The Nomadic Photography Life

December 26, 2016 ·

Sarah Marino

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For many Americans, the life script looks something like this: finish schooling, work for years in an okay but not amazing job, fit in the important things (family, hobbies, and passions) on the side, and save big personal goals for retirement. While some people experience many rewards and fulfillment within this traditional framework, there is no guarantee that “waiting until retirement” will be a smart strategy. In my family’s case, both of my parents started undergoing cancer treatment within a few months of them both being retired, a turn of events that has dramatically changed what their “golden years” will look like. With this context in mind, my husband (fellow landscape photographer Ron Coscorrosa) and I are putting a lot of effort into living with intention, in part by spending more of our time on the things we love the most, like travel and photography, while we know we can.

A colorful mix of trees and plants in California's Eastern Sierra.
A colorful mix of trees and plants in California’s Eastern Sierra.

The two of us have extensively travelled together before, spending about 450 days on the road over a period of three years.  In spurts of a few weeks at a time, we based ourselves out of the confined quarters of an SUV with a foam mattress in the back or a small backpacking tent, and almost always focused on chasing the light. We stayed in most places for only a day or two, filling our time with photography, driving, hiking, exploring, and far too little sleep. These years of travel were intense – simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

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To make his travel possible, Ron saved up enough to take a sabbatical from his job as a software engineer, stretching what was supposed to be one year of savings into three. I maintained a part-time consulting business, fitting work in between our trips. Then the time came for Ron to go back to work. After a few months of us both being back to the grind of traditional full-time jobs, our major dilemma centered around how to keep travel and photography as a primary priority while balancing the reality of needing to work.

The moon rises over tufa formations at Mono Lake in California.
The moon rises over tufa formations at Mono Lake in California.

Our answer: figure out a mostly location-independent work situation, simplify our lives to reduce our expenses, pay off all of our debt except for a small mortgage, buy an RV, and start living a semi-nomadic life (keeping our house in Colorado while traveling at least six months of the year). It took about a year from nebulous concept to leaving for our first trip. Our search for an RV led us to a used Airstream trailer, which we outfitted for solar power and connectivity so we could consistently work from the road (for those unfamiliar with Airstreams, our trailer is like a contemporary, light-filled studio apartment with on wheels). Since we did not want to accumulate debt to make this all come together, we paid for a big portion of our purchase through the time-consuming but ultimately rewarding process of creating and selling three photography ebooks .

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In October 2014, we set out in our Airstream with our two cats, headed on our first trip to Zion National Park. Our trailer is much harder to move than a small SUV, so the momentum of our travel immediately shifted to staying put instead of constantly being on the move. For the first time, we stayed in the same place for three weeks, camped in an incredibly scenic place while working and photographing on most days. Everything about this trip differed from our previous photography-related travel. Weather forecasts no longer dominated our decision-making, as we were no longer in the position to drive for hours in an effort to find interesting conditions. We adapted to what nature offered, instead of always looking for something better.

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After a year and a half of traveling this way, the greatest gift of this new lifestyle has been curing what I thought was an insatiable wanderlust. A few years ago, this kind of extended stay in a place would have brought out all kinds of angst because I wanted to see as many places as possible. Now, with travel as the constant in our lives, the desire to see so many places has faded in favor of getting to know favorite places with significantly more depth.

For our first trip of 2016, we spent five weeks camped in Death Valley National Park, a place we had previously written about in an extensive ebook on the park. In writing that book, we obviously believed that we had spent enough time in the park and knew it well enough to have some valuable information to share with others. Still, seeing a place in short spurts is very different than settling in for an extended period of time. With no pressure to move on, we feel a greater freedom to explore and take risks because if one photography outing doesn’t work out, we still have many more opportunities. For Death Valley, this meant setting aside time to hike to remote canyons, walk up potentially interesting washes, or set out cross-country to see if a patch of brown out in the distance might be a section of interesting mud tiles – all things we never spent enough time doing in the past. These dynamics all converge into creating the opportunity to add more depth to a photography portfolio than could ever happen with short, checklist-oriented visits.

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Traveling in this way has also created opportunities for photography to feel more immersive than it has in recent years. When I first took up photography, I came to crave the meditative feeling that came along with being in nature with a camera. With time, that approach faded in favor of chasing the light and building a portfolio, with the locations, weather and light becoming more important than the experience itself. Over the last year and a half, I have been able to develop a much stronger sense of who I want to be as a photographer and our ability to stay in places for longer periods of time has helped me return to that more meditative experience once again. As a result, my photographs feel more personally expressive, my portfolio is gaining depth, and I am enjoying photography more than I ever have.

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Beyond photography, the biggest shift has been the joy and contentment that comes with living in a way that is fulfilling and meaningful for us instead of falling into patterns and expectations about what life should look like for mid-thirties professionals. Nomadic life has meant seeing friends and colleagues less often and giving up a successful career that required my physical presence. For now, these compromises are worthwhile as this new lifestyle is significantly more fulfilling than anything else I could imagine for myself given the constraints of needing to earn a living. It feels good to lead a simpler, more focused life in which being in natural and wild places plays a predominant role. Some friends and associates have commented that making these decisions seems so risky and short-sighted, that giving up a good career is foolish. After living this lifestyle and making the decision to do these important things now, it seems far more prudent than following the traditional script and keeping my fingers crossed that things will come together thirty years down the road.

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Sarah Marino
December 2016

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Sarah is a nature photographer, photography educator, and writer. She strives to capture photographs that convey the elegance, beauty, and awe-inspiring qualities of the landscapes she visits. Sarah, along with her husband and fellow landscape photographer Ron Coscorrosa, splits her time between Colorado and living a nomadic life in an Airstream trailer, an opportunity that allows for extensive travel, exploration, and extended stays in some of North America’s most inspiring natural places. In addition to teaching photography workshops, Sarah is the co-author of three well-received ebooks on landscape photography, including Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Iceland, Desert Paradise: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Death Valley National Park, and Beyond the Grand Landscape: A Guide to Photographing Nature’s Smaller Scenes.

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