Welcome to the interview of the May/June 2022 Common Climber Featured Photographer Eson Zhao! Below Eson shares examples of his images and fills us in on his passion for climbing and climbing photography. Enjoy!
You are located in Sydney, Australia. How long have you lived in Sydney and what brought you there?
I’ve lived in Sydney for 12 years. Growing up, I lived in Hong Kong and China. My parents actually met and got married in Sydney during the 90s – and after finishing primary school, we moved back to Australia for better opportunities.
Tell us about your climbing journey and where you like to climb.
I’ve had an interesting climbing journey. I started off bouldering, then sport climbing, next trad, and finally now I’m back to being a generic boulder bro. For bouldering, I still call Frontline home – and in classic Sydney-sider style, I love heading out to the Blue Mountains for some sport climbing. For trad, Tasmania has really given me a new meaning of exploration. From the pureness of sheer exposure, choss rock, and the bitter-cold wind, I can’t wait to go back for more.
What is your favorite style of climbing and why?
I’m going to have to say bouldering. Here’s a little secret of mine – I don’t particularly enjoy heights. Like any sane person would do, I’d like to stay not too far off the ground, if possible. I also enjoy how accessible bouldering is. A 5-minute walk will get you to the crag. You don’t have to sync up your time with your belay partner. Although having company is always enjoyable, there is absolute freedom in climbing alone.
How do you like to approach climbing photography?
To preface, I don’t really consider myself a climbing photographer, more of a hobbyist passionate about telling stories. I do a lot of landscape and street photography too. There are so many climbing photographers that I admire and learn from.
When approaching climbing photography, I tend to think about what story I want to tell. This will determine my setup, the climber, the time of day, etc.
I can see two distinct philosophies when it comes to climbing photography. The first philosophy aims to show the grandeur of the landscape. Although the climber is clearly the subject, our eyes will wander around the photo. We will appreciate the background/ foreground – how beautiful the rock formations are, the lighting conditions, the fauna, etc. Perhaps it even paints the picture of how humans are just a small part of this amazing ecosystem.
The second philosophy aims to connect with the climber on an emotional level – a humanist viewpoint if you will. Typically, the cropping of the photo will include less of the landscape, and more of the climber. I find that showing the eyes is an amazing way to convey emotion. Some photographers might even crop in super tight on the climber’s face, kinda like a portrait. Showing the movement of climber is also a big one. I think for me, my style tends to gravitate towards this philosophy.
Is there a certain location you like to photograph climbing? Why?
I love photographing at Frog Buttress, which is located in Queensland - not too far from Brisbane - and is one of the premiere single pitch trad climbing areas in Australia. The clean, amazing crack lines help tremendously with composition through leading lines. However, lighting is always a challenging aspect here – there is a tiny window to work with until highlights are blown out. Having heaps of thick trees on top of the cliff makes it easy to rappel in carefully, being weary of the climbers below.
Do you usually mix climbing and photography on the same day, or is it one or the other?
It depends – if the climbing involves ropes, I tend to not climb on the same day. Bouldering however is less committing, so I usually climb too.
What is it you do for a living?
I’m a Mechatronics Engineer. I use a hammer (or a keyboard) and bonk-bonk things until they work.
Do you have any other hobbies outside of climbing and photography?
I spend my time just doing stuff. Camping, watching the F1, launching rockets, watching YouTube videos of quirky animal facts… you name it. I also love designing and building practical things, drawing up 3D designs and print prototypes using my 3D printer.
Any last thoughts?
The process of constantly learning is such a marvellous thing. If you’re wanting to try out climbing photography, GO FOR IT! Learn from people like Simon Carter, Jimmy Chin, Tara Davidson, Kamil Sustiak, etc. Also learn from landscape, concert, street, portrait photographers – they help greatly with perspective.
Click to enlarge above three photos and view caption.
James Stuart (@ozlifeoutdoors) on Darling Buds of Mayhem (25/5.11d), Bluebell, located outside of Sydney, Australia near Heathcote. This was his first 25-grade send. It was a tough, hard-fought battle. He must’ve fallen off 50+ times. After finally sending this climb, he was overwhelmed with joy. Then, rain started drizzling, so out stretched his hands to embrace this sweet taste of victory. (Photo Credit: Eson Zhao, IG: @esonzhao.photography)