Stefan Haworth, a digital imaging ambassador for Sony, produces lifestyle, adventure, and action sports imagery. His photographs are beautiful, timeless, simple, and might make you wish you were his friend.
Sponsor The Dream
Stefan became a professional photographer 10 years ago when he was just fifteen years old. “I was all about having large camera gear to impress girls, which didn’t really work,” he laughs. “I was just a big nerd on camera gear.”
High school photography classes bored him, requiring him to shoot things like flowers and bones. Stefan found more exciting subjects in shooting downhill mountain bikers and skiers in his hometown of Queenstown, New Zealand. His home town, often considered the adventure capital of the world, gave him plenty of opportunities to produce amazing imagery in his backyard.
After graduation Stefan became a full-time photographer, but it took a while for him to find his niche. He turned-down an opportunity doing architecture because he found he is too hyperactive to be inside everyday. I witnessed this hyperactivity first-hand as we spoke. He seemed to be going in a million different directions all at once, but in a charming way and with great enthusiasm.
Between shooting commercial content for local businesses and shooting weddings, he was able to pay the bills. But weddings did not creatively interest him and the life of a freelancer was stressful. A few years into his professional career, Stefan went out on a limb. He pitched to Sony to partner with the Sony Action Cam. He was often working with top athletes and pitched his ability to create content in the beautiful landscapes around Queenstown.
This relationship grew over the years into bigger cameras and a full photography-ambassadorship. Now his leading sponsor, Sony, supports him to travel the world and create beautiful content. Another brand that teamed up with Stefan are his friends Alex and Loz from Will & Bear, who he’s been recently working closely with. “It’s not going to buy me a mansion, it’s more of a lifestyle thing,” he says. “If I wanted more money I would go out and get a job that would waste my life away. But I’m getting more value by being able to travel and see the world.”
Stories Find You
Constantly traveling can be taxing and Stefan believes that it takes a certain type of personality to be okay with it. At the time we spoke, he was traveling in Australia with 3 t-shirts, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of pants, and his camera gear.
“I have bugger-all. Which means I smell more,” he laughs. “I’m currently sitting in a the car with two girls and they’re probably thinking yea you stink. I’ll open the window,” he says to them.
Though Stefan loves the freedom of being a minimalist, he does get homesick. At times, the lifestyle even puts him on edge. However, Stefan’s creativity as a photographer is driven by stories that materialize from his travels. Viewers find a deeper connection to his images because of the stories behind them. He achieves this by being authentic and by pushing the boundaries of his personal comfort zone. By doing that, stories tend to find him.
“You definitely have many ways of traveling. I like to challenge myself in that respect and I get really bored in hotels. I like going to a country to explore the culture and don’t want to portray a glorified fancy version of that country. It’s about getting on a train, going wherever you want, not having any worries, and getting into bad scenarios. Then all of a sudden you have these awesome stories to tell.”
Mongolian Eagle Hunters
One of those stories happened last year in Mongolia. He went there with the intention of photographing traditional Mongolian eagle hunters. “I like to do really random things so I said, I’m going to cross Mongolia on a camel,” he said. After realizing how big Mongolia is and that he didn’t know how to ride or care-for a camel, he decided to do a shorter route on horseback – still with very little knowledge of horses.
Upon arrival to the small village that he planned to start his journey from, he bought two horses from a local farmer and his son. “They asked why I was there and I lied, saying I was there to learn the difference between a Mongolian horse and a New Zealand horse. It was the biggest bluff because I had no idea how to ride a horse and actually have a fear of them.”
All he knew about riding was from what he learned watching YouTube videos a week before he left New Zealand. When it came to lassoing the pack horse and taming it, he knew he was in the shit.
“There I am riding off on this horse thinking ‘holy fuck I’m riding a horse’.” Stefan spent the next few weeks riding through the Mongolian country-side, sleeping in a tent, and eating stale-bread and Nutella. Occasionally people invited him into their homes to eat with their families.
He returned to the farm where he purchased the horses and though unable to communicate verbally, he developed a bond with the farmer and his son. Towards the end of his trip, Stefan showed them videos of himself free-diving which they only discussed amongst themselves. The next morning, a truck filled with two men was parked outside of his tent.
Stefan soon learned that the two men were the local governor and his translator. They were there to ask him to search for the body of a boy who recently drowned in the river. Most of the people in the village were unable to swim and the governor had been contacted by the farmer about Stefan’s free-diving ability. An army truck took Stefan down to the river with about 100 villagers on motorbikes following in tow. They gave him an oversized wetsuit, a snorkel, but no mask and the water was 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit). After 5 hours of diving and combing the shores, he found the body of the 14-year old boy and brought it to shore.
Tired and freezing, he just wanted to go back to his tent. However, the entire village swarmed him, grabbing, hugging, and kissing him. They insisted that he attend a ceremony in his honor. “Finding a dead body didn’t bother me, it was the after effects of it,” said Stefan. “I didn’t know how to react because I was being glorified but finding a dead body isn’t something to be happy about.”
