“I grew up in a place where people took vacations from, not to,” says photographer Dan Sohner of his Columbus, Ohio, roots. A Midwestern upbringing does a few powerful things to the life of a man like Dan Sohner. It instills a gregarious approachability, an unwavering clean shirt-on time-what can I help with next-work ethic, and a need to explore places that don’t look like the Midwest.
Ma and Pa Sohner took a sabbatical for the entire summer prior to Dan’s senior year of high school. He and his family spent June, July, and August on a great American road trip, exploring national parks, searching out the “barely on the map” towns, and the grand openness and adventure of life lived out of a van. Something in Sohner shifted on this trip, and since, he has looked at life from a different angle. Photography had been a mere teenage hobby but it transformed from an experiment to an experience-sharing vehicle. Today, his personal and professional life is focused on connecting with people and moments, and always having the camera ready to capture that split second when everything comes together and the moment is at its brilliant apex.
What are your defining projects, past and current? What are your future projects?
I first moved to Colorado with a good friend of mine….on a bicycle. It was a big, beautiful trip but I didn’t shoot much. Yet, what I shot meant a lot to me. I was at a point in life where I was getting so focused on the daily grind. I was forgetting the entire world existed out there. It was a good lesson in shooting for myself, shooting for the love it. And, there’s a lot to be said for shooting something you’re an active participant in rather than as a bystander.
Last year, I spent some time in Kenya shooting on tea farms, telling the story of the farmers producing the crop. I was fortunate enough to work with two other journalists from Stories Without Boarders and a professor from Regis University in Denver who was born on one of the farms. We created a short film that explored the relationship between commodity producers and global markets, examining the tea industry as a whole and from the ground up. It was nothing like what you see on my Instagram, and the experience was really eye opening.
At the moment, Austin Porzak and I are skiing the 50 highest peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. His father has a lot of history in the park and the two of them have a really unique connection to that place. As we climb and ski the same peaks Austin’s father climbed, I am documenting the experiences we are having within the larger context of protected public lands. I feel strongly that the national parks and wilderness areas we inherited from the previous generation are ours to pass on yet interpret and explore in our own way. With this project, we are hoping to inspire the next generation to take responsible land use seriously and think about long-term solutions for conservation based on their own experiences.
When was the “yeah, I’m a photographer” moment?
I try to stay down to earth when thinking about that. A lot of folks have their own definitions for what makes a photographer or a professional. I first had that thought when I graduated college with a photojournalism degree, as if that piece of paper meant I didn’t have to pay dues in the real world. Obviously, I was wrong. But, my degree did allow me the opportunity to learn from some amazing photojournalists and professors such as Pete Souza. I went from overly confident and wet behind the ears to shooting projects like skiing in RMNP. Today, finding a vision and acting on it through photography is what I feel makes me a photographer. As my experiences and opportunities progress, so does my interpretation of the whole thing. It’s a lifelong practice. You’re always learning and always evolving.
Who and what inspires you?
I think this is more of a “what” than a “who.” I truly believe that creatives can quickly become stagnant if they always look to the same sources for inspiration. There are a lot of great photographers out there and I am constantly blown away by what is being produced, but I see photography as a community more than just a few people really killing it.
Basically, I think the collective conscious of creatives is a very powerful thing, especially considering the ease of accessibility to other people’s work today. You can truly watch the constant progression. I think we build off one another. Outlets like Instagram make it so easy to see work and see how others interpret that work. It allows us to have a larger conversation about what is exciting and inspiring. I think the photography community keeps me stoked.
Why did you first pick up a camera and why do you still?
This is a bit embarrassing. First, I was probably 12 years old. Second, the first pictures I took were of clouds. No context, not even a tree or rock for some depth, just clouds. I would burn through rolls of film on the same cloud. I got a certain rush out of watching them evolve. They were forming shapes and patterns that I could’ve never described without a camera and I thought that was such an amazing thing to witness. The same sentiment holds true today. Every time I shoot something, it’s a constant evolution and I get to be there while the moment forms. I shoot everything, even if it’s not necessarily pertinent to “the shot.” It’s my way of connecting to whatever is going on and helps me understand what’s happening around me.
What’s your process and style?
My style comes from my journalism roots. I really try not to be flashy. Sometimes, it’s hard not to just keep posting that amazing powder shot, which I am guilty of. I try to shoot the moments in-between. I try to step back, allow the subjects to work their way into the larger scene. For example, while working on this current project, we have been skiing in some pretty amazing places. One of my favorite images, however, is of Austin bushwhacking through lush forest with skis on his back. When you look at it, it has nothing to do with skiing. It’s confusing and a bit frustrating, but that’s how we were feeling at the time.
My process is simple, be present and able. A lot of what I shoot happens on the way to or from something. I love being a part of the adventure in the most intimate way possible. It’s rare for me to go into something knowing exactly what I will get out of it. My favorite way to shoot is to, for lack of a better term, tag along. I get to have the same experience as the people I am shooting and I think this makes it easier for me to relate. I try to always have my camera out and remind myself that it’s just as much about getting to a metaphorical summit as it is standing on one.
How does photography inform your life?
This might be my favorite question. Photography is really just a back stage pass to anything, anywhere, at any time. As a photographer, we have this unique privilege and responsibility to pursue anything and everything that interests or excites us. It gets us into incredibly unique situations because we wholeheartedly care about what is going on and want to share the human experiences we find. On a daily basis, it keeps me excited to get out there. Just seeing what’s possible through other peoples photography keeps me going.
Any advice for up and comers?
Don’t take this photography thing too seriously. Some photographers are so focused on making the most amazing image ever that they forget about connecting with people and building meaningful relationships. Let’s be honest, you’re going to take thousands of images, often in a single day. You’ll put a few on Instagram and send a few to some contacts you know and won’t hear a single thing back. This happens all the time and it’s easy to get discouraged because the images didn’t make it in the “real world.” But remember how much fun you had making those images in the first place? Remember all the cool stuff you got to see along the way and the time you spent with others swapping stories or shivering in the snow waiting for the light? If photography was about the end result, someone would just cook up an algorithm and sell it on Etsy or something. Photography is about evolving and progressing. It’s not “good” or “bad,” it’s far more intimate than that. Remember to do this for yourself and for the people you engage with, not for the glory of being the best.
What will your legacy be?
“Dan was a pretty nice guy.”
But seriously, I’ve always thought that photographers aren’t here to change the world, rather to show the world that there is something worth changing. Meaningful impact is a long process and I just hope to add to the greater good.
When I was shooting at a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, I went to one of my editors a bit bummed that we were creating stories that, in my mind, didn’t have a lot of value. He helped me take a step back and realize the subjects I was photographing were, in a sense, receiving a kind of validation. Their stories were important and others could relate to their experiences through the paper. We don’t do what we do for us, we do it for the people we are photographing. If someone I shoot can look at a photo I take of them and say, “Yes, you nailed it! This is me!” then I think I’ve done what I set out to do.