Interview | Laura Austin
When I was nineteen I took my first solo road trip. I lived in north Texas at the time and I was driving west to visit both my paternal grandparents and my maternal Gramma. It was early, maybe eight o’clock in the morning, and it was warm. I felt free and brave and strong. I could feel the insecurity of being alone but I knew it would better me. I could feel the necessity of the trip. The road was open and the sky was big and they met in the most indescribable way. I felt as if the feeling could go on forever.
I heard the poet David Whyte once explain the definition of the ancient use of the phrase Genius Loci, and what it means to have that in a person. He said the phrase, originally meaning “the spirit of a place,” is not something that is earned in a person, but it is “the way everything has met inside of you.” Those words have stuck with me ever since, bringing the picture of that open road to my mind, and my conversation with Laura returned this idea to me again.
Laura Austin is a photographer, writer, and explorer. She has photographed for companies like Nike and New Balance and traveled from Alaska to Francis Mallmann’s island in Patagonia. She is a woman of pure drive and she has an unmatched eye. I sat down with her on a warm day in Southern California in late November and discussed work, femininity, and being fully alone with yourself.
LS: So give me a little bit of your background. I know you as a photographer and a writer but how did you get to this point?
LA: Well, I grew up in Colorado and then Vermont and my main interest when I was younger was snowboarding. I realized pretty early on that I didn’t want to sacrifice my body and try to be a professional snowboarder so I saw graphic design as a career I could do within snowboarding and still remain in that world. So I started working for snowboard shops when I was still in highschool and then went to college for a minute in Vermont for graphic design. So design was actually my first focus. And then a semester into college I got offered a job out in California at Quicksilver. It was still in the action sports realm and I got offered a job that I would have wanted to do once I had graduated school… and I was only 18.
LS: That’s crazy.
LA: I know. So I packed up my car, with everything I wanted to bring with me and just moved out to California. After working there for two years though I realized I was way too young to be working a 9 to 5 desk job, and the company was very corporate and stuff, so I got a job at a snowboard magazine as their online editor. But when you’re working at a media magazine you have to eat, breath and sleep whatever the focus is, so snowboarding kind of started to feel small to me. After two years I decided to quit my job there and I was just like okay, I’m just going to try and be a freelance photographer. So I quit my job which was in Orange County and moved up to LA and I’ve been up here for four years now and things have worked out so far.
LS: I’ve heard that so many times. That you just have to go for it. Make it happen. Commit to it.
LA: It’s scary but I think to work freelance, you can’t just dabble on the side. Like when I was working at the magazine I was kind of doing photoshoots on the side every now and then, but things didn’t take off until I fully dropped everything and dove head first into that. It’s scary but I fully think that if you put that energy out there, like tell yourself, this is what I’m doing and this is all I’m doing, that it tends to work out more. And that puts more pressure on yourself to really figure it out especially if that’s your only income.
LS: Exactly. If you give yourself that energy and pressure, you have to meet it. So since you work in a creative field and are always tapping into that, what does creativity mean for you? I like to know about people’s creative processes, not just the day to day but also how you find it, discover it, and use it to create beautiful things.
LA: Yeah, I’d say my process is having no process. I like to show up at the location and let it inspire me and let the people I’m shooting dictate what I do. I’m really good at coming up with things on the spot. Because I think that if you have too much of a set plan in your mind, then that takes away from things that could happen naturally, that could be way better than what you were originally planning. Honestly I don’t even really look at other people’s photography too much. I tend to just go. But the thing is, I think with my background being in graphic design, things like composition and color, all of that stuff was hammered into me when I went to school, so I think it’s an interesting background to have being a photographer now because I can just show up and see anything as a blank page and make all of the elements just, work.
LS: You’re a writer too, right? How does that play into your storytelling when you’re on a job?
LA: When I worked at the snowboard magazine I was forced to learn how to write well, but now writing and photography just kind of go hand in hand, with telling more of the story. I try to use visual storytelling as much as I can, but it’s nice to be able to write and get a little deeper.
LS: I totally get that. It definitely let’s you go a little further.
LS: So I’m traveling alone right now. And I’m definitely feeling the travel anxiety and loneliness. What does fear and anxiety and struggle look like for you in your creative life? Or even just your everyday life because that definitely bleeds into creativity on the job.
