AERANAUTS Q&A 04

Grace Taylorson Smith Pritchard, Photographer 

Join us for the latest installment in our Aeranauts series, an exploration of inspirational men and women, from all walks of life, in their own words

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Grace at Lake Vrynwy Reservoir in Powys, Wales during a trip to photograph waterfalls

Grace Taylorson Smith Pritchard got an early schooling in the benefits of living off the grid. From a young age, living on a 50-acre farm in the wilds of North Wales’ Snowdonia National Park, her playground was Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak. The area defined her make-up and her career path as an Adventure Sports Photographer. In Grace’s world outdoor sport and the natural world go hand in hand. Academia beckoned her towards a conventional career path, but at each turn, she doubled back instead into sport and the natural environment. Now 26, her professional life as a photographer combines regular trips into the wilder tracts of Britain to photograph nature and the people who share her passions for diving, climbing, hiking and paragliding and academic studies in Marine Biology and, right now, sharks. We caught up with Grace just before she began a new PhD course into the effects of climate change on the ocean’s biggest predators.

Early morning views over Glen Etive from a two-week wild camping trip around Scotland, August 2021

Grace, what made you who you are today?
      I'm currently based in Chester, on the border with North Wales, but I spent my whole childhood in Snowdonia. Mine was a bit of an unconventional childhood. My parents got divorced, and my mum wanted a complete change in lifestyle. She was in the fashion industry and did a lot of work abroad, especially in China, and then, in order to spend more time with her children, she just did a major U-turn, decided to buy a huge plot of land in the middle of Snowdonia and set up a campsite looking for a fresh start. I would get kicked out the front door and told to come back when it was dark. I spent all day exploring. And that's really where my appreciation for the mountains came from. I barely left until University in Manchester.

Did you think of college as an irreversible step on the path to a professional career?
      It was another U-turn in my life. I didn't know what I wanted to do at the time, I thought I'd do a law degree, encouraged by my family. By year 3, I knew it wasn’t for me at all. In the process, I lost my connection to nature, spending three years in such a big place, so, after graduation, I decided to move abroad. I moved to Thailand and that's when I properly reconnected with nature. Fortunately, throughout University, I'd been really into scuba diving. So, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I moved to Thailand to dive; I trained to do it professionally. And that led to dive jobs in Australia, Indonesia and eventually the Azores, before coming back to the UK.

But this time round you knew what you wanted to study?
      I did a master's degree in Marine Environmental Management at the University of York, a sort of a logical extension of all the diving I’d been doing. I was amazed even to get on the course because I hadn’t done any science at all since my GCSEs at school. It was a big, big achievement for me.

And one thing led to another…?      
      Because I studied Marine Biology I got this opportunity to go and dive in Sri Lanka. That's sort of where my photographic journey began too. Being there gave me lots of material, but at the start of my photography journey, I really didn’t have a voice. What I was experiencing in the world of photography was the antithesis of who I am. It was all about content creation and influence. It gave me lots of beautiful things to photograph. I worked for a lot of hotels, tour companies, sailing charters and stuff like that. I found I didn't like photographing what was easy - what was just visually pleasing - anymore; it became monotonous to me.

Grace on the hunt for the second biggest shark in the world, the basking shark, with Basking Shark Scotland, on the Isle of Coll.

You left Sri Lanka behind you at a certain point and returned to the UK, so as a photographer you switched from beaches and palm trees to rainy windswept UK. It’s the opposite of exotic.      
      When I began, my photography was more on the travel side of things, about content creation. A lot of what I was doing was me setting up a tripod, putting an intervalometer on the camera and shooting myself in these beautiful places. I got bored with that pretty fast. The real magic came with capturing other people; I didn't want to shoot myself anymore. That was a big learning step for me, finding how to deal with actually photographing other people.

How much is spontaneity and how much is planning?
      I think there’s a fine line between something that isn't planned at all, and something where you know what to expect. I shoot a lot of climbers, and there's a big danger element. You have to go through so much training on how to do these things safely. So, preparations are definitely key, especially with adventure and sports photography, even when you’re not actually shooting.But you can’t fully prepare for everything. 

What drives you?     
      I like to consider myself as an adventure and sports photographer. But to put that in a broader sense, what I am, essentially, is a lifelong learner, especially in relation to the natural world, and sort of how we, as humans, move through it physically, how we navigate it. How can we climb it? How can we dive through it? Experience it? That's what really pushes me. I like to think that my photography is me documenting my findings in this learning process. If you Google “lifelong learner” it's basically about the self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for personal or professional reasons. My photography is that; it's just documenting this pursuit of knowledge in the natural world.

What you do is pretty Instagram friendly, the sort of stuff that plays great on YouTube too. Can you see a career with social media funding the lifestyle you have chosen?
      Yes and no. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with social media. You have to move with the times so go along with it. That makes sense. But there are certain things that I'm not willing to compromise on. I moved away from that influencer, content-creator stage of my life. What I’m aiming for is the pure editorial side of things. 

Content creation seems very viable these days.      
      It’s amazing the number of opportunities that I'm getting now where I’m asked ‘oh can you just photograph yourself with this’. And its products that I’d never, in my life, consider using. No, that's a very easy trap to fall into. Mainly because it completely detracts from the photography if I'm just photographing anything that gets thrown at me. Legitimacy is kind of important. I'd rather turn down work like that. I could be making a fortune shooting weddings and families, but that doesn't represent me as a person.  

