The omens for Cory Richards becoming a world-class photographer did not look good. He dropped out of school as a teenager and was, for a time, homeless. But at the age of eighteen, he picked up his mother’s Ricoh point-and-shoot camera—and discovered his passion. Today, he is one of the most sought after adventure and mountaineering photographers, with a string of awards under his belt, including National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. His camera has taken him to wild and remote corners of world, from Antarctica’s unclimbed peaks to the Himalaya, where he made the first winter ascent of 8,000-meter Gasherbrum II. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Q & A
Your path to becoming a photographer was a fairly bumpy one. Talk about your early years and how you got into photography.
I discovered photography as a means of showing what I thought were the fundamental truths of being human. In my adolescence, I went through some hard times, but I started to recognize that all humans, despite their socioeconomic, racial, or religious backgrounds, are all just primitive animals with very big brains. Photography became a way to show that.
I went to high school two years early and was a smart kid. Apparently not too smart, though, because by the time I was fourteen I had dropped out and was homeless [Laughs]. That was when I formed these views about us as a human family. I was climbing a lot at the time, which is a wilful engagement that strips away all the niceties and shows elemental human struggle. I wasn’t living on the street but I didn’t have a home. I was taken in by friends, smuggled into basements or attics. I was bad [Laughs].
You are known for your climbing and adventure photography. Which came first, climbing or photography?
I started climbing when I was very young, so climbing came first. Photography joined into that. I’m best known for adventure photography, but that has always been a vehicle for me, never the point. Adventure photography in and of itself has very little meaning. It’s the photography and the images that surround the adventures; the immersive experience of culture that makes those adventures worth something.
What inspires you in your work, Cory?
The human family in all its different manifestations inspires me. Through photography I hope to help people understand that we are all the same. We live in a culture of opulence, but I’m inspired to show the human spirit that persists outside of that. We think we need so much, but really we need very little. I’m inspired by people, places, and cultures that exhibit an ability to thrive outside of what our opulent culture regards as normal. It sounds a little clichéd, but the most inspiring thing is the persistence of the human spirit.
National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Cory Richards By Simon Worrall