Photography: Andrew Neel
Andrew Neel, a talented photographer and writer who most recently curated the story 'Fog & Forest' for Rucksack Magazine, offers some insight into his creative process.
Can you tell us more about your background and how you got into photography?
Yeah, for sure! I lived in Hungary for the first 19 years of my life. My parents moved there from the US for work and are actually still there. I’m now 23, based out of North Carolina, and working as a full-time photographer. Because I grew up in Europe, traveling is in my blood. Whether it was for a family vacation, quick day drive, or ski trip, we were on the road quite a bit. So naturally, I got my hands on a camera at a fairly young age and have been taking pictures ever since.
Where do you call home? Has your location impacted your creativity at all?
Right now, home is in Greensboro, North Carolina. I’ve grown to love Greensboro, but I think living here has really pushed me creatively, especially when I first arrived for college. I didn’t get a car until about 8 months ago, so for the majority of the first few years, I was pretty much stranded on campus. And at that point, I was so used to relying on travel and new locations to provide inspiration, I ran into a creative wall. But the whole situation pushed me out of my comfort zone and really challenged me as an artist. It forced me to be intentional about searching for beauty and stories to tell. And that, in turn, has connected me with a lot of really amazing people.
How would you describe your style of photography?
Adventure, portrait and documentary Photography collectively describe my style. A lot of my work is based around telling the story of a place or person. I want people to feel like they were there with me on my travels and got to know the people I met along the way.
Which images would you say have been the most significant for you in your career so far?
I’d say my Unsplash images have become the most significant photos I’ve taken. And that’s not necessarily because they’re the ones I like the most, but rather because they’ve had the biggest impact on my career. If you don’t know what Unsplash is, I’d highly recommend you go check them out. But basically, the photos I’ve uploaded to Unsplash have been used by companies like Forbes, Buzzfeed, Snapchat, Quartz, PopSugar, Darling Magazine, Mashable and the Huffington Post to name a few. It’s been the single-most effective way to get my work out there and recognized. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends text me saying that they saw one of my photos on a website or in an advert. But most importantly, it’s opened doors for me to connect with some really incredible people who are doing amazing things with my work. I’m a firm believer in the creative community supporting and encouraging one another. So anytime I get the opportunity to connect or help someone pursue their passion, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be able to do this for my job.
Where would you love to travel?
I’m fascinated with islands and cold climates. Growing up I always imagined islands as those small tropical mounds of sand with one palm tree that people got stranded on in comic books. So when I heard about places like Iceland and the Faroe Islands, my interest was piqued. I prefer colder weather and cold islands didn’t really become attractive until a few years ago when everyone began visiting Iceland. So I’ve started searching for other cold climate islands in hopes of visiting them before they become popular spots as well. I’ve seen so many incredible pictures from places like Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but I’d like to explore new places so that I can have a clean slate going in. I’d hate to visit such a remote place and then be tempted to take the same pictures everyone else has taken. But I know that’s not always the case. It’s actually a reason I was so inspired by Colin Rex’s recent Rucksack Magazine post Ice & Rock. He brought a fresh perspective to Iceland that I had never seen before, and I’d love to do something similar.
Who is inspiring you right now?
There's nothing I enjoy more than sitting down with a friend or stranger and hearing them talk about what they're passionate about. My friend Evan, for example, co-founded a local shop here in Greensboro called Hudson's Hill. You'd never guess it, but Evan's actually an expert on all things denim. I walked into the store a few weeks ago and listened to him talk about his love of denim for about 3 hours. He told me about his collections of denim, the different types of denim, and the history of denim while we sipped on whiskey. Now I know hardly anything about denim, but I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a conversation as much as that one. Put simply, passionate people inspire me. And if there's some way that I'm able to add any value to their brand or assist them in pursuing their passion, I'm all in. Other individuals who are inspiring me right now are; Elon Musk, the greatest dreamer of the 21st century and Andy Shauf and Corey Kilgannon, masters of ballads and lyric writing. Also photographers Ben Sasso (the educator and visual innovator) and Nicole Mason (the single biggest inspiration for my work).
