How This Travel Photographer Combined Her Different Passions into One Incredible Career
These days, there’s no shortage of inspiring female entrepreneurs, freelancers, and hardworking side hustlers to turn to as role models. But while you may admire their success, you might be unsure about how to forge that path for yourself. Or maybe you feel like you have so many passions pulling you in different directions that you don’t even know where to start. Erin Sullivan, founder of popular travel site Erin Outdoors, recently told us about how she melded her very different passions of art and science to create the work she truly loves.
Brit + Co: You blog, photograph, travel, and organize trips. How has your experience helped shape your unique career?
Erin Sullivan: I loved photography from an early age, and I was lucky that my high school had a darkroom — I spent a lot of time shooting and processing film there. Though I applied to art school with my photography portfolio and got in, I was too scared to wholeheartedly pursue it; I’d heard too many stories about “starving artists” and didn’t believe it could be a real career. Still, I stuck it out and followed through with arts. I discovered my love for science through a 30-day wilderness backpacking course during my sophomore year and proposed an interdisciplinary course of study to my university, which was accepted.
Throughout college, I worked at summer camps and slowly advanced my guiding skills with each experience. I thought I’d take a year after graduation to figure out my next step, likely graduate school, but three years later I’d already lived out of my backpack in Europe, China, Australia, and New Zealand. I asked myself: Do I really want to go to graduate school? Am I in love with the process or just the result?
I eventually decided to put down roots and moved back to the United States; I got my first ever smartphone and downloaded Instagram. I had lots of travel photos and nowhere to share them so I started an account. I started my blog as a place to document thoughts from the trips I’d taken, as well as to answer questions about how I’d been able to travel full-time. At first, the blog just existed for the convenience of having all of the information in one place, but seven months later, when I was let go from my full-time office job, I decided to try the freelance life full-time.
B+C: And the rest is history! When did you realize you could meld your love of art and science to create a unique career path that works so well for you?
ES: I was lucky to get a lot of positive reinforcement from my professors at college (SUNY Purchase College); my advisors were big supporters of interdisciplinary courses of study. I once took a class simply called “Birds”! In the course, we did everything from reading Emily Dickinson, to walking with binoculars. Looking back, I’m not sure I really knew how supported I was at the time — I still had to choose a major even if my professors were artsy hippies. Nevertheless, I jumped through a few hoops and created one with their help.
The mix didn’t start to fully click until the past few years. I see myself utilize things I learned in both the arts and the sciences — even just the different ways of thinking. The more I pull from my experience in each discipline, the more I recognize why studying both and pushing for such an opportunity was so important. There’s always a reason why you fight for things, even if you’re not exactly sure why yet.
B+C: When you look back on your inspiring career path, what strikes you as the biggest surprise so far?
ES: I used to think that everyone was automatically going to discredit me because I didn’t have experience or professional photography training. I thought I’d walk into a room and people would roll their eyes or not take me seriously. What I’ve learned instead is that speaking or writing with confidence and authority can actually go a long way — a lot longer than I assumed, at least. I was surprised by how many people simply believed me when I said I was a blogger, even when I didn’t believe it myself (hi, imposter syndrome).
The other thing that surprised me early on is that starting is as simple as that — you just have to start. My industry can be super-intimidating because everyone looks like an expert on social media, but there isn’t a specific blueprint or a special key you need. You just have to make your best guess and go forward. Take a step and see what happens.
B+C: That’s empowering. Now tell us, what’s the toughest or most challenging job you’ve taken on to fulfill your love of travel?
ES: I’ve actually done a lot of bizarre jobs in my life to fulfill my travel goals! I think the hardest one is the one I have now, though; it’s constantly a balance and requires a lot of discipline. I’ve had other jobs that challenged me in other ways. The one that comes to mind was a two-month stint at an iron ore mine site in Australia. It was a fly-in, fly-out job where I worked 12-hour catering shifts for 14 days straight (seven days of day shift and seven days of night shift) before flying out for a week off. Physically, that was challenging for me. To top it off, I’ve encountered many challenging situations as an outdoor guide while working with teenagers — I’ll leave that to your imagination.
B+C: We think it’s amazing that you take your readers and followers on guided trips with you. What’s it like to see the world with them? How do they inspire your planning?
ES: Meeting my readers in person makes this job more real for me, and meeting people in real life reminds me of the connection we all have in this brief human experience. It keeps me going.
I love to watch a relationship start one way and develop into something deeper over the course of a trip. On my trips, many people get to know each other better than they know their friends at home. I’m currently building the first reunion trip for my 2017 Greece group based on their requests and it’s exciting to create something like this with a group of people who share core values. I’m still deciding which trips to plan in 2019!
B+C: One of our favorite parts of talking with travelers and creatives is learning about their tools of the trade. What are five things you couldn’t do without?
1. Camera: I use a Sony a7R III. I originally started shooting with Sony because of the lighter and smaller size for traveling. Now it’s my go-to for many reasons: autofocus system, electronic viewfinder, Eye AF, and shooting burst mode on silent, to name a few.
2. Journal: Being able to sit down and write out my thoughts is very therapeutic for me. I have to keep some of my thoughts for just me [and not put them on the blog], and my journal is the way I do that.
3. Phone: Social media is a big part of what I do because it’s the way I connect with my audience and clients, so my phone is necessary when traveling.
4. Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop: These are my two most-used applications for editing my images. When I’m on the road, I use Lightroom Mobile (free on iOS) for quick edits, but usually, my nightly routine is to dump my cards onto a couple of hard drives, import images into Lightroom, and flag my favorites. I’ll edit them when I get downtime on the road or wait until I get home and spend a week or two editing.
5. Friends and Family: I could not do this work without the moral support and friendship of some incredible people in my life. I would fall apart!
B+C: What advice do you offer to girls who want to see the world?
ES: Don’t give up on a dream just because you hear “no” once or even a hundred times. You can create the life you want for yourself. I want you to know that there is room for you! Do good work, do your best, get out there, and show everyone why you deserve that space.
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(Featured photo via @erinoutdoors)