LA: Actually, the thing that stands out the most is something that just happened to me last week. I started doing solo road trips a while ago, when I was going through a tough time with my boyfriend at the time and just needed to get away. And now it’s become this tradition for me. I just drive somewhere far away, by myself, just to kind of force myself to deal and process through it. But just this last week I had a job, some meetings I had to go to in San Francisco, and they offered to fly me up but I decided I wanted to drive. Because, again, I was going through a tough time. I went through a break-up not too long ago, and that’s been weighing on me a bit, and I also just kind of got stuck creatively. So on the way up I stopped at Big Sur, because it is one of my favorite places, it’s magical. But this is the first time I went there by myself and I had to book a hotel the night before I went up there and pretty much everything was booked. But I found this small little place called Deetjen’s, it’s these very old, historical houses that have multiple rooms and shared bathrooms. When I went to reserve a room there was only one room left and it only slept one person, so I got it. And when I was checking into the hotel, the receptionist was like, ‘make sure you check out the journals in the room and also don’t forget to check out the teapot.” I’m like, ‘wait what, teapot?’ So I go in my room, it’s tiny, just a twin bed and sink, and I open up the cupboard, and there’s journals in there dating back to 1990. And since this place only allows one person to be in there, and Big Sur is out of the way, everyone who wrote in these journals were people traveling by themselves and every entry was so powerful and said what they were going through at the time and what they were trying to deal with. There were people referencing other entries and how they’re gaining wisdom and everyone just sending out love to everyone else who’s coming through this room. And then I open the teapot and in the teapot are hundreds of folded up notes. Just people passing along words of wisdom and love and literally after opening up a couple of these notes I just started crying. And it was funny, because I purposely went on this trip to be alone, and I didn’t expect to experience this in a hotel but what I learned in this little room is that I’m not alone at all. With the stuff that I was feeling and the stuff that I was going through - feeling stuck and losing love, it was so powerful. I sat on the bed in there and just read these journals for hours. Going back to 1990, when I was born actually, and being able to relate to women who were going out on these trips by themselves—it was exactly what I needed at the time.
LS: That’s amazing.
LA: Yeah I know, it was crazy. Like what a coincidence that I settled on that tiny room.
LS: And it was the only one left.
LA: Yeah, it was such a special place.
LS: I understand that feeling, though, and how important it is. The feeling of being alone. It’s uncomfortable. It’s anxiety ridden.
A: And being alone is uncomfortable. And this project that I’m going to do, that’s spawning from this experience, is encouraging people to facilitate aloneness. You’ll learn so much about yourself and you’ll grow so much if you’re not constantly distracting yourself with other people. And it’s a struggle and you’ll get anxious and you might feel lonely but it forces you to feel everything you need to feel, which I think is important and powerful.
LS: It forces you to be with yourself fully. There’s no escape.
LA: And road trips especially. You can’t be in front of a screen, or on your phone, hopefully. And at the end of it you feel like you overcame something and you’re proud of yourself. You realize, ‘oh I just did that whole trip by myself’. It provides a sense of fulfillment even if you didn’t do that much while you were gone.
LS: I’ve found a lot of similarities between meditating on femininity and what it means to be a woman and how that inspires you, between that and what you’re talking about—this freedom to explore, to be alone, to go out in the world and come back feeling accomplished and what that does for creativity. There’s a really interesting connection between both thoughts. So what is it like for you as a woman in this field?
LA: I mean, to an extent, I’ve always been a female within male dominated industries. Like snowboarding for sure and then photography as well, but to an extent I feel like it’s worked to my advantage. Because if you’re a female in a male dominated space and you have talent and you can hang and you can get respect, I feel like you stick out more, and it adds more to your story. But when people ask me if I’m being held back as a woman in what I’m doing, I don’t feel that way. I always grew up as one of the guys. I’ve never separated me and them, that doesn’t even go through my head. Which I think has been a big advantage to me, like not being scared to do whatever it is that I want to do. When it comes to gender, yes there is gender bias for sure, but if you don’t even allow that in your head or don’t become fearful because of that, or feel like it’s holding you back, then I feel like you can do whatever you want to do. It just depends on how you think about it. If you want to let that hold you back, if you feel like your gender is going to hold you back then yeah, it probably will.
LS: It’s a confidence and a drive, I totally agree.
LA: Exactly. It’s all about your mindset and I just have never thought that because I’m a woman, I can’t do anything. There’s nothing that I can’t do.
I left the conversation with a full sense of Laura’s genius. Her down to earth nature, her ability to work well and without apology, and her curiosity with nature and the world around her. It all came together in front of me, a beautiful connection, a meeting, of her work and her life, and just how powerful that genius can be in this world.
This interview is a part of a collaboration with STAND Magazine. It first appeared in issue 06 - available now. STAND is a men's lifestyle magazine for men who give a damn. For more visit www.stand-magazine.com and lauraaustinphoto.com.