Jody MacDonald has a job which, on the surface, looks extremely enviable: She’s a travel photographer, bouncing around the world, snapping photos along the way. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a gig that’s exhausting and intensely difficult. A 24/7 life of risk, and passion. But the hard work comes with a major reward: Namely, the thrill of a life filled with adventure.
MacDonald has been traveling since childhood — it’s rooted in her DNA. Her first trip came when she was two years old, and ever since then the word “mundane” has been her enemy.Besides her photography, MacDonald runs a successful kiteboarding adventure company that makes five-year long trips around the world. She and her partner take thrill-seekers to the furthest reaches of the globe on their catamaran. Along the way, MacDonald offers fellow travelers a chance to leave the blandness of the daily grind behind — a gift that many are unable to brave alone but few would want to live without.
As a photographer, MacDonald is able to transport people to far-flung corners of the globe. Her photographs are a glimpse into someplace special — exotic locales which the rest of us may never get to see firsthand. That’s the mark of a great photographer. The ability to transport us. Each photo inspires us to be a little bolder in our everyday lives.
Recently, we had the chance to sit down with MacDonald to ask how she scored a job as a sailing, adventuring, globe-trotting photog-for-hire. Her story is an inspiration for anyone who wants to maximize their short time on this planet.
What’s your earliest travel memory?
When I was two-years-old, I moved to Saudi Arabia. My father worked for a Canadian telephone company. They got a big contract to establish the telephone system there. I lived there from when I was two until the age of 15. One of the perks of living in the Middle East is that they gave my parents money to go on vacation. They’d never traveled much in their lives, so they took full advantage of it. Every time I had a break from school, we went traveling. That definitely instilled the travel bug in me.
That’s such an awesome opportunity to have as a kid. It primes you for the rest of your life to go out there and find something new. Did you have a favorite place back then or any place you want to go back to as an adult?
We traveled so much that a lot of it is still a blur to me. I think that one of the places that really had an impression on me was in Africa, probably Kenya, in particular. We went on safari and camped with the animals. I think when you’re young, that’s just a really amazing adventure. Another place was within the Tiger Tops in Nepal. We camped in these tree houses and went on elephant safari for a week. We saw tigers and all kinds of wildlife. Of course, as a young child, that was so wonderful. Those two locations really stand out.
When did you pick up a camera for the first time?
My favorite subjects in school were art classes and physical education. I did really well at art classes. I loved painting and I loved creating, but I’m a perfectionist. I was really frustrated with the amount of time it would take me to finish a painting or a drawing just because I had to get it perfect. It ended up taking months. I became really frustrated with that.
When I went to college, I was doing my Bachelor’s in outdoor recreation, which everybody makes fun of me for.
That sounds like an awesome major!
I just really wanted to major in something I was really interested in. As an elective, I started taking photography classes. I really fell in love with the medium and the immediacy of photography. As I was doing my adventures in college — climbing trips and hiking trips and stuff like that — I started taking the camera with me. Part of it was for my class, but then I just thought this is a great way to combine my love of outdoor adventure with photography.
What was the next step after you discovered your love for photography?
After college, I moved out to Vancouver, Canada. I ended up becoming a photo editor for a big Canadian outdoor company. That’s where I learned the other side of the business — the photo editing side. Then I started sailing. When I started sailing around the world, I thought this is the ultimate opportunity to really do photography full-time.
How did that sailing gig come about? Walk us through that a little bit.
I was working in Vancouver and I had a boyfriend at the time who was a bush pilot and a paragliding pilot in Alaska. He convinced me to quit my job in Vancouver and just travel with him for a while surfing, paragliding, and having fun. I had been at my job in Vancouver for a while, so I really wasn’t challenged much anymore. I thought it was a great idea. On my last day of work, when I was going to quit, I got a phone call two hours before the end of my day from a friend saying that my boyfriend had just died in a paragliding accident.
I had already planned on quitting and traveling around. That was a big change. I just decided to do what I was planning on doing with him anyway because I didn’t really want to stay in Vancouver. I went on a road trip for about four months. I did some raft guiding in Alaska. As I was traveling, I met another guy who was doing sailing charters in the South Pacific. I decided I’ll join him and see what it’s like.
That’s a massive change in a short amount of time. How was the charting business?
After awhile I thought, ‘this is a horrible business.’ It’s a really, really, really tough way to make money. We ended up selling that boat in Thailand and then we just sat down and listed the things we hated and loved about the charter business. Then we thought about how can we create a business that eliminates all the negatives and allows us to keep sailing and exploring because that’s what we were really passionate about.
What’s the secret algorithm?
We came up with a business model that works just like a golf membership for kiteboarders. How it works is we do a five-year world kiteboarding expedition. When you buy a membership, it gives you a cabin for 10 days every year for the five years. Because we’re constantly sailing around the world every year when you come out to the boat, we’re on a different part of the planet. We specialize in remote areas and exploration with the catamaran. And, now, I’ve been on the boat for 10 years doing that.
