That distinct feeling when your heart plummets to the bottom of your stomach typically means bad news. Gnarly photographer and athlete Will Saunders got an email that caused that wave of panic when he was a freshman in college studying for a degree in environmental science. The email came from a professor and requested that Will come to his office immediately. “I thought I had done or said something wrong,” Will said. “I got all nervous and I was like, ‘Oh man, am I in trouble?’”
Will wasn’t in trouble at all. Quite the opposite, actually. The professor had scanned Will’s resume and noted his outdoor experience as a backpacking guide, a river guide and his extensive travel portfolio. He had called Will to his office to offer him one of 10 seats in his upcoming adventure travel writing class. He also offered to mentor Will in photojournalism, if he was interested in changing majors. “I immediately fell in love with photography,” Will said. “It was really bizarre. I have a lot of hobbies and there’s been nothing like this that really triggered my brain.”
From an email to a class about travel writing to a mentorship and a major in photojournalism, Will’s world revolves around storytelling through images. His photo was on the cover of Outside Magazine’s November 2020 issue. He’s worked assignments for The North Face, Patagonia, Gregory, and Arc’Teryx. Browse Gnarly’s Instagram and you’ll find it speckled with photos Will has taken of our incredible athletes. Will’s goal with the camera is simple: tell stories through images in a meaningful and authentic way.
From the get-go, Will carried his camera with him, working on how to combine his passion for photography and adventure. “The second I picked up that camera in college I brought it with me everywhere,” Will said. “I started reaching out to all of my talented friends who were kayakers and bikers and skiers and I just shot everything, I didn’t care what it was.”
Expedition storytelling is what fuels Will. His favorite assignments take him way off the grid, strip him of the modern comforts and allow him to immerse himself into a new place with new subjects. “From the beginning, I knew I didn’t want to go into the newspaper world, but I did want to use that essence of storytelling for either the commercial field or the adventure world,” Will said.
One of his favorite projects is Surf Cuba. He spent 20 days in Cuba with the local surf and skateboard community, which includes fewer than 100 people. Will’s editorial style of photography meant he got to know these community members well. They didn’t just meet up for some photos when the waves were pumping. Will often met them at their family homes to hang out before it was time for the beach.
“That project was kind of the epitome of what I would like to do if money wasn’t a thing,” Will said. “I could just shoot stories by finding these interesting communities in the semi- outdoor-adventurous space, whether it’s a quirky individual or a really interesting community and just put myself into their shoes, live with them and document them.” Those are the types of projects that show Will he’s in the right place.
Will gives bonus points to assignments that include Type 2 fun: fun that includes some struggle, but in hindsight is the best experience ever. Type 2 fun is when you’re in the middle of a 200-mile bike ride in the scorching sun and you get a flat tire. At the time it’s terrible but in retrospect, the ride was beautiful and you overcame a whole heap of challenges. Who wants to ride tomorrow?
“Honestly, my favorite part is when we’re suffering enough that we get so tired or beat up that we’re a little slap happy, where everything sounds funny and you just laugh,” Will said. “I love those moments so much. I think it’s a way for me to clear my head, focus, and be 100-percent present.”
Will has traveled the world in search of Type 2 fun while finding stories to capture with his camera. From Tajikistan to Japan to driveways in Utah during pandemic quarantine, he’s on assignment. Before the pandemic, Will was on shoots about 200 days per year. His days spent at home were a combination of editing and packing for the next assignment. In a sense, the pandemic slowed Will down enough to refocus on what he finds important in telling a story.
“I like to put myself in other people’s shoes,” he said. “I don’t find my own daily life interesting. I find others super interesting, so if I could just live through other people’s lives the rest of my life, I’d be very down for that.”
We can’t wait to see whose shoes Will tries on next.
Check out more of Will’s photography on his Instagram or his website.