Portraits from the Trail: PCT People Project
Fear not, therefore, to try the mountain passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action."
- John Muir
Last week OE had the pleasure of sitting down with Andrew Burns, creator of PCT People Project. The project is Andrew’s newest portrait series of 2019 Pacific Crest Trail hikers. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a 2650 mile long distance trail that spans the length of the American West, from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. He plans to release the series as a coffee-table book that chronicles hundreds of images and stories of the hikers undertaking this sometimes grueling, sometimes wonderful, yet ultimately unique journey.
For the start of the project, Andrew drove to the trail in March with some trail magic and a sign that read, “Free snacks & drinks. Photographer seeks to photograph hikers.” The project’s initial inspiration was centered around capturing the portrait of a hiker named Megan. She is attempting to be the first hiker to complete the PCT as an amputee. In total that day he photographed dozens of hikers and the series was born. Since, the project has evolved to shooting 500 hiker portraits over the course of six months.
From Andrew’s press release, “(Burns) photographs hikers with the trail environment as the background. He’s met hikers all over the desert of Southern California, the Sierra Nevada mountains and northern Oregon in the Columbia River Valley. The result is an expression of both strength and vulnerability in the images and stories from hikers about the tests of long-distance hiking, their motivation to continue, and what led them to this adventure in the first place”.
The book’s title is To Try The Mountain Passes.
Andrew gave us a more in-depth lowdown on the inspiration behind the PCT People Project, the gear he used, and advice for other photography-focused creators.
OE: First off, do you have a trail name or do you go by Andrew?
A: I was given a trail name on Sunday at PCT Trail Days (Oregon) and it’s Picture Dad (PD), though I haven’t actually used it yet. I’ve been shopping around, but I think I am going to take it. TAOGOI was the thru-hiker that gave me the name, because that day I was wearing a floppy dad hat and a dadish shirt, plus I have kids.
OE: Why did you feel the need to create this project?
PD: Initially it was my own motivation. I am a commercial photographer and I’ve been working for myself for 11 years. Once a year I tackle a personal project. I like working with people a lot so I decided on a portrait series.
For 2019, I tasked myself with finding a group of people that were as authentic, real, and honest as possible. I didn’t know what that was going to be until January or February. That’s when I thought, “I’m going to go out and do a series of portraits on hikers.”
Last hiking season in 2018 I was watching Youtube videos and started to catch the bug of the PCT. So basically, those two worlds (photography) and (hiking) started to come together.
OE: What inspired you to start the project?
PD: Well the long story you can read on my Kickerstarter, but while I was on Instagram I searched “#PCT2019”. That’s when I discovered Megan, @pct_amputee. On a whim, I directly messaged her and said, “hey I know you’re in the Julian area. I live in San Diego, I’d like to meet you on the trail and photograph you.”
I thought for sure she wouldn’t reply. It’s a random dude wanting to meet and take her picture out on the trail... but she responded!
She said she’d be at Barrel Springs on Wednesday, March 13th. So I went out to the trail with my dog, and mind you at this point I’ve never met PCT hikers in my life. It was pretty cold that day, 45 degrees, and I am thinking, “this is going to suck”, but I still went. I sat on the trail with a cooler of beers and sodas and just waited. Over the course of that day I met and shot twelve thru-hikers from all over the country. Then Megan came through around mid-day and I was able to photograph her!
OE: What happened after?
PD: I went home that day and had this permanent smile on my face. It was really awesome! I just got twelve great portraits and I captured some pretty interesting stories with just 6 hours of my time. From there, I decided to give it another couple of days. I brought my kids to the trail, did another few days of shooting, and got 40 portraits over the span of three days.
At that point I set a goal of photographing 200 hikers in the desert. I ended up doing that many portraits from March 13th to about the middle of May, all between the Mexican border and Cabazon. I got 200 portraits done and thought, “This is a really cool project”. My Instagram grew like crazy, almost 1000 followers in a month! So I pulled my wife aside and asked, “honey, could I do this all summer”? She was super supportive.
I started throwing money to gas and filling the cooler with beer and went to the Sierra. Kennedy Meadows for a long weekend, Tuolumne Meadows for a good part of a week, and Donner Pass for three days in early August. I decided after that I was fully committed and wanted to do a book. Doing a coffee-table book had always been a life goal of mine.
To fund the book, I launched a kickstarter and went to PCT days to talk to hundreds of hikers in Oregon about what I was doing.
“It’s a passion project that has blown up into taking over my life for half a year.”
OE: Does the work go beyond the portraits? You mentioned there's a storytelling aspect, so how does that manifest in the book and your social media? If you look at the work on instagram, it’s portraits, that's where it starts, but where does it go from there?
PD: Sure, I think that ultimately what the project and the book is going to be about is, people. The book has nothing to do with the trail, the mountains, or the trail towns. It really has to do with who is on the trail and getting a cross-section of who those people are. It’s really interesting to me the amount of authenticity and camaraderie that exists in the hiking sub-culture. The book is going to be a great way for non-PCT hikers to peer into that world. I think the idea that you can have thousands of individuals from all over with the same objective, walk all day, really brings people together in this amazing way.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that right now in our culture there seems to be a change in what we value. As in, people are genuinely interested in honesty - real stories from real people. They’re tired of staring at pictures with photoshopped models. These stories don’t feel real and are just not relatable. Honestly, I think that is where the instagram following has come from. It’s people that are interested in the “idea” of thru-hiking or the PCT, maybe they’ll do it one day, maybe they won't, but it’s intoxicating to someone that sits in traffic or at a desk all day.
