Chris Bray grew up sailing around the world and then leading world-first cart-hauling expeditions across the arctic before becoming an award-winning Australian Geographic photographer, Lowepro ambassador and Canon’s Australian ambassador for five years. Chris’s work has appeared in National Geographic (along with Australian and Canadian Geographic) as well as TIME Magazine and Discovery Channel. He’s written a successful book ‘The 1000 Hour Day’ (now an award-winning documentary ‘The Crossing’), sits on the advisory committee for The Australian Geographic Society and is also founder and CEO of Conservation United, crowd-funding the world’s critical conservation projects. Besides running 1-day photography courses and photo safaris to the world’s most wonderful places, Chris and his wife Jess recently became the first people to sail a junk-rig boat through the Northwest Passage over the arctic.
- What’s your main motivation for what you do, what are you seeking? Fitness, adrenaline, freedom..?
I am basically just driven by a need to experience new things, to be challenged, to fulfill my potential, to feel like I am getting the most out of this one life that I have. You mention freedom, adventure, health etc – I think these are just factors that need to be in place for me to achieve my broader goal of maximising my life. No one can experience new things without freedom, or be challenged without some adrenaline, or be at their best without being healthy. I certainly don’t go looking for adrenaline though – that’s a common misconception. I always do my best to identify risks and plan how to mitigate them, so as to be as safe as possible. I enjoy life too much to take irresponsible risks.
2. Are there a few key pieces of gear you take with you on every expedition?
I’ve almost always got some kind of camera with me – because I enjoy sharing the experiences almost as much as having them. Anything from a little GoPro right up to my beast of a Canon EOS 1DX DSLR. I usually have a Leatherman handy too, and if I’m in the middle of nowhere, you can’t beat having an Iridium satellite phone just in case things go wrong.
3. Have you ever experienced fear on an expedition? If so, how did you overcome it?
Oh yeah, often! If you’re not at least a little scared every now and again, then it’s not really an adventure – you’re not pushing yourself far enough! Hopefully though, you’ve done all your research and planning, and are properly equipped mentally and physically to deal with any of the possible outcomes. Then, even though you might be scared that X is going to happen, at least you know what you’re going to do if/when it does so that it’s not Game Over. I’ve been in situations (for example in a nasty storm in our little wooden sailboat half way between Canada and Greenland) that have rapidly escalated beyond what I expected to need to prepare for, and in a scenario like that, I think the best thing to do is just constantly think ahead to visualize all the various disasters that could be about to happen, think them through, plan what you’ll do and how to react, and identify things that you could do right now to either prevent them, or if unavoidable, to maximize your chance of survival if it does. This way not only do you keep yourself busy which helps you not to worry, but all this mental and physical preparation will help prevent disaster.
4. You have an engineering degree, yet you are a photographer, a public speaker, an author and you run your own company, where did you pick up all these skills?
I grew up sailing around the world with my family for 5 years so I was always taught to be practical and independent, but to be honest, I was quite a shy, nerdy little kid. At school I feared public speaking more than death, generally had very little self-confidence, especially around other people. It was the effect of going on my first major adventure that started to transform me. Finding myself way outside my comfort zone, learning how to make decisions and live with the consequences, having to be responsible, learning to overcome fear and hardship, the importance of determination and enthusiasm, learning how to break seemingly impossible challenges down into more manageable portions and tackling each in turn until at the end, you come out having seemingly achieved the impossible. The self-confidence & problem solving abilities I gained through my adventures has really opened up all my horizons. I think all skills come slowly though, with practice & patience – and I’m always still improving. Every time I speak in public I feel more comfortable with it, every year I feel like my photography improves, my business skills get better etc.
5. You are a busy man, do you ever have free time to just relax, or are your hobbies now your job so you don’t need time off?
I’m very lucky to be working for myself, in a job that’s my passion. I love it. However that does also mean there’s no escape from it – when you own your own company, especially one where you’re so completely absorbed inside it (eg: away overseas running photo safaris) for 10 months/yr, the brief times when my wife and I are ‘home’ is the only chance we get to work ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ it. There’s no such thing as ‘after hours’ or ‘weekends’, it’s just non-stop from when you open your eyes until well after dinner at night. Of course we schedule in time to catch up with friends or go somewhere, but our calendar is usually pretty crammed about 18 months out, so life is a little bit too hectic all the time. To be honest, at the moment, no, I don’t get enough time to even catch up on the backlog of emails, opportunities and chores, let alone catch my breath and take-stock, or plan properly for the future. Jess and I are working on trying to re-shape the business to allow a bit more me and us-time though!
6.Whats the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?
There’s been various physically challenging moments on some of my adventures, but actually, the trickiest thing I’ve ever done was having just graduated as an electrical engineer with a first class honors, awards and great job offers, to decide to turn my back on all that and instead try to follow my passion of adventure and photography and attempt to make a career doing that instead.
7. Have you experienced Type 2 fun? The idea that expeditions/challenges are miserable while enduring them but the fun and the pleasure comes in hindsight, once completed, perhaps in recounting the adventure afterwards?
