Adventure photographer Rachid Dahnoun has never met a mountain he didn’t like. So when Backpacker contacted him to shoot a feature story about Dominica’s 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail, he immediately jumped on board.
Dahnoun and writer Kelly Bastone spent 10 rainy days hiking and documenting the new long trail on the not-so-well-known Caribbean island, which was completed in 2011 as an effort to promote tourism. To date, the WNT has been the largest non-road infrastructure project ever attempted on Dominica. During the trip, Dahnoun and Bastone met the locals, explored the terrain and went on some incredible hikes. The feature recently ran in the March edition of Backpacker. Read the article here.
We sat down with Dahnoun to hear more about this assignment. Here’s what he had to say about his career, hiking the WNT, and his advice for aspiring adventure photographers.
What originally inspired you to become an adventure photographer?
Before starting college I took a NOLS (National Outdoors Leadership School) semester, and that was one of those mind-blowing trips. The entire semester was 3.5 months in the backcountry. We completed 3 weeks of winter touring and telemark skiing in the Wind River Range in Wyoming, a month backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, 2 weeks whitewater kayaking on the Green River in Utah, another week on the Dolores River in Colorado, rock climbing in the City of Rocks National Preserve in Idaho for 2 weeks, then Split Rock in Wyoming for another 2 weeks. I made some of the best friends of my life and I got to see some of the most beautiful and iconic places in the American West.
Afterwards, I moved to Baltimore for art college, took one photo elective class the beginning of my sophomore year and that changed everything. I immediately shifted my major to photography, and I couldn’t get enough. I focused on photo for the next 4 years, but as soon as I was done with my degree I couldn’t wait to move out of the city. Diploma in hand, I packed up everything in my truck and drove west. A friend from that NOLS semester found out I was moving and told me he was living in Lake Tahoe and had a spare room for rent. I figured I would spend one winter in Tahoe and then I’d try to be “responsible” with my life again. But that never really happened. Winter turned to summer, summer turned to winter and here we are 15 years later and I still love every minute of my life in the Sierra Nevada.
The first few years in Lake Tahoe I didn’t even pick up a camera. All I did was snowboard, climb and backpack, spending all of my time in the mountains. I loved photography, but I had no idea how to make a living doing it. After a while my camera started showing up in my backpack. I was going on all of these adventures with my friends who were semi-pro and pro athletes, and I decided to start documenting them. That started happening more and more and I found myself building a portfolio of images that I was really proud of.
Years later, a friend introduced me to Corey Rich, who offered me a contract with Aurora, which really set things off for me. All of a sudden, I started seeing my work in national and international publications and used commercially. That market presence compounded and I had other magazines and brands approach me individually for different projects and assignments. Within the year, I started to feel my career catapult and that’s when I believed I could really do this full time. There’s been a fire ever since to go after bigger projects and assignments and keep going on trips that no one else wants to go on. It’s been a wild ride, and Aurora and Corey were a big part of that, right at a key point of my work.
For the Backpacker assignment, you spent 10 rainy days hiking on some gnarly terrain. How do you prepare yourself physically and mentally for a long project like this?
The physical aspect is pretty straightforward. I live in the mountains and I try to get outside as much as I can. I’m always out snowboarding, hiking, biking and climbing depending on the season and I’m doing it at elevation (Lake Tahoe is 6,200 feet above sea level). That keeps me where I need to be so when the phone rings I’m ready to go to any part of the world and jump in with whichever athletes I need to follow.
Mentally, I’m adamant about doing as much research as possible about the location I’m traveling to. In this instance for Dominica, I read as many articles as I could. I researched a lot online and talked with the writer, Kelly Bastone, quite a bit because she had already done a lot of research herself. I also pulled images, made inspiration boards and picked out locations I hoped to see. That helped me get my head in the game for what kinds of pictures I could make and how that would facilitate the creation of a great photo story.
You did and saw a lot – from drinking traditional “bush rum” to visiting the “fumarole-ridden wasteland called the Valley of Desolation.” What was your favorite or most memorable moment(s) of the hike? What would you say is a must see / must do / must pack for a trip to Dominica?
The Valley of Desolation and Boiling Lake, which are world heritage sites, are absolutely stunning and are not to be missed. Honestly though, I think what I remember the most about the whole experience were the people. They were so kind and generous and they opened their doors to us every day we were on the island. Whether it was camping along the trail in a small village or staying in more developed areas, it didn’t seem to matter who we ran into, they were all so open and proud of their culture and wanted us to have the best experience possible. I thought that was just amazing. It’s rare to run into so many kind people in such a short period of time.
In the article, the author refers to you as a “mountain-climbing machine.” How was this hike/climb different from the others? How did the trail compare to what you’re used to in the Sierras?