OE: Does every photo include a story?
PD: Umm, most, but some people don’t share as much about themselves as others. Some are really weirded out about me sitting on the trail by myself.
OE: You give them beer and they’re weirded out by that?
PD: I’ve had a few people turn me down, but that's a very small percentage. Most of the time people are stoked to get a beer. I bring fresh fruit a lot, too.
OE: What were the reactions coming in? Any bad or completely awkward encounters or were most hikers pretty supportive?
PD: Some hikers hike on quickly and I don’t really get to talk to them. So, what the book is going to end up being is hundreds of photos, but probably less than 50 stories. Lots of stories about how these hikers got their trail names. I also have a writer working with me on the book. The stories that interested us are the, “reason why people are on the trail”, “what brought them there,” and “what the trail did for them”.
“Some stories I really want to dig into”
OE: Inspire is a big theme that OE works with - are there any stories that you think are inspiring? Ones that you’d like to highlight on, besides Megan’s?
PD: One that comes to mind is Kids Menu. He’s 15 years old and he did the AT with his mom at thirteen. He hiked a large portion of the PCT solo this year and started a backpack company called, Little River Packs. His story is pretty inspiring and I love the photo I got of him. I had to chase him down the night before and drove him to the trailhead at Kennedy Meadows. We photographed him right at dawn.
I love his photo.
I think the story of the Bennett family from Washington is pretty awesome too. They’re a family with four kids between the age of ten and sixteen, a dog, and the parents are in their early 40s. They’ve hiked 1700 miles of the trail already. I was able to meet them at PCT Days and it was really cool to meet the 10 year old of the family that has hiked that much.
That’s a good story.
Then there’s a hiker named, Paddles. He’s a writer from Australia that went into atrial fibrillation on the trail around the Idyllwild area. He had to be taken off trail to the hospital afterwards. A few days later, (he) got back on the trail, continued to hike, and then it happened again in Oregon.
After Oregon, he went back to the Sierra. Three weeks in, he was by himself in Kings Canyon… and it happened again. He had to be helicoptered out this time.
He actually wrote me a message saying that he went to the doctor and had to have his heart reset with defibrillator paddles. They fully put him under and knocked him out. They stopped his heart and restarted it - and that’s how he got his trail name, “Paddles”.
OE: We’re curious about the gear. What are you shooting with? What’s a normal set up for you?
PD: Because I do this for a living, I basically use the same gear I would use for commercial portrait work. I want the photos to look well-produced. I shoot on a Canon 5D Mark IV, one Einstein strobe light, and a medium softbox. To power the light in the field, I bring a lithium battery pack. I thought about using speed lights, but I really like the quality I can get out a studio strobe.
OE: What are some challenging aspects with using gear or getting shots in the field?
PD: I bring about 30 pounds of gear with me. When I get out to the trail, I have to make sandbags out of rocks so my gear doesn’t fall over. My formula is pretty simple. I put the hiker with their backs to the sun, that way their face is fully shaded, light them 45 degrees with the box, and then just balance the exposure with the environment.
I do maybe five seconds worth of photoshop to each photo. I don’t remove anybody’s bags under their eyes or even fix their hair when it’s sticking up. Basically, it’s just a quick color or contrast adjustment.
I don't give the hikers very much direction. That’s why you see a lot of variations in the portraits. People holding onto the strap to their backpack, hands on hips, or whatever. I tell them where to stand and that’s about it. It’s important for me as a photographer to not give a lot of direction, as I want the photos to be as real and authentic as possible. But if someone steps in front of the camera and is super awkward, I’ll help them out.
OE: If someone else wants to get into portrait photography with a focus on hiking and the outdoors - what advice would you give them?
PD: Get ready to make some friends. Fill your cooler with drinks and beer. When I first started this project, I had some anxiety of “are people even going to care about my photo project? Are people going to come up to me and say, I don’t really want to do your photo thing”. I had to quickly get over my anxiety of approaching people and asking, “hey can I take your photo?”
OE: Anything else we should know about you, the work, or something you’d like to plug? What’s next?
PD: After PCT days, I finally photographed a total of 500 people. That is the unofficial end to the project. I’m considering doing it for next season, however I don’t think this is going to be a sustainable year after year. At this point, it’s a one-off and portfolio project for me. This has never been about making money.
“I think just being able to meet hikers on the trail, learn about and interview them is the most rewarding. It’s not so much about me. I want to tell their story”
OE: Let's say you did continue this series, is there any other trails you like to shoot on?
PD: I’ve definitely had people suggest that to me. Maybe in the long term, spend a summer on the AT photographing hikers, that would be really cool. But honestly what’s more concrete is that I am going to start section hiking the PCT. Starting this fall and into next spring, I'm going to be starting some long sections, hopefully with my kids. It’s a goal to finish the PCT within the next 5 - 7 years.
“The 500 hikers I’ve photographed have very much inspired me to start section hiking the PCT” -A. Burns, Picture Dad
To learn more about the PCT People Project, check out the photo gallery, or pre-order the book click on the links below:
Project Kickstarter: pctpeopleproject.com