to go and how safe it is with your exhausted, wobbly legs. My first time shooting the race I was working alongside a Yukon-based writer for Outside Magazine. We hiked the mountain the day before to get a handle on what to expect on race day, and then during the race itself, I was scrambling around to different locations. By the end of race day I was physically exhausted but totally hyped up on adrenaline knowing I got the shots I needed. 

The whole town of Seward, Alaska is transformed for the event, and it was a fun challenge to capture not just the race itself, but the party atmosphere of the community. I volunteered with the race the next two years, and the challenge there was to get a different perspective and fresh shots each year. 

The terrain varies widely throughout the 5 kilometre course, which allows for unique shots at different stages, but that means lots of movement during the race. It’s essential to have a plan that lets you go from A to B to C without having to expend too much energy or time. It’s impossible to shoot reactively, you’ll be left behind in no time. You’re also fighting the elements. Dust is a major factor. It can get pretty hot — even in Alaska — on the side of a bare mountain under the sun. 

One year there were clouds of bugs covering portions of the mountain. It’s common for runners to dislodge large rocks that go plummeting down the race course. You’ll hear racers and spectators yelling “Rock! Rock! Rock!” to make sure people get out of the way. It all adds up to a thoroughly exciting event.

I feel for the town and the participants who have had to put off the race for this year. It really is a highlight of the year for everyone involved.

Men’s competitors ascend the mountain with Resurrection Bay seen in the distance.
Photo by Joel Krahn.
Women’s racers make use of the snowy conditions on the descent of Mount Marathon.
Photo by Joel Krahn.

What challenges have you faced when photographing in extreme conditions? (Ice caves, high altitudes, you name it.) Have any go-to gear or tips for enduring harsh conditions?

One of the most debilitating environmental challenges is cold weather. If you’re not careful, you can handicap your gear pretty quickly when shooting freezing temperatures. Accidentally breathe on your lens, and it will fog up and ice over. This gets especially risky when changing lenses as your rear element is exposed and even your sensor can get frost on it. 

I became accustomed to holding my breath when changing lenses outdoors — so much so that I now find myself instinctively not breathing until all the glass is covered up again. 

One time I accidentally left a camera in my car overnight. The temperature went below -40 and it took hours before it warmed up again and all the fog and frost evaporated. Just shooting for a few minutes in that kind of temperature can also lag up the rear LCD and top display so you’re not able to review images or see where your settings are at. I also find that if I’m suffering in the cold, my images suffer as well. So bundle up!

The sun peeks through the ice fog over the Yukon River in downtown Whitehorse.
Photo by Joel Krahn.

COVID-19 has dramatically impacted just about everything and everyone in the world. The photography industry is no exception. As a frequent traveler, what has been your experience with the pandemic? Have you continued shooting? Getting booked for jobs? 

I think I might be an outlier in the fact that my workload has actually ramped up recently. My region (B.C.) has dealt extremely well with the pandemic. 

We’ve had some of the lowest case rates in North America, and subsequently haven’t needed to implement any severe restrictions. Still, many organizations have pivoted away from in-person meetings and gatherings which has necessitated the need for video to fill in. I do some video work alongside my photography, and now the demand for video has gone way up. So while I’m not able to leave the area, more video work has filled my schedule.

Reindeer cross near the Tuktoyaktuk ice road to get to their spring calving grounds on the Mackenzie Delta. Photo by Joel Krahn.

Why editorial photography?

I’m not sure if I chose the type of photography. I’ve always just shot what’s around me and what I’m interested in. It’s more of a subconscious choice. 

I love being outdoors and finding new places and vistas, but I also love storytelling beyond the landscape. During my first years in photography, I mostly concentrated on making “pretty” pictures more so than telling a story through a frame. Then working as a photojournalist I pivoted more towards documentation of events. 

The most impactful photographers understand there is a marriage between making visually beautiful images and telling compelling stories in the same photo. Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey are two prime examples of this, blurring the line between beautiful art and social commentary.

I’ve always believed that the more we know about the world, the better we are able to make decisions and operate as a society that benefits humanity. That’s pretty lofty and idealistic for someone who doesn’t shoot as much news anymore – though that’s something I want to shift back towards (*smiles and waves at photo editors*).

Elmer David Jackson, a student of the traditional snowshoe making course taught by Doug Smarch, beams as he shows off the snowshoes crafted during the course.
Photo by Joel Krahn.

What was a major break that had a big impact on your career? How did it affect your trajectory as a photographer?

For sure the experience that had the biggest effect in propelling me to full-time photography work was getting hired as a photojournalist at a community newspaper in the Yukon. I had been on the hunt for more serious photography work for about six months when a friend sent me a posting for the position. It required a move across the country and I was torn whether that was a smart decision or not. 

In hindsight, of course that was a good move. I can’t believe I considered passing it by. Being part of a newsroom, trying to report and show stories the community found important, getting heaps of experience with daily assignments and deadlines — these all made it a very rich time for me. Also, living in a remote location with vast wilderness right out your back door was a big plus.

Teammates pour beer into the Coy Cup for Huskies forward Kevin Petovello following the team’s win over the Kelowna Sparta. Photo by Joel Krahn.

If you had to pick one, what would be your favorite photo you’ve taken? Why is it so special to you?

What? Just choosing one?!? I like different photos for different reasons. Some shots I like are technically nice with good light and proper settings. Others can be less perfect but have an interesting subject matter. Some just make me feel certain emotions or bring me back to a memorable event when I look at them.

Fall colours in Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon.
Photo by Joel Krahn.

But if I’m forced, I’d say this panorama of Tombstone Territorial Park ticks a lot of the boxes. Mostly it’s a beautiful reminder of a good time, when some friends and I took a day to drive six hours out and six hours back for a two-hour hike. So it conjures up the feels, but I think it’s also a pretty solid photo regardless.

You can keep up with Joel on his Instagram @joelkrahn and by checking out more of his work on his site

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