INTERVIEW: Amory Ross, Photographer
Having spent most of his life around water and completing two consecutive around-the-world Volvo Ocean Races, Amory Ross is one of the premier sailing photographers of today. From the dangerous conditions to the eccentric personalities, offshore sailing used to be one of the least accessible spectator sports, until now.
Wes Jones: Hey Amory! Thanks for taking the time to talk today!
Amory Ross: Anytime!
WJ: Great. So I found out about you while I followed the Puma team during the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race. After which you went to San Francisco during the America's Cup. Then, again last year, with Team Alvimedica in the most recent Volvo - How did you get into sailing and ultimately into these high caliber races?
AR: Well, I grew up in New Jersey and I was fortunate enough to have a family that sails. My father grew up sailing and my mother grew up in New Port, Rhode Island. It was kind of something that my brother and I were born into. We didn't get to sail a lot of the time because we were in New Jersey. I spent most of my time looking at sailing pictures and watching sailing video as silly as that sounds. But it was something that I got to do for a couple of weeks each summer. Those were by far my favorite weeks, and when I was away from the water I tried to stay connected to the sport through images.
I ended up sailing in college, I kind of walked on to the sailing team. That was very fortunate for me because it allowed me to start the process of gaining insight into the sport and the competitive components of sailing in New Port during the summers. At the time though, I was still studying to essentially go work in finance. I was a double major in economics and public policy. Senior year in college, I woke up and decided that that wasn't really for me. I wanted to continue pursuing sailing in some fashion. During two of the summers in New Port, I helped out as an intern at Sailing World Magazine. I was mostly writing. I wasn't doing a lot of photography. Still at that point I loved the power of a picture to share the sport because it's what I kind of grown up using to stay in touch with that in some small way.
WJ: When did you start taking pictures then?
AR: I rented a camera and went down to Key West Race Week my senior year of college. It was kind of a test run, to see if I'd be any good at taking pictures and ended up selling a double-page spread to one of my favorite magazines while I was still in school. So that was kind of the impetus to continue that pursuit. I bought a camera and dove in that first summer. I was pretty lucky in Key West as it’s a big event and I got hooked up with an American boat owner down there who ended up bringing me to Europe. In Europe, I started meeting a lot of the really essential contacts over there and spent as much time out of the States as possible.
Sailing is one of the sports that at least from a Grand Prix component is far bigger outside of the US. That week in Key West, and those contacts I made were essential in allowing me to continue to where I am now. What's amazing for me to think about it is that, at that point, video, and to a much greater extent the whole on-board component, never existed.
If you had told me then, when I was a senior in college, that I would end up on the boats as much as I have and sort of working in all forms of multimedia, I would have told you, "You're crazy!” I started as a photographer but to me it was never necessarily about the photography. It was about sharing the sport.
WJ: That’s amazing. What was the magazine that ran those first photo’s?
AR: It’s called Yachting World. It’s an English magazine based in London. It's a big magazine and, as such their photos are always the biggest. I don't know if that's why I liked them so much but if you handpicked, four or five magazines in the world that pay attention to fast boats and the excitement of sailing - that’s one of them. With that it's always been my ambition to share sailing, and in particular the athleticism that a certain part of it requires. I think a lot of people in the States have this idea about sailing and that idea, in my humble opinion, is usually off.
They’re looking at it from the perspective of that very privileged individual and that it's a rich man game. It's slow and it's boring. It's expensive. There's a negative connotation when it goes to sailing that I think has always been misunderstood. I thought otherwise and I've always tried to share that side of the sport. That's always been the goal.
WJ: Cool! What's your approach to telling a story about all these boats? Everything’s always constantly changing, you have to understand the crew and all of their personalities; how do you take all that in and really find a story to tell?
AR: For sure, one of that the best parts about the job is that it's so dynamic. You could spend a long time planning for something. There are a myriad of things that could happen. The whole storyline changes. You really have to be spontaneous and touch and go. One of the best parts about being on the boat and the responsibility of telling the entire story is that you have all these different medias to work with. You're not just a photographer or videographer or writer. You can choose whichever method you think is most appropriate for telling the story the way you want to. Sometimes, I think, words were really good at that. You could say a lot with long copy or sometimes very few words. Put that with an image and you could get the point accross far more efficiently with that than what that 2-minute video might do. It's really a combination of the mediums, and methods.
We have a lot of different responsibilities on the boat. Some of them are to boat sponsors some of them to the race sponsors, to the sailors, and to your own brand. Trying to decide what story you want to tell, is probably the hardest part. Because there's so much to go on. I think a lot of people say, how that is that possible? But we have a hundred and fifty days of basically a consecutive storytelling. At some point you must run out of ideas.
I always try to think about what can I do to make somebody relate to something that's going on out there. The personalities and characters of the guys on the boat. In fact, the boats, and the sailing and the technology that story gets fairly recycled. People with their emotion and in the way they react to the race and inter-team personalities, there is always going to be a story worth telling. As I sort of touched on earlier, you just have to be able to think and go.
WJ: How has your approach differed between the races?
AR: I'd say my approach to each race has changed pretty significantly. The first race, before every leg I tried to come up with some ideas. Then I'd focus pretty hard on telling that story, and I wouldn’t necessarily be open to significant changes in direction. There was a directive and an objective, and everything was done to move towards that point. It was very summarized. I would spend the day shooting, taking pictures with the intent of finishing the day and kind of creating like a daily summary was this last race. One of the things that I really wanted to change what being more reactive. Rather than wake up and immediately come up with a story and then spend all day figuring out how to tell it. I was far more patient. If I heard a conversation or if I saw something that I thought was interesting, I would jump on it. Then I'd go and write about it immediately while it's still fresh. I always try and make everything authentic and realistic, and essentially you take the stories as that they come.
WJ: Certainly. It's challenging the whole time being out there. You're in this very raw and of the moment thing. What are some of the challenges you faced? Ones that you didn’t really expect until they came up after you were out there?
AR: The biggest challenge sounds fairly simple but it may be the gear that can be such distraction making sure that everything is working, that all your equipment is in order and ready. It shouldn't be a challenge because ultimately, the story is not what about the lens you have on and what camera you are using. It should always be about the sailing.
Also, you spend so much time on these boats just dealing with and living on them. Between creating content and you're responsibility to the sailors, the cooking and all these things, you really don't have a lot of time. The weather, everything’s changing. You could shoot a story all day and then, with thirty minutes of daylight left, something happens and all that you've just done is completely worthless.
WJ: What about working with the other guys out there with you?
AR: Yeah, one of the bigger challenges is managing personalities, you have a collection of guys on board who are all very different. Ultimately, you're trying to get as much out of them as possible. Everybody requires a different approach. With some guys, you may have to work tirelessly to get something out of them. They need to trust you that you're not going to betray them or misrepresent them. Some other guys are really funny and always happy to say something. You have to manage all these relationships to get the story the way you see it or at least to where you want other people to see it.
WJ: That’s completely it. It’s all about how you take everything in. I’m not sure if manipulate is the right word, but maybe finesse the situation to the point where it all comes together. How do you relate to these guys and orchestrate all of that?
AR: Well, you're sort of a manager. In addition to being a storyteller, you have to extract something from all of these guys that are in the middle of a competitive sailing race. It's not a reality TV show. They’re not actors. They are competitors. There's a huge amount of respect that you have to have for what they’re doing. At the same time, they have a professional respect for you and their understanding of the necessity to the sport and to their careers that the race adopts this approach. It’s a very unique opportunity to provide something special to the sponsors and the fans, in a way that's going to make the event stand out and going to continue giving them the opportunity to do something they all love. Some people understand that more than others for sure. But the important part of the job is just being able to connect and work with the guys on board, in conditions that break everybody down.
WJ: Yeah, it has to borderline unbearable out there. As you’ve said while you’re out there you’re the only one in charge of producing all of this content. What goes on behind the scene to create all of this daily and very ‘continuous content’ as it's happening? Everyone sees the final product, but they don't really see the immense amount of work it takes to make it happen.
AR: I think one of the great things about the job is that you're not the story. I'd much rather be a fly on the wall. There are some different ways to do the job. A lot of people film themselves, a lot of people are sort of involved. I always liked to remove myself as much as I can. As a sailor, I want to be as little of as a hindrance or nuisance, as possible to them. So, I spend most of my time working for them. You know when I'm not holding a camera or at the desk down below editing, I’m making coffees or bailing the water or just trying to be a positive influence from the boat. I think that's what earned me the right to be there. I’ve worked really hard. I probably sleep … my day starts at midnight. At midnight, I bring out all the next day's snacks and food. We have what we call a day bag which is where if you're after a power bar or anything like that, you go into this bag and I stuff that at midnight. Then, I try and get a couple of hours of sleep. Usually like 2 because I have to be up at 2:30 am to start working on breakfast. It's the first of three meals. It's all prescribed. That's one of the things that the humble reporter can do is manage the food. Boil that meal and usually by the time that's served it’s 4am, the sun's starting to show its face, I'll go and start working. Then, about 10:30am, I'll clean and start on lunch. Then, work for the rest of the afternoon and start editing to send everything off at about 4pm. At 6:30pm I’d start on dinner. Then, do more editing for if there's something that I haven’t done. And, depending on where we are in the world, I’d generally get to bed around 10:30pm. Then I'll be back up around midnight.
