10 Questions With Photographer and Activist James ‘Q’ Martin

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Portrait of James 'Q' Martin by Tamara Hastie

Portrait of James ‘Q’ Martin by Tamara Hastie

You’ve seen James “Q” Martin’s climbing and landscape photos in magazines and catalogs, and you may have seen some of his films at Mountainfilm or the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Right now, he wants you to understand what could happen to two wild rivers in Chile if Big Business gets its way — and he’s spent hundreds of hours since 2009 traveling, shooting, editing, even getting tear gassed, to make films and spread the word about the possible industrialization of one of the earth’s last truly wild places.

We asked Q about his latest project, Rios Libres, and more in our 10 Questions.

1. You’ve shot for a lot of big-name clients: Alpinist, Black Diamond, Climbing, Patagonia. When and what was your big break into the industry?

In 2002 a photog friend, John Burcham, told me if I didn’t send my climbing selects to Patagonia he was going to do it for me. I sent Patagonia 20 photos and they ended up running one image as a two-page spread the next month. I basically built it up from there, taking my time learning the business and how document as a journalist than a commercial shooter. I slowly made the transition from rigging half the year to full-time photographer and am now making another transition into filmmaking along with photography.

2. Why do people call you Q?

It’s my great-grandfather’s nickname. He was a rancher in Texas and he named his son James Q Martin, who named his son James Q Martin. I am James Q Martin III and Q was the first name I ever knew from my family. At 12, I gained some autonomy and decided that Q was not cool and that I wanted to be called James. Then in my early 30s, I realized my mistake and claimed Q once again. But my family, especially my mom, never stopped calling me Q and now several of my old friends still call me James. Both are good with me, but I do prefer Q.

Martin climbing one of his all time favorites, Three Turkeys, a beautiful and spicy 5.11c at Paradise Forks, Arizona. Photo by Eric Draper

Martin climbing one of his all time favorite’s, Three Turkeys, a beautiful and spicy 5.11c at Paradise Forks, Arizona. Photo by Eric Draper

3. What advice would you give someone who loves the outdoors, loves taking photos, and wonders if they could make a living doing it?

Keep your day job.

All kidding aside, realize what you are passionate about and bring that soulful love to light through the photos. Concentrate on one area instead of trying to cover all outdoor fields. If you are climber, shoot climbing. A boater, shoot boating. And once you have a distinct style then branch out. Don’t try to be epic in every field right out of the gate.

4. Why should anyone watch your four-film series, Rios Libres?

The series breaks down a very complex issue and it’s more palatable in four five-minute shorts. Through the series, the viewer is able to learn the plight that Chile is in — and that it has international impacts. We have distilled years of research and time on the ground in an entertaining way. With every video and in the caption section there is a link to a call to action. This action is important because of the international attention it creates and pressure is important because it is making a difference. In Chile now they are about to gain a new president and the leading candidate, Michelle Bachelet, demonstrated her lack of political agreement when she stated that she opposes the HidroAysén plan. Bachalet declared “HidroAysén is not viable. It should not go on.” This fact means that we are making a difference and more than ever we need to keep the pressure on!

Lastly, we are stoked to see that the videos have been translated into Spanish and that Patagonia Chile is distributing them in South America.

5. You traveled to Patagonia and found out about the plan to build dams on its wild rivers. Why did you decide to go back and try to help fight the plan?

In 2000 I drove from Santiago, Chile, to Patagonia over the course of several months. I got a visceral understanding of the wild and remote nature of northern Patagonia. In 2009, I learned about the proposed dams. It was something that got into my gut, you know? Being that I knew the effects of mega hydroelectric damming in my backyard, the Colorado River, I couldn’t stand by and not do something.

Martin after summiting Mt. Dracula and being on the go 50-plus hours in Canada's Northwest Territories. Photo by Pat Goodman

Martin after summiting Mt. Dracula and being on the go 50-plus hours in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Photo by Pat Goodman

6. Fill in the blanks: People think I’m ________ but I’m ________.

People think I’m pretty casual and easy going, but I’m actually very driven and super high strung. I generally will work till a project is done and at times that means staying up for more than a day straight to see my vision come to fruition.

7. What’s the biggest challenge for you as an adventure photographer/filmmaker?

The reality is separating work and play is my biggest challenge. It is difficult to find personal boundaries when you do what you love. And paying the bills is difficult at times…

8. Best pitch of rock climbing, anywhere in the world, and why.

The “Jesus Pitch” on the Big Lebowski in Zion. Who doesn’t want to climb a perfect #5 offwidth splitter 18 pitches up the West Temple in Zion? Another choice would be this insane 5.8 splitter crack pitch on Mount Difficult in the Grampians, Australia — think the route was called “The Sword and the Stone.”

9. What are you working on over the next 12 months?

Personally I am looking for more balance — it is hard to delineate work from play for me. One of the biggest things is finding personal boundaries in my life by learning how to be grounded and at home even with such a crazy travel schedule — this is a great thing to spend the year on.

But more generally, I have a huge desire to use multimedia to educate and move people to protect the environment, but finding ways to support that desire is not always easy. We will continue to educate people through the Rios Libres Project. As far as upcoming trips go, back-to-back trips in the Grand Canyon and China might happen in the next couple months. But plane tickets haven’t been bought and contracts haven’t been signed yet…

10. You’re based in Flagstaff. What’s something most people don’t know about Flag that they should know?

It is a small mountain town at 6,900 feet and it isn’t a desert inferno like many people think.

BONUS: How do you define adventure?

Wow. You want one cliché answer here or 100? I guess I would define adventure as LIFE.


See more of Martin’s work at jamesqmartin.com. Learn more about Rios Libres at rioslibres.com.


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