10 years! That’s a long haul. How often have you been around the world then?
What does it feel like when you are living in the moment, sailing the ocean, and taking photos of people’s adventures?
Sailing is really great for teaching you to live in the moment because you have no other choice. I love the simplicity of it. Only the weather and time of day really dictate what you do. There’s no need for a watch or a calendar. Most of the time we had no idea what day of the week it was and sometimes even what month it was. For me, there’s a lot of freedom and contentment in that simplicity.
It’s always very fulfilling for me to try to document these incredible places, people, and the experiences we had exploring them. Life is so fleeting that it feels important to document amazing moments in time and show how incredible the world is.
Do you ever feel scared or hesitant? If so, how do you overcome that fear?
No, I never really did feel scared or hesitant. In general, I think I’m a person who embraces uncomfortable situations. I guess over time you learn what the boat is capable of what it isn’t. Even in the worst storms, I would just think, ‘let’s just take this a moment at a time and deal what’s happening right now.’ I rationalize that worrying about the bad scenarios that might happen don’t serve me or the situation in any positive way.
Which places really stand out?
There are quite a few different places but one of my all-time favorites is Western Papua — which is the western side of Papua New Guinea in Indonesia. Actually, the boat is going there later this year. We didn’t get to spend too much time there last time, so this time we’re going to spend three months in Papua New Guinea exploring that area. I’m really looking forward to that.
If I wanted to spend ten days on the boat, how would I go about doing that?
We have a website that’s offshoreodysseys.com. You would have to buy a membership, but we’re at the end of another five-year expedition right now. The only way you could get on is if there was a cancellation, actually. There are last minute cancellations, but that’s the only way.
Do you have a screening process for people to make sure they’re capable of living on the boat?
We have an application process when you become a member. We do an interview with you just to see if we like each other. But mostly, to be honest, if we like you. That was one of the things I really disliked about the charter business is that the boat, at the time, was my home. I really didn’t want to share it with people that weren’t like-minded or that I didn’t like so much.
For sure, being trapped in small quarters for long periods of time with someone you don’t like is hell.
When we started this new business, I thought, ‘how can we minimize that as much as possible.’ We came up with this application interview process. Plus, we have the right to buy you back out if we don’t like you. It’s not that you need a lot of experience. It’s just mostly — do you have the right attitude and do you have kiteboarding experience. We’re in really remote locations. It’s very hard to deal with beginners in a lot of those scenarios.
You’re operating for people who have their shit together.
That’s really what it is. We found that works really, really well. I think the nature of kiteboarding, it attracts a certain type of adventurous person that seems to be a little bit more resilient and a little bit tougher. For us, that turned out to be a great fit. That’s the kind of people that we were looking for.
Having sailed a lot myself, I know there’s a lot of boredom to overcome. Do you ever find yourself bored of your routine and what do you do to snap yourself out of it?
We were in interesting locations doing activities so I didn’t get bored too much. I would say the only time I would get bored onboard is during the long passages. There is only so much reading, sleeping, and watching movies you can do. I think to snap out of those bored moments I would often try to learn new things, like languages or play with different photography techniques.
When you go out to do a gig, how many lenses are you carrying? Are you carrying multiple cameras? What’s your usual pack?
I actually don’t have a usual pack because it really depends on the assignment. I definitely have multiple cameras with me, usually two to three cameras. I try to keep everything as minimal as possible. Often times I’ll just be using one to two lenses. I’ll end up taking three maximum. I try to always use less. I really try to minimize as much as possible.
Right on. If someone’s going out there to try to get into adventure photography, do you have any recommendations for what not to bring and what definitely to bring, even if it’s a specific lens size?
The greatest piece of advice would be just to keep it as simple as you can. Keep it as portable as you can. And try to keep it as light as you can. Less is definitely more. I would say some key lenses are the 24mm to 70mm and then the 70mm to 200mm. Those two lenses cover a huge range and they’re pretty much the standard in any adventure photographer’s gear bags. With those two, you can pretty much get anything done.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on five different lenses.
What would you do and how would you feel if you stopped traveling and taking photos? Where do you think your life would go?
That is a tough question. I’m not entirely sure what I would do. I would probably be a bush pilot in Alaska or a stunt person for movies. I like problem-solving, risk, and being creative so anything that could combine those elements would appeal to me.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a life or a job out of traveling and photography?
I would say the biggest thing is to go somewhere that you find really interesting. Find a story to photograph there. Don’t just look for one-off images. Find a story that you think is interesting. Spend as much time as you are able to and really just slow down and immerse yourself into that story and photograph it as much as you can. Don’t try to travel all over the place and hit all these spots and get all these one-off postcard images that don’t collectively work together into an overall story.
If you can start telling stories at every opportunity, that’ll be a great start towards a career in travel.
That’s awesome advice, thank you!
More of Jody MacDonald’s adventure photography: