This Photographer Has Been to all 7 Continents and Is Using Her Work to Save the Environment
It’s easy to think that the planet is doing peachy keen when all the images you see are of lush hillsides, pristine beaches, glittering ski mountains, and other filtered-for-the-‘gram photos of nature. The thing is, there are a LOT of places around the world that are not doing so well due to our changing climate, and it is photographer Tasha Van Zandt’s mission to bring visibility to these places, and more.
Sure, as a self-described filmmaker, photographer, and explorer, Van Zandt seeks out beautiful, clean, landscapes, but it’s through this search she’s gained access to countless places on the planet that have been irreparably affected by climate change. She’s been to all seven continents, believes in leading story-first, and is currently directing her first feature-length documentary that follows one of National Geographic’s most accomplished polar explorers. Wow.
Anjelika Temple here, Founding Partner and Chief Creative Officer of Brit + Co, former canvasser for Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, and lifetime champion of good ol’ planet earth. For today’s installment of Creative Crushin’, I’m honored to share Van Zandt’s creative journey, how she combined her passion for photography with environmental activism, and what advice she has for artists who are in the midst of finding their voice.
Brit + Co: First, the basics. Tell us about your beginnings.
Tasha Van Zandt: I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota in a neighborhood called Prospect Park. My father is a carpenter and a musician at heart, while my mother’s background is rooted in theater, so I was surrounded by the arts from a young age. My mother immigrated to the United States from Russia so I was raised speaking both Russian and English, and my family has always encouraged me to expand my worldview.
As the first generation in my mother’s family to be born in the United States, I come from a brave line of women who have always inspired me to pave my own path. My great grandmother, grandmother, and mother immigrated to the United States with nothing but their belief in one another and steadfast courage. Being raised by three generations of such strong-willed, brave, driven women deeply impacted the way I see the world and has encouraged me to think globally and limitlessly in all that I do.
B+C: Where are you based now?
TVZ: I’m currently based in San Francisco, California but am on the road constantly.
B+C: Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional photographer and filmmaker?
TVZ: Growing up, photographs were a powerful way for my mother to connect us to her life in Russia. Through those images, I was able to learn about my family's history and was transported into a world outside my own. Photographs became a passport into understanding my family's story. I quickly became inspired by the magic of photography and received my first point-and-shoot camera at the young age of six to begin translating the world around me through the camera's lens. It was a window into a new world and a tool to build connection with the community around me. With a camera in hand, I felt that anything was possible.
Around the same time, my parents gave me a box of National Geographic magazines, which inspired me to begin planning my future travels. I’d spend hours on end studying the images and stories, which instilled a deep understanding that I one day wanted to become a documentarian.
B+C: Before you were able to go out on your own, like so many of us, you had a day job. Tell us more about career path before quitting your full-time job.
TVZ: I have had so many different jobs and journeys along the way, but paving my own path was always on the agenda. When I was growing up, I took every photography and filmmaking class in and outside of school that I could possibly attend. From there, I was accepted into a high school which specialized in media arts where I focused on documentary filmmaking, then continued on to college where I designed my own degree. By designing my own degree, I was able to focus on photojournalism, filmmaking, and social justice. My goal was to use my lens as a tool to amplify voices from around the world and create social impact.
After graduating, I received an offer from an agency to work as an Art Director where I had the opportunity to oversee and conceptualize numerous productions. This position jump-started my career, but ultimately I knew I needed to be behind the lens telling the stories I believed in. So as soon as I felt I had enough experience, I quit my day job and started freelancing full-time as a photographer and filmmaker. It was definitely a leap to leave an established salary and jump into the unknown — but as soon as I quit, that opened up the space for other, far more meaningful opportunities to come in. I received an offer to travel on assignment for National Geographic Expeditions the following week, which was a very pivotal moment in my career, and I have been evolving as a storyteller ever since.
B+C: You don the job titles "filmmaker, photographer, explorer" — tell me more about the intersection of these three.
TVZ: At the core of who I am is a documentarian. So for me, photography, filmmaking, and exploration are simply tools to document or discover the world around me. Each medium has its own strengths that can best help bring these stories to life. I’m a big believer in putting story first, in all that I do. So my process is often based on developing the story and then envisioning which medium is best suited for that story. Sometimes that is through filmmaking, sometimes it’s through photography — often it’s both — and exploration is usually the tool that gets me there.