What else inspires your creativity?
I’d have to say Spotify and stories, pictures and poems. But I’ve also started to discover the world of fiction podcasts. I stumbled upon Homecoming on Spotify and was immediately hooked. It’s a psychological thriller that features stars like David Schwimmer (Ross from Friends), Catherine Keener (Missy from Get Out), Oscar Isaac (Poe from The Force Awakens), and David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development). It plays like a typical TV show would in regards to the acting and the sounds; it just lacks the visuals. But that makes it perfect for long drives or long hours of editing, both of which I do often. The innovative storytelling of the series, though, is really what got me hooked. It’s a great reminder that there are still new storytelling frontiers to explore.
How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
YouTube, blog posts, podcasts, and books are great resources for self-educating yourself on anything really, especially photography. There was actually a point midway through college that I almost considered dropping out for that reason. I realized that I was learning more online in my own time than I was in my required college courses, so I started questioning my reasons for being where I was. I ended up sticking it out and finishing, but it definitely wasn’t without more moments of doubt like that. I’d encourage people, though, to find those photographers that inspire them or who they aspire to be like and learn from them. A lot of them, like Ben Sasso, are very helpful and create guides, offer classes, or are open to any and all questions. But even if they’re not, there are ways to still learn from their work. With so many opportunities to learn and grow, I try and make it a point to learn something new every day.
Aside from photography, do you have any other creative outlets?
Definitely. My mom studied graphic design in college so I’ve always been drawn to sketching and design, both analog and digital. But over the last few years, writing has become more of my go-to secondary creative outlet. Life moves so fast that I often don’t have or make time to really let everything sink in and affect me. Writing helps me slow down, work through my thoughts, and put words and meaning to what I’m experiencing and learning. It provides another way for me to document things that I can’t always capture with my camera. Give my Fog & Forest story a read and you’ll see what I mean.
What camera body and lenses do you use?
The Canon 5D Mark III paired with the Sigma 35mm 1.4 is my go-to setup. But the Canon 50mm 1.2 and Canon 24-70mm 2.8 are the next two lenses I’ll be adding to my arsenal hopefully later this year.
What gear do you take with you when you travel?
My Peak Design everyday backpack goes with me wherever I go. The weatherproof, 30L bag can fit my DSLR, my 15’ MacBook, books, hard drives, extra socks and still have some space left over. I also don’t leave the house without some kind of pen and notepad. I like to have a way to write things down other than my phone since a notepad can’t lose its charge. My camera and a good jacket are the last two things I can’t travel without. Everything else is circumstantial, but I try to pack as light as I can when I can.
What advice would you give to another photographer?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid of being told no. Be proactive in your pursuit of adventure, collaborations, and photographers to work and travel with. Don’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. Be bold! DM that photographer you’ve always wanted to work with. Email that brand you’d love to represent. Sometimes you won’t hear back from them, and other times they might say no. But I’ve noticed more and more that people can tell if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. Be confident in your work and what you’re working towards. And if you can find a way to express that and bring that energy into how you communicate, you’ll leave an impression on people. Not only will they remember you, but they’ll be excited to work with you. It won’t always be a good fit, but when it is, you’ll be glad you took the first step and made something happen.
I’d love to work with more photographers over the next few months, travel more, and work with more brands. Finding people who share your passion is a huge part of sustainability as a photographer, and working together helps you grow. It might mean taking up a part-time job to help cover the costs of those trips, but I’ll do what it takes to make it happen. But whether it’s a creative, brand, or just a passionate person who wants to connect, they shouldn’t hesitate to get in touch. I’d love to support what they’re doing if I can.
And where will you be sharing these trips and stories if people want to follow along?
I’ll share bits and pieces on my Instagram account, but full stories and photo essays will be found right here on Rucksack Magazine.