Winter Diaries | Shayd Johnson

In conversation with Elise Legault
Photo credit: Shayd Johnson

Shayd Johnson has travelled by way of air, land and sea documenting and photographing the wholly diverse landscapes that make up his native British Columbia. As an editorial and commercial photographer, he has flown to the top of the Monashee Mountains, watched the storm by the ocean in Ucluelet and participated in sacred First Nations ceremonies in Northern Vancouver Island. In doing so, Shayd has accumulated an impressive bank of images - and several thousand followers on Instagram as well.

He took time to chat with us this past December to give us some insight on what drives him as both a photographer and an environmentalist. He tells us about how he discovered the outdoors and how a winter spent in an isolated cabin shaped his outlook on his craft and his life.

How did you get into photography?

I started photography when I was quite young and naive. I was in the party stage of my life. I was managing a nightclub and taking any photography gig I could get, basically whoring myself out. I did that for years without really understanding the power I had as a photographer. I didn’t grasp that there was more meaning behind images than just taking photos for people. And it really wasn’t until I started going outdoors that I got it. My pictures can go places and have a long lasting effect.

What enticed you to spend time outdoors?

I can actually pin it down to one particular moment, about 6 years ago, in 2013. My three best friends and I went on our first two day hike up to Garibaldi Lake. Before then, I had gone on small hikes, but I wouldn’t have considered myself an outdoorsman at all. We were inexperienced and didn’t have proper gear, but we just went for it. It ended being such a powerful weekend. I completely ignored the immensity of the mountains prior to that trip. This was the pinnacle of me discovering that there was more out there, of how much we have in our own backyard in B.C. and how special it is… And because I’m a spiritual person, I believe that the stars aligned that weekend. I found a purpose.

So, that weekend as a whole became a sort of pivot point in your life?

Yea, I would say so. So many things happened over the course of that weekend. When I got off the mountain, I charged my phone and when it turned on, I saw that I had become a suggested user on Instagram. At some point during those two days, Instagram had found my account and started promoting me. I went from something like 8,000 followers to 30,000 in a flash. At the time, I wasn’t really posting any outdoor stuff, but I had all these amazing photos from the trip. I posted them and it took off. I started riding the Instagram wave.

You went from posting club pictures to photos of the great outdoors? Is that how it went down?

I was shooting a variety of things at the time. Two summers before I had shot a portrait of Nick Offerman, the actor who played Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation, backstage at a music festival. He ended up buying the picture off me and using it as his IMDB photo - it was all over the place. I was also shooting a lot of commercial photography, whatever a brand needed, I would do. It was very uninspiring work… So, from that point forward, I started promoting myself as an outdoor photographer.

How about now? Is your current work inspiring?

In the last year, year and a half, I’ve started shooting stuff that I’m really proud of. It took some time because after that pinnacle moment at Garibaldi, I was shooting outdoor material and I kind of exploded as a photographer…Or at least that’s what I thought. I worked with big brands and because of Instagram I had all this popularity. People were reaching out with praise, but they also wanted me to post about them on my platform. With time, I realized that my appeal was more about my following than my photography. I was super bummed out. I went through this year of not feeling very good about what I was doing. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had incredible opportunities, but I was in a lull during which I had no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until I got hired to photograph a First Nations group up in Northern Vancouver Island for Tourism BC and I started getting in touch with my Metis heritage that I found my flame again.

You mentioned earlier that you were a spiritual person, is there a season that feels more spiritual to you?

Winter for me is really an important time spiritually. There is a sense of emptiness and darkness during winter. I don’t know how to describe it, but you are in your brain a lot more and you are conscious. Winter is a time to think about life and plan things out. Last year, I lived in a cabin by myself for the entire winter season. It was a special place, really rustic. There was a wood stove and barely no insulation. That was such an important thing for me to do. I was able to disconnect, refresh and gain focus on what I wanted to be doing. During that time, I really discovered what I wanted to shoot and what I wanted to represent as a photographer.

How were you spending your days?

I wasn’t shooting a ton. My cameras collected dust during that time…I was just enjoying the stillness and the quietness of winter and trying to keep the wood stove alive. I would do a polar bear swim almost every week. I’d jump into the ocean and run back to warm up in the bath. It’s a good feeling. You completely let go of everything in an instant. Your body goes into shock and it clears your brain.

Were you keeping a journal?

I wrote a little bit, but honestly, I spent a lot of time doing nothing and I think that’s also important in life - to slow right down. I would cook food, which I hadn’t done in a while considering the year before I was eating out all the time. I would go into town, buy a tone of groceries and cook these really nice meals. I lived simply. I can’t say that I made any kind of big realization. My intent was to write more. and shoot personal work. But then I realized that I didn’t do a lot of that and it was O.K. not to… Just to be disconnected and to take the time to be still and live amongst the quiet is what I needed.

Is that something you’ve tried to maintain in the past year? How has this experience impacted you?

I’ve become a lot more comfortable in my own skin, I’m ok with who I am. I’m definitely trying to structure my routine differently and allow more time to myself. I can’t say that there’s anything in particular that has changed, but just overall self-awareness.

Seems like you found a space for thoughtfulness too.

Yea… Can I read you something really quickly?