Drone video of a climber practicing a route on top rope at Pandy Quarry in Mold, North Wales. 

Grace preparing for a 4 hour ascent of the pinnacle rib route on the east face of Tryfan.

So how do you develop in your career?
      Whilst needing to protect that integrity, there is definitely an urge to keep up with the trends. Expanding into videography is something that I'm looking into a lot. What I really want to do is create a sort of a mini-series, a first-person narrative of my adventure photography, using things like action cams mounted on my helmet whilst I’m climbing, to document these experiences.

Is it different in the adventure sports industry, in photography, being a woman?            
      It is, but I think it's definitely getting better. It's definitely a male-dominated industry. You know, if I say the names like Jimmy Chin or Chris Burkard, You're probably going to know who I'm talking about. But if I say, Krystle Wright or Savannah Cummins, you probably won’t know those names.
      
Do you think you have a responsibility to show women what is possible in your field?          
      Definitely. There's two ways of promoting women in the outdoor industry. One is very aligned with my principles and the other isn't. Maintaining integrity, of being very strict with what I shoot, is important. because I don't want to fall into that trap. There's a lot of people out there who are trying to promote women in the outdoor world but it’s in a way that doesn't reflect me. You know, pretty women wearing very tight clothes on the top of very high mountains. That's definitely not my angle. I want to promote the complete opposite of that, like the really down and dirty, like “I haven't showered in four days because I've been wild camping”; women can do all that too. I want to shoot the women who have short fingernails and bruised knees because they’ve been rock climbing! 

Two groups of climbers work separate routes on a very popular section of slab in Dinorwic Quarry

What places are on your all-time bucket list?
      I’m going to have to give you three because my photography spans the sky, the land and the ocean. I'm hoping to become a paragliding pilot soon. So, Chamonix is number one for that. It's the best place you can possibly go for paragliding, because you've got so many ridges that provide ridge lift. You can fly all day without having to land. For climbing, it would be the Dolomites in Italy. I've been dying to go and climb there, but even just for hiking or mountain biking. The Dolomites have it all. Finally, for diving, I'd have to say Mexico. I have a friend who works on a live-aboard in Guadalupe Island diving with the Great Whites. I spent a couple of weeks at the Gili Shark foundation founded by Steve Woods in Indonesia (Read about Steve Woods, aka Aeranaut01, here). I’m so into it now, I’m starting a PhD on shark ecology at Leeds University in a couple of weeks. And hopefully with that, I'll be able to go and do some research on his boat next year.

Is there a moment for you, amongst your various interests and activities, when time stands still?
     There are two distinct moments that come to mind where I feel the passage of time slowing down. It happens sometimes when I’m climbing and almost always when I’m diving. Both activities require you to be fully present in the moment. In rock climbing, we have this concept of flow-state. It’s that sweet spot where our skills and the level of challenge presented to us are equal. To put it more simply, it’s those moments when you are just completely ‘In the Zone’. Climbing in flow is this almost meditative state of just being, where you are just solely focused on nailing the project at hand and everything seems to just fall into place. When I catch these moments climbing - I’m not sure if I’ve been on a route for 30 seconds or half an hour. With diving, it’s simply being in such an alien environment. Things work differently underwater, the most obvious being sound. There’s something quite magical about immersing yourself in a world for an hour where you can’t talk to one another. We could all benefit from that sometimes! But a part of me feels like time works differently underwater too. Encounters with wildlife, while fleeting, can feel like a lifetime. An hour-long dive can feel like the best 24 hours of your life. 


What is the best use of time for you?      
      Too many people think that they just don’t have enough time. I think the real question is, do you have anything in your life worth making time for…no matter what. I wish everyone could answer this question with a resounding YES. I’m currently juggling a full time PhD, A photography business and a digital marketing job amongst other things. All of these elements are incredibly time consuming, but they are all 100% necessary to my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way - so I make the time. The operative word there is ‘make’. I purposefully didn’t say ‘find’. Making time for things that mean a lot to you is an active pursuit, its effort and toil …‘find’ denotes something passive that just falls into your lap. Anything worth doing is going to require you to create time for it, but it will always be worth it. 

A climber bouldering in the coastal crags of the Llyn Peninsula, Wales 

Taken After shooting The hike and Fly ‘X-Lakes’ competition in the Lake District, Pilot Will Marshall takes the quick way down High Crag near Helvellyn.

Is it sport itself or nature that attracts you to all these outdoor adrenaline sports? The two seem to collide very frequently in your life     
      It’s 100% nature. The reason that after University I went to Thailand, was completely to reconnect with nature. That's a part of my life that I'd completely lost, I went away. Party Grace disappeared, and I really found nature again, and that really instilled the sort of lifelong learner in me.

But you’re certainly promoting those sports too. Do you see part of what you do as a sort of encouragement to people, to at least get outdoors and do stuff?
     I hope so. And I think, the breadth of what I shoot - I'd like to think - encourages that a bit more than maybe photographers who are very specific in what they shoot. I'm doing all of these different things, but that means I’m not an expert in all of them. I'm trying to photograph as many different disciplines as I can. But I only photograph what I actively do myself because I think that's the only way you can really tell the story properly.


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