The Sierras are a great training ground but the WNT was different because it is really steep, unforgivingly steep, and almost vertical in some places. Trails in the Sierras and anywhere else in the US are a lot more graded and they’re just built that way. But in Dominica, it’s a lot of straight up and down hiking in the rainforest and every step is wet and slippery. All around I would say the hiking is pretty difficult.
Were there any scary moments?
There was definitely one real scary moment on the trip. There was a lot of unseasonable rain when we were there and we had gone to check out Middleham Falls along the WNT on day 4. It had been raining heavily for days. When we arrived we couldn’t even see the falls because the spray was so thick and powerful. We realized we could be in a pretty dangerous situation with that much water moving and not knowing what was above us. We opted to get out of there quickly, but as soon as we turned around we saw another waterfall had broken off of the cliffs and cut us off. Now we were stuck between two massive waterfalls and possibly another wall of water above us. We knew we had to get out of there quickly, and made a human chain to get ourselves across the newer waterfall that hadn’t even been there 10 minutes before. Eventually, we were able to wade ourselves through the rapids and get to safe ground. It was one of those situations you get through, take a breath and say, “Okay, well that could have been a lot worse.”
Another scary moment, more of a personal one, are the snakes on Dominica. There are a lot of snakes, no poisonous snakes, but there are a ton of snakes on the island, and I hate snakes. It was day 10 and I still hadn’t seen one, but all I kept hearing about was how there were so many boa constrictors on the island. So there I was, hiking up this really steep hill and I went to take a step. I looked down and this huge boa constrictor was coiled up and hissing at me. I cried like a baby, fell backward, and tumbled back down the mountainside. I collected myself and our guide just started laughing at me, staring at the thing and saying, “that’s just a baby boa!” I said, “Okay, good, but it’s 6 feet long so that’s not encouraging.” I got back up, put the long lens on and begrudgingly made some frames of the boa for the photo story.
What were some of the most surprising things you learned about the WNT and/or Dominica?
There are no white sand beaches, which is very much in contrast to the rest of the Caribbean. But it’s also a testament to why Dominica is the way it is and why it’s more of an unknown, less visited, destination by tourists. In fact, it doesn’t have many beaches at all. What beaches it does have are beautiful, but they’re black sand beaches and most of the rim of the island is all just huge cliffs. It’s really rugged and that comes across in their tourism and branding; they call themselves “The Nature Island.” They’ve done a really good job figuring out which resources they have and which they don’t. If you’re looking for the Carnival Cruise stop, this isn’t going to be it.
What are the similarities and differences between Dominica’s view of conservation, wilderness, nature and enjoying the outdoors and ours?
They have a deep respect for their home and the conservation of it. Opinions weren’t as mixed as they are in the United States where people do and don’t believe in climate change. I’m fairly certain everyone on Dominica believes in climate change. They’ve had some huge hurricanes that have decimated the island over the years, so it is really at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The idea of conservation was ingrained with everyone I met.
You’ve been shooting for 13 years now. What’s your advice for someone looking to get into outdoor and adventure photography?
My number one piece of advice is to shoot what you love. If you’re not shooting what you love you certainly won’t be creating the best possible pictures that you can make. You’re never going to be able to tell a compelling story unless you have some sort of connection to the imagery you’re creating.
Also, a lot of people think that I’m outside every day on some new adventure but I also spend massive amounts of time on my computer, on the phone, in the office, marketing, networking, working on my portfolio, stock submissions, doing everything I need to do to keep a business going. In the end, you’re running a small business and you have to take that into account. A lot of times you’re going to be a one-man band for the beginning of your career. You’re easily going to spend the same amount of time in the office as you will out shooting, and I think that’s something that’s really important for people to understand.
Finally, have thick skin. There’s so much competition out there. There are so many different editors and marketing directors with different opinions on what kind of work they like, what kind of stories they like, even whether they like to communicate via email or not. You’re bound to run into the word “no” quite a bit especially in the beginning of your career. If someone tells you no, don’t let it bother you too much. Figure out how to push through. Communicate with them or show them a better body of work at a later date, or simply realize the relationship may not work and move on and find one that will.
About Rachid Dahnoun
Rachid Dahnoun combines his love of outdoor adventure with his artistic vision to create a touching photographic journal of the natural world. From breathtaking landscapes to gritty action photos, Dahnoun delivers compelling imagery to commercial clients, magazines and art galleries across the globe. His work has been featured with clients such as: National Geographic, ESPN, The Travel Channel, American Express, Microsoft, ARAMARK, AAA, Travel and Leisure, Expedia, Lowepro, SKI Magazine, the New York Times and many more.
Check out more of Dahnoun’s work here.