The 24 hours on the boat is amazing, how little time you have to yourself. You’re either working or taking care of the boat. More than anything else you have to love being a part of a team. It's not something I think a lot of people imagine it to be. That it’s a media job where when you're not working with a camera, you get a book and there's all this extra time, but that's not that the case at all. The reality is far different. It's a punishing existence where you are always, always working whether it's editing or writing or filming or shooting or any of the other tasks that you have on the boat to work for the other guys and just to make sure you’re not just an extra body that they're towing around the world. It's a pretty full on opportunity. It's a kind of thing if you enjoy a challenge and really like pushing yourself both physically and mentally. There's really nothing else like it in the world.
WJ: That's incredible. I can only imagine what that's like. With that over now are there any other campaigns that you’re working on or towards that are coming up?
AR: You knew that I went to Oracle. As much as there are opportunities to go back to the America's Cup, I don't think that’s decision that I want to make, at least not right now. One of the things that I very quickly realized when I got to Oracle was how different that story is to tell. As much as I thought how amazing the boat was and the whole thing was so exciting and it was a part of the sport that I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in. I really came to miss the adventure and the sort of that freedom to tell a story the way I saw it, as was the case with the Volvo and-- you know, the America's Cup is so commercially protected. The images are so crafted. They really take a lot of the creativity out of the process. I just don't think I want to go back there.
WJ: Yeah, I’m not surprised by that really. So what does sailing and your place in that world look like for you going forward?
AR: I would love to do as many Volvo's as possible. The problem is the two years gap between the races. That’s a really tough one to fill because you kind of start from scratch. You comit a year and a half in training and during the event to this race. Then once it’s over the teams all disband and you're kind of flushed into the new cycle. The sailors though as that’s their profession they kind of slot right in with a Volvo under their belt. That's the big deal today, they don't usually have problem finding a quick job. Before starting the race I had to say goodbye to all my clients. It's really hard to start fresh and even harder to start on a project if you have to say to somebody, there's very good chance in a year, I'm going to have to drop all of this do do another around the world race..
One of the things that I've never had is stability, I've always been bouncing around. I'm trying to figure out a way to continue working with athletes. To continue telling stories in the digital world with athletes. I love working with people who are real and honest and driven to share their stories in creative ways. But that doesn't really mean that I wanted to go back to being a freelanced photographer, or freelance videographer. I think, professionally, I'd like to work towards something a little more long term. So, In an ideal world, I'd find a job that allows me to do that but also give me the time to do another Volvo. Something like a Red Bull or a company like that, where there's a passion about telling stories but also about adventure lifestyle and amazing people doing amazing things. After having sailed around the world twice now, the America's Cup and working with the US Olympic sailing team, I don't feel like there's a lot of the sailing world left to explore.
WJ: While Red Bull does sell a product, their whole company is based on their originial content and there’s a lot to be said for that. What else have you got going on now that the race is over, any projects coming up or things you’re working on?
AR: As I mentioned I want to try my creative talents elsewhere. I'd like to apply what I've learned from sailing and I take that to a new adventure, a new direction. But right now, you wouldn't believe how much stuff I've accumulated over a year and a half away. Everyone always asks, “What are you doing? What are you up to?" So much of this is trying to catch up on life admin. It's like your car registration and mailing addresses and all kinds of stuff. I just haven't really been around to sort out. I'd like to clear the deck before launching full steam into something else.
Other than that, I've got some smaller projects. I've been doing some sailing with a hundred footer named Comanche, a big record breaking boat with all the guys with from the Puma team, but there aren’t any sponsors behind that.
WJ: All of that sounds great, Amory. Catching up on life is another thing no one thinks about for the people who take on these huge projects. Where can people follow you to keep up with your adventures and where you’re headed next?
WJ: Awesome. Thanks for chatting!
AR: My pleasure!