B+C: Increasing awareness about climate change and environmental issues is a huge part of your work. Tell me more about why activism is a crucial component of your creative work.
TVZ: As artists, we have a powerful opportunity to use our lenses as tools for connection. My mission as a storyteller is centered on capturing stories that foster empathy and using the lens as a tool to build cultural bridges that lead to greater global understanding. The more I grow and evolve in my work, the more important it is for me to dedicate my time to something greater than myself. That is where my best work comes from and where I find the most creative inspiration. It’s by getting outside of my own perspective and learning how to amplify the voices around me that I personally grow the most — and hope to create the most impact.
B+C: Your recent work is clearly centered around the environment and conservation. How important do you think it is to have a focus like that as an artist?
TVZ: When I first started, my work was centered on the image first. Now my work is centered on story first. Storytelling is at the core of who we all are and is our best tool for connection. The stories I am most passionate about now are centered on our environment as well as the intersection of communities and conservation. We are all connected through this small planet that we inhabit and the effects of our changing climate are beginning to affect us all, so for me, the main story I am drawn to is that of our connection to the environment.
Much of the opposition against preserving our planet stems simply from not being able to clearly picture how our actions have an impact. Looking at an image has the ability to transport us outside of our personal world views and into someone else’s. As I move forward in my work, I hope that my photographs and films can act as a passport to help viewers better see just how interconnected we all truly are.
B+C: What advice do you have for photographers who are trying to find their voice when they currently shoot a little bit of everything?
TVZ: To find your voice, learn to speak your truth. Put story at the core of all you do, and the more you can connect to that story, the better. The closer you feel to your work, the higher the chance is that others will feel it too.
As you are honing your voice as a creator, there are great platforms that you can use to get your work out into the world. Licensing work with sites like Adobe Stock is a great opportunity to further amplify your images to the world, while enabling more people to discover your work and support your discovery process as you explore which work resonates with you. Most importantly, keep creating and don’t be afraid to put your work out there.
There is a quote from Ira Glass that I have found myself coming back to again and again about the creative process. He says:
“Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you have to know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you're going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you're going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
Above all, create, create, and create some more. The more work that you produce, the stronger your vision becomes. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there and just keep moving forward.
B+C: What inspires you? Why do you love to make things and share your point of view with the world?
One of my current goals in my work is to get more stories of social and environmental issues directly into the hands of policy and change makers. I strongly believe that the more we can create a personal connection in our work, the more we can inspire change.
Trivia About You: I’ve traveled to all seven continents, and my dream is to one day visit every country in the world.
Go-To Karaoke Song: "You Don’t Own Me" by Lesley Gore
Favorite Newish Coffee Table Book: Before They Pass Away by Jimmy Nelson
Late Night Snack: Pistachio Ice Cream
Currently Reading: It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario
B+C: When you’re feeling creative burnout, how do you reset?
TVZ: For me, the best cure for creative burnout is to step out of my comfort zone and discover something new. Expanding my comfort zone is often the simplest way for me to be present in the moment, which is the best mindset for me to reset. Additionally, often when I feel burnt out, that means I have been putting too much energy out and not enough energy in. It’s so important to take time to consume creativity in addition to taking time to create. I work in flows of consuming creativity, processing it, and then going out and creating. When I need more creative energy internally, I’ll often go to the museum, watch films, listen to a record, read a book, or simply go for a walk in the park and see the natural beauty that surrounds us.
B+C: From what I can tell, you’re constantly on the move, traveling around the world. Tell us the top five most incredible moments from your recent travels.
TVZ: 1. Recently, I traveled to Antarctica with one of the world’s most accomplished polar explorers for the documentary I am directing. In 1989, the explorer I traveled with led the longest coast-to-coast traverse of the continent and since that expedition all three ice shelves his team crossed have broken off due to changes to the earth’s climate. It was an incredible experience to travel back to the continent and document these changes with him and my team.
2. This past year, I traveled to Tanzania on assignment as an instructor with National Geographic Expeditions and we traveled on safari, which is one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had! Watching the sunrise from camp and seeing lions roaming so closely is a memory I will never forget.
