Andy Mann is, excuse the pun, a man on a mission. Never in one place for long, his world-spanning Instagram feed reads like memory flashes from a thousand different National Geographic expeditions. An apt comparison, since Mann does, in fact, often work for them.
We caught up with Andy on some rare down time to talk about just what inspires his life on the road, some of his favorite adventures, and why and how he does what he does. Welcome to the first installation of our new weekly series focused on seeing the world through the eyes of our favorite Instagrammers.
How did you get started in photography, and how did you wind up attaining the coveted position as a National Geographic photographer?
Oh man, it was a long and crooked road! Basically, when I got introduced to rock climbing in 2003, it set me on the path. I spent years traveling around the states, climbing and living out of my truck. I got a small camera and started capturing life on the road and my buddies rock climbing. That was the year I met good buddy and master photographer Keith Ladzinski, who was starting his career at the same time. He taught me a lot. I would make some small editorial sales to Climbing Magazine, here and there, and it would keep me on the road. I fell in love with the climbing lifestyle and my form of expressing it. Soon I was selling so many images to the magazine that they created a photo editor position for me and put me on retainer. I shot mostly rock climbing until about 2010, and then started branching out commercially and tackling bigger expeditions. In 2011 Keith and I formed 3 Strings Productions and started doing the photo/video thing in a larger and more sustainable platform. Lots of the adventure shooters in our early days were working for the magazine here and there, we were a tight-group back in the day: Jimmy Chin, Cory Richards, Aaron Huey, etc. We all shared ropes and beers long before the work came. For Nat Geo, they saw that we were able to go on difficult expeditions and bring back high-level video and photo content. My first assignment was 45 days in Franz Josef Land (Arctic Russia)—I loved it!
You’re always on the road. How do you pack? What are some essentials that you always have to have?
It’s never easy, and never going to be easy, to pack. As much as I want to streamline and have the perfect solutions for each piece of gear, it always gets thrown in a duffle in the end. I don’t skimp on gear. At some point I bought it all, and so I bring it all. In 2013 I was able to find some solutions, however, and designed my own line of camera packs with Mountainsmith to solve some of the travel troubles. This has helped, having a system built to work for me. Camera bodies, computers, and most lenses always go as a carry-on. But man, it’s all still a mess, always. When I’m on location I stay organized, fast and light. I have to keep with the athletes. But between home and basecamp—it’s a load.
How has Instagram factored into your creative and professional life?
It’s changed so much for me personally. I love being able to self-publish my own images to a caring and interactive audience. It brings so much joy to my life on a day-to-day basis. It’s a great way to share what’s going on, and see what everyone else is doing. I have so many images to share, so I love it. For business, it is just awesome. I have the ability to stay on the radars of clients. I can stay right there in their daily feed, which is important if you want to catch their eyes. It is also becoming the most popular distribution platform for marketing, which is a beautiful thing. I did see all this coming back when I first started in digital and the film photographers were bitching about how “everyone is a photographer now,” especially when the iPhone came. “Photography is becoming a commodity and the market is too saturated,” they would say. I always just saw people becoming more and more interested in the medium and growing the interest in good photography across the board. It’s been a great thing.
What has been the most challenging thing you’ve encountered on the road?
Probably juggling everything that is important in my life. As soon as you leave the U.S., in any direction, for any destination, you’re immediately handicapped by Wi-Fi. It’s never good, anywhere. It’s become such a lifeline for business in this day and age. I’m juggling a large production company, a family at home, clients, putting out fires, responding to daily requests and professional opportunities. It just piles up after a few days. If you’re a day late, you’re a dollar short, man. It’s all usually crashing down on me as I’m heading off the grid into some remote location for a month. I find it personally challenging, but usually once I hit the ground, get in the field, and lose connection, the stress dissolves and everyone back at the office was on top of everything anyway. I do feel obligated to answer every email and request, and I’m learning to handle it better from the road.
How about the hairiest situation you’ve found yourself in shooting?
I’ve been bullied by sharks. Charged by elephants. Hunted by polar bears. Took a ground fall in Greenland. I was even held hostage in Russia! (Laughs) My wife isn’t laughing—but I think it’s all pretty beautiful! The hairiest thing that has ever happened to me was in Franz Josef Land, near the North Pole on a Nat Geo assignment. A group of divers, myself included, were about 80 feet under an iceberg collecting samples from the base. The water was 31 degrees. Pretty cold. One of the divers had a “free-flow,” where his regulator froze open and all his air was flowing out. A non-emergency, but we decided to abort the dive and surface. As we surfaced the iceberg cracked, broke, and flipped over on itself. Like a city block collapsing. We were pulled to safety by Zodiac boats and kept from being pulled back under by the currents created by the flipping. If the “free-flow” didn’t happen, it would have been a large loss. Lesson learned on iceberg diving...
What is the one piece of camera gear you couldn’t live without?
16-35 Lens. I love wide angles. I love large landscapes and tight intimate situations. It would be hard to leave that at home. I do try to leave it at camp from time to time, to force myself into new focal situations, but it’s tough.
Is there a message to your work, or behind it?
I just try to do my best to bottle a feeling I’m having. If I feel scared, I want my images from that moment to reflect that, and I want the viewer to feel it as well. If I’m being elated by a landscape, I want to capture that feeling more than what I’m actually seeing. It’s a big difference. If I’m feeling elation, I just can’t point my camera at what is elating me and expect the viewer to feel the same way. I ask myself I lot of weird questions out there and do my best to make you feel something.
What new projects are you working on now?
I’m directing a few full-length (and shorter) films this year. At 3 Strings, we’re pushing out about a dozen commercial campaigns this year—so it’s an ongoing love affair in the outdoor industry—which is bleeding over into corporate stuff as well, which is really great. I’m heading on a month-long shark diving expedition in May. A diving expedition in June. And then my wife and I are expecting our first child in August. I’m looking forward to being home for three months around that time and celebrating life.
How can people find you?
Andy will be taking over The Daily Beast Instagram feed today through Tuesday.