Rider’s Lens: Discovering Photography with Evan Christenson
In this edition of Rider’s Lens, Evan Christenson shares the story of how picking up a camera and diving fully into photography led him to his first big assignment: riding and documenting a new bikepacking route in Armenia. Find more about Evan’s photographic journey and a gallery of images here…
Words and photos by Evan Christenson (@evanchristenson)
I consider myself an obsessively existential person. Like many people in their early 20s, I’ve been wondering who I am and what I want to do and what I’m made to do and whether that’s even a real question. I started this decade of my life beginning to claw my way out of a dark depression from losing my mother. I then nearly lost my own life in the process. Slamming from the background to the fore, those questions prodded incessantly. I wandered from bike racer to psychologist to mathematician to astronaut. I wanted to be in the Coast Guard. I applied to Data Science jobs. I looked towards my future and saw a towering, dauntingly empty canvas. I couldn’t find my paint. I had a lot to choose from and none that felt like my color. But then I picked up a camera, and it all started to come into focus.
I met my first girlfriend sophomore year of high school in a photography class. It was either that or choir, and we sat together and shot photos of each other and mostly fooled around in the darkroom. A year of photo class went by and I learned nothing about photography and everything about her. Our teacher was obsessed with the technical aspects of photography. Rules of composition, metering for exposure, the chemical composition of a print bath. None of his lessons were born from a place of passion. He taught us a lot about numbers and concepts, but not a lot about what you can really do with a camera. I never saw how they changed the world, so they never changed anything inside me. I finished with an A in the class, put the camera down, and didn’t think about it for years.
Fast forward ten existential crises, several major changes, a move across the country, a new university, and no more bike racing later, I met a guy, Leotarius Rasitusis, who was shooting incredible photos of group rides with his iPhone. I rode with him and saw how he did it. It was easy and not technical, and instead of talking about exposure and darkroom printing, he was pointing and clicking and changing the way I looked at the world. He showed me how beautiful early morning group rides can be, and his portraits were stunning and exciting and full of life. I got a new phone with a fancy camera and gave it a try. I was always on portrait mode and laughing at the results but having fun. I took photos on night rides and day rides and riding around school. I tried flash for the first time. I shot endlessly. The cell phone made photography approachable and fun and I was in love.
The spiral started to turn when I turned 21 and got my first real camera. I read the manual and watched hours of YouTube videos. I took it to class and on rides and camping trips. I took photos of my friends and of my family. I asked to take a picture of a stranger on the street one day and I was so nervous I left the lens cap on. The photo was blurry and awkward and terrible, like almost all the others those days, but I was starting to fill in the gaps my old teacher left behind. A couple of weeks after that portrait I stumbled into my first paid gig shooting photos of cookies. I used my blank laptop screen as a light. I made $50, and I was off to the races.
I started working with a photographer in San Diego as his assistant a short while after. It was there I really started learning about photography. The business. The procedure. I could press a shutter button, but everything before and after that is so deceptively complicated. I used his knowledge and started leading my own commercial shoots. I stumbled into another gig for a men’s fashion company that was interested in spicing up their marketing material. I put my best friend in a suit and taught him how to ride a motorcycle and we went to the desert. Then I took another friend and put him in a suit and we went to Mexico to surf. I was shooting non-stop and learning so much and having endless fun. I was about to graduate college and was excited to take on photography full-time. It was going to be a huge leap, but I thought I was ready. I was pitching another shoot the week before I was set to graduate when I got the news COVID was shutting down in-person finals and we’d all need to quarantine. My clients went dark. I finished college online and all my plans went dark too.
In quarantine, I hunkered down with the abundance of time and did what I had been wanting to do for two years. And though I had no “work,” I took my camera everywhere those first months of lockdown and properly studied photography. I read into its history. I studied the greats. I watched films and read book after book. I finally began to understand just how many gaps there were left to fill in and how huge the discipline is. How competitive it is. How making a notable mark in photography is almost impossible nowadays. I took notes and went back and re-edited old photos. I dug into photojournalism and watched while photography changed the world and its perceptions of the virus. I studied street photographers and felt pathetic when I couldn’t match their lively photos of humanity in a world of lockdowns and restrictions. I dug into adventure photography and National Geographic explorers and conflict photography. I remember watching the documentary on Steve McCurry and thinking how he has the single most interesting life in the world. I dreamt of being a photographer on assignment in some faraway location, working long hours in extreme conditions shooting photos. It was the overlap of everything I loved. “It’s a dying art,” everyone says. I tried to block that out.