Oh absolutely, all the time – that’s one of the great benefits of always having a camera with me, so I can laugh about terrible moments later on, and share the experience. It’s the same with wildlife photography, there’s a lot of Type 2 Fun going on there – often I have to endure a lot of annoying waiting, or miserable conditions etc but I do endure them, because I know that the end result, a beautiful photograph of some amazing animal that I can admire later in all it’s fine detail and share with everyone, will be worth it. If you need instant gratification, I would avoid both expeditions and wildlife photography!
8. If you could make money solely out of adventures alone would you give up running the photography courses?
It was a conscious decision I made to stop earning a living from adventure alone. I did live off sponsorship and adventure related incomes like speaking, selling articles etc for years. But after my second arctic expedition, completing the Victoria Island traverse which was a fairly epic, five year project costing more than $250,000, I realized that for adventure to be a career, in order not to go backwards, I’d have to keep somehow doing bigger, bolder, more dangerous expeditions, and eventually I’d either end up totally burnt-out, or more likely dead. Also, it’s very hard to raise enough money to even embark on an expedition, let alone make enough on the side for a decent living – it’s a lot of hard work.
Instead, I decided to devise a business model that would still let me travel to the world’s most wonderful places, get paid for it, and still be able to take chunks of time off to go on personal, more hard-core adventures, such as over the last five northern summers where my wife Jess and I rebuilt the little wooden sailboat and sailed it in stages up over the top of Canada and Alaska through the Northwest Passage. We took four months off work each year for a while there. I do enjoy good friendships with many of the interesting photo safari guests we meet, and I also love the challenge of running a successful business, and expanding it. Even if I won lotto, I’d still keep running my business – I might just employ more people so I could take longer holidays and more of them.
9.Would you say it’s a harder path you have chosen rather than an easier one, by choosing lets say an office job over your lifestyle?
Harder in that it’s required some difficult decisions, hard work, dedication and risk yes, but personally, I’d find it way harder – too hard in fact – to spend my life sitting at a desk with an office job. So it depends what you define as being ‘hard’. I should point out though, that despite seeming from the outside like a glamorous, perpetual-holiday lifestyle that Jess and I enjoy, it is a HUGE amount of work, and without meaning to sound arrogant, I really don’t know anyone who works as hard, or as long as Jess and I do.
10. Do you think having partner changes things, makes you have to reconsider the risk factor involved in some of the things you take on, perhaps say no to something you would have otherwise said yes to?
Yes, and of course your choice of partner has a huge bearing on how much influence it has on your ideal lifestyle I’m super lucky in that Jess is very adventurous also, she’s always up for anything, and together I think we achieve more than we could apart, that’s why I married her. But still, it’s true that when you’re going on (or considering going on) a trip with someone you care for and genuinely feel responsible for, it does affect your decisions but probably for the better. There are things I’d probably have risked myself, but with Jess onboard, who’s depending on me to make the right decision for both of us, I’d opt for the safer one. I don’t see that as a bad thing in the end. Sure, there may be times when I’d like to be able to just set off solo, or do a trip that Jess wouldn’t be keen on, but I actually think if I was keen enough, she’d let me go anyway, and the fact is I’d probably just end up missing her, or making the wrong decision without her input.
11. Do you have any advice for people wanting to break out of their comfort zones?
Just go on an adventure somewhere, anywhere! It doesn’t have to be epic, lengthy or expensive – it’s just gotta be further along some path than you’ve ever been before. Grab some friends, think of something you like doing, and then come up with some crazy exaggeration of that same undertaking. If you like kayaking, pick somewhere on a map and work out how to kayak from A to B. Whatever.
12. Can you tell me more about your conservation work and why you do it?
I’ve always loved nature, wildlife and the outdoors. Initially as a kid watching David Attenborough documentaries while growing up sailing the world, then going on my own adventures to so many beautiful, remote and unspoilt corners of the world, and now every month on my photography safaris it’s the same. It’s all so wonderful, so perfect and often so delicate, and it crushes me to see how quickly so much of it is being damaged or lost, forever. It’s true that on a personal level my business profits from the beauty of the natural world and so I feel it’s only fair that I give back, but more than that, I feel that humans as a whole are being grossly unfair to the natural world, and I feel it’s important to at least do my best to come up with a way to mitigate the losses. So having come up with an idea to attempt to re-structure the rather erratic way the world tends to donate to countless charities, I hope that ‘Conservation United’ will soon be able to start channeling funding to actually start solving some the world’s most critical conservation projects. If I can help prevent just one species from slipping into extinction, then I’ll feel like my effort, my life, was worthwhile, and meant something – made a difference.
13. I hate asking people this question but alas it has to be done, what’s next for you?
More photography courses around Australia and photo safaris all around the world! This year we have a few new destinations too, including Iceland and Greenland, so that’ll be fun! Check out www.ChrisBraynet – I’m also looking into starting up a little eco-lodge, hopefully finally launching Conservation United, trying to sell our sailboat so we can start thinking about upgrading to a bigger, metal one so that we can go back into the arctic, perhaps with kids even! A family might be the next really big adventure I suspect, but we’ve got a bit of re-organizing to do of our current lifestyle before that would work!
Find out more about Chris Bray’s adventures via his website.