Travel and Adventure Photographer Jody MacDonald Sees a Changing World Through Her Lens
With her stunning images from remote corners of the world, MacDonald is raising awareness about the threat of climate change.
Jody MacDonald doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything. The award-winning National Geographic photographer spent a decade on a catamaran sailing around the world (twice) and shoots photos from a moving perch while paragliding 17,000 feet in the air, but what strikes a chord of fear in her is this: The remote places she shares with the rest of us are under an ever-escalating threat of destruction.
For the past 20 years, MacDonald, whose travel, adventure and action sports photographs have also been published in Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, Forbes and countless travel and outdoor editorial campaigns, has lived her life as a creative nomad — capturing stunning scenes in corners of the world most people will never see.
With more than 100 countries’ stamps on her passport, she spends more than half her time on the road. Her constant companion is her camera, which captures striking portraits and landscapes teeming with flora and fauna. But whether she’s documenting one of the last ocean-swimming elephants, a kiteboarder shredding in blue-green waves above a dense coral reef or otherworldly glacial peaks — she knows that all of them are in peril.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the cerulean waters of the South Pacific and South Asia are where MacDonald first began to see how humans are permanently altering pristine places. From the collapsing of reef ecosystems to mountains of plastic from a half a world away littering beaches, her images are both a clarion call and a challenge.
“When you fall in love with something you try to fight to protect it,” she says. "I started to think how could I bring awareness to this. Taking pictures is what I can do.”
MacDonald, 42, had history of adventuring before she became a professional photographer. A native of Ottawa, she spent her formative years in Saudi Arabia, cloistered with families of other Canadian expats who were working on a telecom contract for the Saudi government. She attended an international school with children from all over the world, and on breaks, traveled with her family across Europe, Africa and Asia. Their globe-trotting was the beginning of her thirst for adventure. “I started dreaming of being Indiana Jones,” she says.
MacDonald took photography as an elective while earning a bachelor’s in outdoor recreation (yes, it’s a real degree, she jokes) from Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. She spent her twenties as an outdoor guide in British Columbia on mountain biking, rafting and kayak tours with her camera in tow, and continued to refine her skills. “I was always developing, bringing my camera with me and progressing with my photography at the same time,” she says. “That is really where my life of adventure and love for it really kind of blossomed.”
An avid sailor, paraglider and explorer, her global perspective and bold style is one reason why HP tapped MacDonald last year as an ambassador for its Z line of high-performance computing devices for technical and creative professionals. The Garage caught up with her between trips at her home base in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, when you left your home you had to respect local mores. How did living in the Middle East shape your worldview?
My parents impressed on us this overwhelming respect for the culture. There was just this understanding that they lived differently than us. It's not right or wrong ... it's just different, and we're in their home, in their country, and we have to respect their point of view. I think that lesson held a ton of value as a child, because now that I travel as much as I do as an adult, that's kind of been ingrained in me. It's something that I assume Westerners already know but then I realize that many actually don't.
You worked on a catamaran for five-year expeditions and began photographing professional kiteboarders while working. What was it like sailing for such a long stretch?
It was a very challenging way to live, not only because I was seasick most of the time but because everything is breaking down constantly. The sun and the salt water are against you and things are literally breaking down every single day, but the exploration, experiences at sea and access to areas that people don’t get to see was priceless. On the boat, the things that we usually always fought about were chocolate — it's such a hot commodity — and ice.
Describe your most perfect adventure. What are the elements of an expedition that make it satisfying?
My most perfect adventure would require a lot of adversity. For me, it's the secret sauce. I don't think you can have a true adventure without adversity. It’s what makes the adventure that much sweeter. You need the hardship to really get the highs or to really have these amazing, incredible experiences you have to have those lows. Not only that, but when have adversity and overcome it, you also learn so much more about yourself and what you're capable of.
With that criteria in mind, what’s the best (or worst) adventure you’ve had?
Sailing around the world was a perfect example of the importance of adversity in an adventure. I hated sailing, mostly because I was seasick all the time, but for me it was what led to such great rewards. I've learned that over and over through sailing. We literally went through times when it was like, ‘Oh my God, we've lost our engines.’ And it’s not like we could have gone to the hardware store to get parts. You feel like you're in an impossible situation, but somehow we always figured it out. The more impossible it was when we got through it to the other side, we had that much greater of an adventure and an experience and it made me realize how much you really can overcome. For me, they are directly correlated.
Who are your professional heroes?
I've always loved [French photojournalist] Henri Cartier-Bresson who really pioneered the street photography genre and created this idea of the “decisive moment.” I think his work has had a big influence on me. I’m also inspired by a lot of other National Geographic photographers who are really just trying hard to do good work and help save the world. They are really fighting the good fight and it's incredibly inspiring.
When you shoot natural landscapes, what are you trying to communicate to viewers of your work about climate change?
First and foremost, to show people that it's happening. I think we live in our own little bubbles in towns and cities and you know we don't get to see what's actually happening. There is a huge disconnect. Like our garbage, for example. I put it out on the street and then it disappears. Where does it go? I am in this position to kind of show people how amazing our world is and at the same time, how much it's in peril.
Tell us about your gear.
I have a couple of Canon bodies and a couple of Leica bodies and I also shoot film. I like to have a film camera of some kind with me. I'm not carrying all those with me at one time, it depends on the assignment, and I always try to have the least amount of gear with me that I can get away with. When I'm in the field at the end of the day, I will look through the images for that day or maybe what I've just shot in [Adobe] Lightroom. Since this past year I've been doing that on the HP ZBook x2 , which has been great just because I can take it anywhere and it's really durable and versatile. When I get home, I use the HP DreamColor Z31x Studio Display for editing.
Your images often show a planet in flux – whether they are of glaciers or endangered species. Describe something you wish everyone could see.
One of the places I traveled to in my childhood was the Maldives Islands with my parents. We have pictures from our vacation and I remember it very vividly. When we went snorkeling it was the most unbelievable underwater wonderland that you can imagine. There were so many tropical fish and lush coral that I could barely even see through the water. As a kid, I remember being completely overwhelmed by that whole experience, by how unbelievable it was and how alive it was. When we sailed through the Maldives in 2010, I was really excited to go back. But when I got there, most of the corals were dead and there was a significant decrease in the number of fish. I was overwhelmed by how drastic the change was. I think that was the first time I was like, 'Oh my God, this is a big, big deal.’
How does it feel to shoot with the understanding that you may be documenting something that’s not going to be there next time?
In some ways it feels like my photographs will end up being historical documents, which is devastating to think about. But then, it makes me realize how important that is. And if I can make people feel something through my photographs or inspire them to act, then that gives me hope.
What habits have you tried to change in your own life after seeing the damage being done?
I've really grown to hate plastic. When we were sailing, we would be in the most remote islands or places on the planet and you would see a ton of plastic in the ocean. You know it's not going to break down, the marine life feeds on it and it's everywhere. Then you see people use it for a five-minute span and then throw it in the garbage. That became really horrifying for me. I don't use plastic bags, I try really hard not to buy single-use plastic items, and try to encourage others to not buy or use them.
Where is one place in the world where you still find surprises?
Every time I go to India I'm blown away every 10 minutes by what I'm seeing. I think there's no place else in the world that really shows you the limits of what humanity is capable of on so many different levels. Geographically, it's amazing and incredibly diverse. You've got the Himalayas and the beaches and massive cities in between. It’s one of the most populated countries in the world yet has some of the most spectacular landscapes I've ever seen. One of my favorite quotes about India, from the former National Geographic Traveler Editor Keith Bellows, is: “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won't go. For me, India is such a place.”