"Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained."
- Madame Curie
She's a force of nature. Excellent freerider, experienced mountaineer, photogenic to the max, intelligent too. And young, oh-so young. Barely into her 20s... and yet, there she is, already carving out a career for herself as a backcountry photographer and filmmaker. Amazing.
Those who have tickets for Jan. 18th's Deep Winter Photo Challenge will get to see what I'm talking about. Zoya Lynch, you see, is one of the competitors in the contest. And I bet you'll be impressed. Why? Because the Revelstoke-based adventurer isn't afraid to push the artistic envelope. She arrived in Whistler earlier this week with a distinct strategy for the contest... almost a working script. "I want to tell a story with my photos," she confided to me. "I want them to stand out from the other competitors." She paused. Took a long breath. "I want to make this event interesting for me too. I want to have fun with it. So..."
To say that she's excited about the event is a bit of an understatement "I'm very nervous." A big sigh. "I mean, this is so b-i-i-i-g-g-g. Doing well here could have a huge impact on my career."
Indeed. Like many professions in the snowsliding business world, action-sports photography has traditionally been a male-dominated enterprise. Of course there are exceptions — in Whistler, Bonny Makarewicz and former Queen Of the Storms, Robin O'Neill immediately come to mind. Still, for every Bonny and Robin out there, there are hundreds of Paul Morrison wannabes scrabbling for attention.
Let's be honest. Being an on-mountain photographer is no glamour job. It's a hard, dirty, dangerous game... and suited only to the most dedicated (and often obsessed) individuals out there. Think about it. There's the photographer, with a 20-kilogram pack on her back full of expensive gear, sliding down a dangerous mountain-slope (careful not to leave tracks in the "photo-area"), only to stop and hunker down in one spot (often exposed) for minutes at a time while her talented "models" session the terrain for the camera. "Yeah," Zoya admits. "It makes me wonder sometimes." She laughs. "Like when I'm cold and uncomfortable on the side of the hill, taking photos of my friends dropping these beautiful pillow lines..."
She lets the sentence fade away. And I have to ask: So why does she do it?
Zoya doesn't answer right away. "Well," she says, "I've always been into moving pictures and stuff. I attended film school at Langara College in Vancouver..." She lets a few beats go by. "I guess I've been shooting stills for six years now. And I really like it. I get more paid-work in film, but photography has become my real passion."
Besides, she says, being a ski photographer has a longer lifespan than being a ski model. "I did the sponsored skier thing for three years," she explains. "I really wanted to become a pro and I worked hard at it. But skiing for the camera can be tricky." And dangerous (but she doesn't say that).
The turnaround came quickly. Zoya simply found she enjoyed being the shooter rather than the shootee. "It was just more rewarding for me. I like the creative process in photography. I really enjoy where it takes you."
And this week's contest? "Really important for me at this stage in my development. Just look at how it impacted Robin O'Neill's career. She's one of my mentors, you know, and she told me that before her Deep Winter win in 2012, she was just another Whistler photographer, but after... that's when things really took off!"
And then Zoya goes one step further. "I think women have a distinct advantage when it comes to shooting action sports," she says. And grins disarmingly. "For us, it's less an engineering process. Know what I mean? We're just more in tune on an emotional level – we're often able to see what's going on beyond the action." She stops. Tries to find a diplomatic way of putting it. And finally gives up. "Women are just more sensitive creatures," she throws out. Laughs some more. "And I believe that gives us a slight advantage over men."
Confident words. And yet they shouldn't be taken out of context. For Zoya walks her talk. She's a mountain gal through and through — she can handle pretty much anything the boys throw at her on the hill and dish it right back at them on her own terms — and yet she still retains a distinctively female aesthetic when it comes to her art. Call it the best of both worlds.
For Zoya and her family, it's been a way of life. She grew up in Calgary — totally immersed in mountain sports and culture. But with a twist — instead of following older sisters Lucy and Izzy into the ski-racing world, she chose her brother's Nordic journey and took up ski jumping. Yeah baby. Now there's a sport for adrenaline-hounds.
"I loved jumping," she tells me. "I loved flying through the air. But more importantly, I loved how committing the sport was." She pauses. "I mean, there's no turning back once you decide to drop in. Only one way down... there's no off-ramp... all you can do is follow the track and jump..."
She smiles. "You go down that jump ramp hundreds of times each year," she says, "and it can't help but toughen up your attitude."
Still, Zoya admits the whole women-shouldn't-be-ski-jumping thing was super challenging for her. "I started jumping when I was eight," she explains, "and from the very beginning there was lots of controversy over girls being 'allowed' to be part of the sport." She sighs. Shakes her head. "You know... I feel that I got way more support for my freeriding and my photography than I ever did for my ski jumping." It's obvious from her tone that she hasn't quite exorcised her devils there.
But she has moved on. "This is my fifth winter in Revelstoke," she says. She smiles happily. "It kinda feels like home, you know. I mean, I get so much support from the community now."
Zoya is quite familiar with Whistler — and actually lived here for a while when her mom moved west. Revelstoke, she says, "is kinda like Whistler was in the day..." And laughs. "I know that's a cliché," she admits. "But Revy's a pretty exciting place to live right now. I mean, there are new events and new businesses popping up every week. The people living and moving here are young and really outgoing. There's a great arts community, a great yoga community, tons of high-end skiing, loads of photographers and filmmakers — it's a super fun vibe all-around."
And then there's the family connection. "My sister Izzy," she says, "has had a huge influence on my life in Revelstoke. We roomed together, skied together and worked together for the first three years I lived there. Izzy really pushed my skiing... and she encouraged me in my photography work more than anybody else! Really — I wouldn't be where I am now without her influence..."
The local freeride landscape is changing fast too. "I was coming home over Rogers Pass last weekend," she recounts. "And I was blown away by the number of parked cars at the top of the pass. I mean, it was like a ski area parking lot... and all of these people where out in the mountains self-propelled! Seems like the concept of 'total skiing' has really taken hold here..."
Which brings us back around to Whistler... and the contest. "The rules stipulate that you have to shoot all your images inside the Whistler-Blackcomb boundaries." She says. And sighs. "And that's gonna be a bit of a challenge for me. You see, 99 per cent of my photography work is done in the backcountry." She smiles — if a bit wanly. "But I'm sure it's gonna work out just fine..."
Of course it will. After all, it's not like this is her first photo competition. "We have a similar contest in Revy," she explains. "And I got to compete in the most recent one." Her result? "I got second overall... and the People's Choice Award," she answers proudly.
But then she's quick to qualify her success. "That was at home, you know, in front of my friends and family — I felt comfortable sharing my work with the community. Not much stress there. As for Whistler... there's way more at stake with this event. It excites me and intimidates me all at the same time."
Kinda like ski jumping? Zoya laughs. "Exactly like ski jumping."