I spent the next part of quarantine on the road giving myself assignments. I worked remotely during part of the day selling bikes for Rodeo Labs. I spent the rest of my time chasing stories and shooting photos and riding my bike. My best friend Ben and I drove up the coast from San Diego to the Olympic Peninsula. We bikepacked every weekend and I shot a hundred photos every day. I went to 40 days of protests and shot thousands of photos and edited late into most nights. I went hiking and shot landscapes. I went to cities and shot streets. I shot a hurricane in Louisiana and small-town Texas and a Trump rally in Florida. I shot the riots in Philadelphia. I got obsessed with the politics of 2020 and went to DC. I shot protests and rallies and the election. I went to New York and the photography museums and shot the most famous streets in the world. I met photographers and journalists the entire time and was obsessed. I had found my calling. It was exhausting and challenging and dangerous and at times tedious, but it was endlessly exciting. I drove from New York back home to San Diego. I returned a completely different photographer. More importantly, I returned a completely different human being.
I left Rodeo Labs to go ride the Baja Divide, and in doing so felt like I was finally making the leap to full-time photography. I wanted to reset from so many upsetting days on the road in 2020, and I wanted the quiet of the Baja desert to help me accept what had happened. I’d been maced and screamed at and in fights last year shooting photos. I camped in lonely, ostracized pockets of the country the nights I wasn’t kicked out by police. I saw every corner of the US and met characters who made me question what being American means, and whether or not I wanted to even be an American. I had my reckoning and left for the desert.
We began our ride on January 4th, 2021, and we found our first spot of cell service five days later. I opened my phone to a flood of notifications. “The US is going down!” Photographer friends of mine were at the insurrection and I was alone with my girlfriend in the Sierra Juarez Wilderness. I missed the most important photographs of the year. I had been so invested in that whole shit show and missed the culmination of it. I felt sad to not be there in a twisted way. I felt like I failed my photography.
We finished the Baja Divide and as always I wondered what was next. I had no plans, and this time that question felt louder than ever before. The protests had died down. The politics weren’t interesting to shoot. I wanted to shoot a thousand stories but I didn’t know where to start. Maybe Bo and I get back on the bikes and just start riding again, but where to? I was working on my truck when I got a text from Steve, the owner of Rodeo Labs, saying he was interested in putting on a race in Armenia and needed photos. He wanted to put me on assignment to scout it out. On assignment? I put the tools down and had this tidal wave of pinch me feelings. I said yes within seconds and started reading and studying and sent him a pitch deck. Bo and I got approval and funding. I even got a fancy new bike. We loaded up excited and nervous and started riding thousands of kilometers away from Armenia in Milan.
We decided to ride from Milan to Armenia for a couple of reasons. It was better for the environment not to fly there, and that way we didn’t have to box our bikes up, and mainly because time is the one thing we had and experience is the one thing we always need more of. I’m still nervous as hell about being on my first assignment, so we used this whole ride across Europe as a dress rehearsal. I shot 7,000 photos in two months on our ride to Istanbul and I’m just now feeling warmed up. Heading into this thing, I’m confident I’ll take at least a couple of photos I like. Maybe I’ll even take a great photo. But I know I’m going to keep working my ass off. I’ll keep waking up early to shoot sunrise and find a location for sunset. I’ll keep sprinting ahead and climbing up hillsides, or waiting behind and racing back on for more angles. I’ll keep asking strangers for photos and pushing through the discomfort. The line between work and passion is getting blurrier with every day and every photo, but I’ll keep pedaling and hang on as the camera pushes it even further out of focus.
Evan’s Photography Gear
For our current trip, I had a camera bag specially made by my friends at Orucase. It straps onto my handlebar roll and has two main pouches. One is for the camera with a quick-disconnect magnetic latch so I can shoot and ride, and the other I put my various camera things in (cleaning kit, cables, strap, small hard drive, card reader, etc.). On the bottom is a sleeve for an iPad, which has been a recent addition to my bikepacking gear. I’m so excited to have my camera off my back but still easily accessible while riding. I like to rally my bike when I can, and not worrying about going over the bars and shattering my spine with my lens is huge too.
I shoot with a Sony a7c paired with a Tamron 28-200mm lens. I also have a small 35mm prime I swap for when we’re walking around cities. I love street photography, so it’s nice to have a small, more discreet set-up too. I’m also carrying a small LED light I sometimes use to add light to an image, which also doubles as a floodlight for when we set up the tent at night.
Dilijan, Armenia, 2021. Bo and I were just leaving Dilijan, “The Little Switzerland of Armenia” when we were riding through a hillside full of cows. Bo had her first flat in months and started the process of fixing it. Opposite this hillside was a military training area, so just a couple hundred meters away was a constant barrage of automatic rifle fire. They were driving tanks around and we could hear them shouting orders. Bo is still learning how to change flats and is really nervous around guns, so she was properly stressed out. Then this soldier drove over to check us out, barking Armenian at us, which we couldn’t understand. It was a pretty funny situation, and luckily the soldier just lit a cigarette and drove off, but I was enjoying the nice geometry, flat light, and serendipity of the photo opportunity. We got rolling again just as the big guns started going off.
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