Back at the village, they adorned him with a green velvet robe, a hat, and a long table length mat laden with food. He had to eat first. “Not really something you want to be doing after finding a dead body,” he said sarcastically.
The next day, he rode on horse-back to the Eagle Festival with the farmer, his son, and a group of eagle hunters. Word about him spread overnight so everyone at the festival was thanking him and shaking his hand and the governor presented him with a medal.
Another day later, the farmer ran up to him saying “baby, baby, drown, drown”. So they raced to the river on a motorbike. Stefan dove into the cold river where a family was screaming for the missing child. “I had no idea what to do so I would dive in, float down on the bottom, sprint up the river, dive back in, sprint up again for about 15 minutes until I was on the shore spewing my guts out. I pushed myself to the limits because I had the family there screaming and crying.”
The farmer’s son eventually pulled Stefan out of the water. He felt like a failure. “I got taken back to the Yurt [Mongolian hut] and no one spoke English. We were all just sitting there looking at the fire and I was thinking, I want to go home… I didn’t plan for anything like that, I wouldn’t pay for anything like that, but there’s no way I’d change it. It was a life changing experience.”
A Moment In Time
Stefan holds his lifestyle photography to a very high standard. He avoids making them look commercial by creating simple, mellow, timeless, and authentic imagery.
Sometimes his lifestyle scenes might look staged, but they are usually organically born out of special moments that happen on adventures with friends. The adventure is the ultimate goal, but the photographs tell the story. In today’s world where people “do it for the Gram” [referring to people who only do activities to post images on social media], authenticity is becoming rare. Copies of the same cliché adventure photographs bombard us on a daily basis – feet dangling over the edge of a cliff, a girl holding a guys hand looking out into the distance, or a tent stuck on the edge of a cliff where it isn’t even possible to sleep.
“The biggest thing for my photography is keeping things authentic,” said Stefan. “You get people who park up on a beach and sit on top of their car to look out. In reality, do you really go sit on-top of your car if you’ve got a nice car? No, you’ll dent it or scratch it and it’s just really awkward to get up on. Or do you really go stand on-top of your jeep with a surfboard looking out at the waves? No-one does that. They go look at the waves and then go grab their surfboard,” he laughs. “What’s the point? It’s different if you’re big truck has a tie down roof and you pass boards down; that’s believable. The photos you’re grabbing are showing a moment of your life or what is actually happening. You’re trying to capture it in the best way.”
At the moment, Stefan feels that he is exactly where he wants to be; creating stories through imagery and in a position to only take on projects he feels passionate about. “When you get to that position in photography, it’s very comforting.”
For The Aspiring Photographer
Bridging the gap between amateur and professional photographer can be difficult. In addition to having really high quality content, sometimes you have to take a leap into projects you aren’t ready for. Stefan admits that he was very inexperienced before his first commercial project, which was actually quite large. But he took the gig and figured it out along the way. Below are some of Stefan’s insights and advice for aspiring photographers:
Creativity: “If you want to do photography as a job, don’t plan to earn money. As soon as you try to turn it into a job and means to pay your bills, you have a pressure to create. Then creativity doesn’t happen. Keep on doing it as a passion and if you’re doing the right thing, money will find you.”
Gear: “Ten years ago, gear was a really big thing. Now you can buy consumer cameras and the quality you get from them is very high. Technology has developed so much, it’s funny when I shoot some commercials on small-sized cameras and they kind of look at me like, ‘where’s your big cameras?’. Then you produce the photos and they’re quite blown away. It’s pretty cool.”
Pricing: According to Stefan, many aspiring photographers do commercial jobs for free to gain experience. However, companies then learn to expect that which ruins it for the next photographer. So you have to put a lot of thought into how you price your images. “Images are a hard thing to have value. You have your time, which you can put a value-point to. But when you have an image you already shot, people are surprised when you tell them how much it is. It’s hard starting out because you don’t really know how to price yourself. You need to take into account your gear, the research, the editing, discussions, and all these other things that do actually add up.”
Business: After being on the road for extended periods of time, Stefan feels the pressure of managing his business. Doing taxes, invoices, editing images, while continuing to create content can be daunting. People often only see the fun aspects of being a travel photographer and don’t see the complete picture. So, according to Stefan, when some people try to pursue travel photography as a career, they are often unpleasantly surprised.
Collaboration: People tend to think of photography as an individual activity, but building relationships is an important part of creating strong imagery. Whether it is a model, a friend, or an action sports athlete, Stefan focuses on building a bond first. Then they are more open to helping him with ideas he has for photographs. Also, it is important to effectively communicate your idea to the person first, opposed to saying “we’ll go do this or that”. When collaborating with action sports athletes, Stefan always tries to contribute to building jumps and setting up the scene. “It’s not a collaboration if you’re not doing anything,” he said. “You can’t just tell them what to do.”
To find out more about Stefan, visit his website at stefanhaworth.com or follow his adventures on Instagram @stefan_haworth. I hope you found inspiration in this story and if you did, please share. Comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know what you think