3. One of my favorite journeys was my trip to Tahiti in partnership with Adobe Stock. The Adobe team partnered with the wonderful folks at Tiny Atlas Quarterly in sending a small group of us there and it was an incredible experience. Some of my standout memories from the trip were swimming with sharks near Tetiaroa as well as photographing Teahupo’o at sunset.
4. In college, I studied in Buenos Aires, Argentina and would often spend my weekends traveling throughout South America. At the end of the semester, I traveled to Peru, where I spent several weeks hiking the Inca Trail to reach Machu Picchu. It was an incredible experience, but one of the most comical travel memories I have is of hiking for days on end to reach the summit view of Machu Picchu only to discover it completely covered in clouds.
5. Last year, I traveled to the Barren Lands of the Canadian Arctic by bush plane for a documentary film I am directing. Flying over the desolate ice-covered landscape was such a humbling and surreal experience, and traveling by bush plane is one of the greatest adventures I have had.
B+C: Given that you’re on the move all the time, what does your support system look like?
TVZ: I have an incredible partner who works on many projects with me, so that is one of my greatest support systems. Additionally, I have an incredible family that is constantly inspiring me to continue pushing forward. But most importantly, I value the concept of building a feeling of home within yourself, so that wherever you go you can adapt and feel grounded. My work on the road is often a constant practice of mindfulness, resilience, and adaptation.
B+C: Back to the bizness, I’d love to hear more about the mission behind your production company.
TVZ: After I started freelancing, I felt that I wasn't being given the same opportunities as many of my male collaborators. So I decided to make my own opportunities by starting my own production company that would be dedicated to hiring inclusive, female-driven sets and to raise opportunities for more women in the field. I started to reach out to clients myself and slowly but surely was able to pave more and more opportunities for myself and my team. Since beginning my journey, I have now worked on assignment across all seven continents with numerous global clients. I've been noticing changes in the system over the past few years and although there is a very long way to go, I’m feeling very hopeful about the future of filmmaking.
B+C: Photography is a hugely male-dominated field, and thankfully, that is changing rapidly. Talk to us about how you’ve navigated this challenge, and what your hopes and dreams are for up-and-coming female photographers.
TVZ: It definitely was a struggle in the beginning and took a great deal of perseverance to keep moving forward. The first several years of freelancing took a lot of trial and error to lock in the road I was beginning to pave. I started to realize that my greatest challenge early on was the lack of opportunities for women in the field, which was a large inspiration for me to focus on paving my own path. When I was working in an agency early on, I remember seeing bids come in and they were almost always entirely from men. I heard so many times that they couldn't find any female-identifying professionals for the job — no matter how many talented women I would put forward. That was definitely discouraging, given that I was trying to leap into my own path of freelancing, and to experience the way that female-identifying photographers and filmmakers are often overlooked felt like a tremendous challenge.
Fortunately, this is beginning to evolve rapidly. It’s so important to have inclusive voices behind and in front of the lens. When you are only hearing from limited perspectives, you are missing half the picture. So my hope for the future is that more and more opportunities continue to be given to people of all backgrounds and that more inclusive stories continue to be told.
B+C: What advice do you have for emerging artists who are ready to take the leap and work for themselves?
TVZ: Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is our best teacher.
B+C: What’s coming up next for you? Any projects we should be on the lookout for?
TVZ: My current journey is that I am now directing my first feature-length documentary that follows one of National Geographic's most accomplished polar explorers on his lifelong journey as an eyewitness to climate change. The film highlights the impact of climate change in Antarctica, and I just returned back to the continent this December to film the changing landscape. The explorer was one of my greatest heroes growing up and I first learned of his work from a cover of National Geographic Magazine when I was around six years old. I remember putting up pictures of his Antarctica expeditions on my walls and dreaming of one day being able to travel to the continent on an expedition of my own. It was incredibly special and surreal to be able to journey back to the continent with him for this documentary and has felt like a dream that has come full circle. I'm currently wrapping up production on the film and beginning my post-production journey, which is very exciting and an entirely new creative endeavor that I'm looking forward to.
Take a breath. What a moving mission, story, and artist. Follow Tasha Van Zandt on Instagram @tashavanzandt, head to tashavanzandt.com, or visit her contributor page on Adobe Stock to learn more. And do yourself a favor and opt outside girlfriend!
Author: Anjelika Temple (Photography courtesy of Tasha Van Zandt)